Andrew Toti, 89; Inventor Designed Mae West Vest

Times Staff Writer

Andrew Toti, who designed the Mae West flotation vest that saved thousands of downed World War II pilots, including former President George H.W. Bush, has died. He was 89.

Toti died March 20 at his rural Modesto home of unspecified causes.

“Please tell [your father] a grateful Navy man who benefited from his invention sends his best wishes,” Bush wrote Toti’s daughter, Andrea Pimental of Sacramento, last fall when the inventor opened his Andrew Toti Museum of Innovations near Modesto.

Bush was wearing a Mae West vest when, as a torpedo bomber pilot, he was shot down over the Pacific during World War II.

The vest came into being because Toti’s mother was a worrier. At 16, the youth had acquired a boat and built the engine into a powerhouse, and, because he couldn’t swim, she feared he might drown.


To reassure her, Toti invented a personal life preserver.

“The first one was filled with duck feathers,” he told the Modesto Bee at the museum’s opening. “That was too bulky and heavy, so I switched to air.”

The life vest consisted of two pneumatic compartments of rubber-coated yellow fabric that could be inflated separately by blowing into a tube, plus automatic carbon-dioxide inflation systems operated by pulling respective cords. The vest was anchored by waist and crotch straps.

The War Department heard about the invention and paid Toti $1,600 for the rights to what was dubbed the Mae West vest, after the buxom film star.

“He is a perfect example of the ‘can-do’ attitude that Americans possess,” Rep. Dennis A. Cardoza (D-Atwater) said last year during a speech honoring Toti in Congress.

Nobody he ever met, the congressman said, “had done more for his community and the world” than Toti.

The inventor, who held more than 500 patents, told Parade magazine in 1995 that the key to inventing was to identify a problem or define a need for a new product and then find an elegant solution.

Growing up in the agricultural Central Valley, Toti could easily identify needs for new products.

The son of an Italian immigrant farmer, Toti began inventing at age 9. His first success was a version of the combination lock.

Although he dropped out of high school, he earned a diploma by going to night school and then studied mechanical engineering by correspondence.

As a boy, he hand-plucked chickens and ducks for his parents. In 1951, he created the automated feather plucker, a device using thousands of rubber “fingers,” which were quicker than the human hand. The invention revolutionized the poultry business.

Another of his inventions was the grape-harvesting machine he devised in 1972 for winemakers Ernest and Julio Gallo.

Toti also designed lightweight construction beams, several variations of both horizontal and vertical blinds, and a pull-tab for soda and beer cans.

A few years ago, he co-designed the EndoFlex endotracheal tube with a flexible tip to aid breathing during surgery. The device was showcased in an episode of the television show “ER” last November, with Ray Liotta as guest star.

The indefatigable inventor was unable to perfect one pet project -- a perpetual motion machine that he believed could deliver an endless power supply. Although many physicists believe such a device is impossible to create, Toti disagreed.

His machine was electromagnetic and mechanical. He told the Modesto Bee last fall that he had achieved a power conversion loss as low as 3%, which he considered a record among those working on perpetual motion.

One reason he opened his museum last year, Toti said, was, “We have to teach the young guys, the little guys ... that we exist because of inventors.”

“Invention,” he said, “is the mother of everything.”

A widower, Toti is survived by his daughter; a stepson, Raymond Webster of Crescent City; one grandchild; and two great-grandchildren.