"Concentric people go around in circles; they never fly off in a tangent and get anything done. Many concentric people are simply going and doing their 8-to-5 jobs and coming home and sitting in front of the TV tube and opening a can of beer and going to bed and doing the same thing the next day. I think everybody should have some little eccentricity." -- Bruce Baldwin Mohs
Bruce Baldwin Mohs is one fellow who certainly would have stumped the panel on "What's My Line." Depending on the day and his mood, Mohs could have appeared as:
An automobile manufacturer;
A restaurateur and hotel operator;
The president of the commission to celebrate the bicentennial of manned flight;
A longtime provider of mechanical props to Hollywood who has worked with Alfred Hitchcock, among others;
The inventor of the instant milkshake;
A man who worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help locate the optimal sites for new islands in Mississippi River reclamation projects;
A big-game hunter and photographer who has traveled in 110 countries;
A man who did infrared photography for NASA's earth satellite program to help pinpoint satellite trajectories;
The curator of a museum with one of the world's more unusual collections of vehicles of all types;
The inventor and manufacturer of the Reflecto-strip, used on highways and guardrails on four continents;
The proprietor of a 31-foot scale model of the battleship Wisconsin in which he steams across Lake Mendota.
There is more to Bruce Baldwin Mohs. But that should give you a fair impression of the man. He is a grand American eccentric, more than a match for any eccentric that Edith Sitwell and the British have to offer. And unlike the British eccentrics, whose force of character tends to come out in gestures at teaching their dogs to dine with knives and forks, Mohs is a practical man. It can be said without too great exaggeration that he really wants to make the world a better place in which to live.
A chemical-process invention of his, for example, has been used to help keep television picture tubes from exploding. More than a few viewers who have launched a foot through the evening news may have avoided crippling injuries because of the efforts of Bruce Baldwin Mohs. And then there are farmers whose backs don't ache as much as they might because they spent their days riding on a "swing-and-sway" tractor seat invented by Mohs.
That's more than can be said for Mrs. Slestina Collins, whose eccentricity "was that of inviting 30 fowls to sleep in her bed," or the barmy Lord Rokeby, whose startled neighbors suspected him of cannibalism.
Mohs is a red-blooded Midwestern eccentric. He indulges himself by building. He is a doer. A tinkerer. A political gadfly. Most of all, he is his own boss. He says, "Each morning when I wake up, I decide what I'll do that day."
Mohs regrets the way that the exigencies of finance and mass production affect modern society. "We're homogenizing our whole life structure and everything we deal with," he says. "Our mass production has been part of that. Of course, it has made it possible for the average man to own a car who couldn't otherwise possibly own it. And I agree that we should do that. But wherever possible, we should give a little variety in life and not make everything so uniform." The Rocket Mongerer
Mohs, born the youngest of three children in Madison, Wis., in 1932, got a good head start on his life of freewheeling independence. His father, an engineer and contractor, helped invent the detonation device for the 1,000-pound bomb during World War I; his mother, a liberated woman 50 years ago, was an architect. Mohs' parents designed and built "a good share of the west side of Madison. . . Mom designed the prototype for the International Harvester Farmall Building. . . Dad was a millionaire three times in his life and broke twice. . ."
When Mohs' parents died, they left a fair-size fortune, including a hotel, restaurant and various other properties. While Mohs has occasionally looked after these interests, the greater part of his energy has been devoted to projects and business enterprises of his own creation.
As a child, he sold homemade rockets to other children for pocket money. But some of his rockets caught fire and burned out the front of his father's office building. From that point on, safety has been one of Mohs' foremost concerns.
He built his first vehicle at age 9 by taking a three-horsepower motor from one of his father's mortar mixters and "mounting it in the bed of my coaster wagon." His interest in automobiles intensified at age 12 when his father gave him an antique Indy racer for his birthday. It was a 1920 Falls 8, the first of what is now a huge collection. "At 14 I built a motor scooter," Mohs says, "and gradually started inventing things, getting patents and licensing patents out to other manufacturers."
Mohs' first chemical-process patent, the one used in covering TV tubes to protect against explosion damage, also arose from his interest in motor vehicles. He noticed that the taillights on his father's trucks tended to be bashed out, so he set out to invent a new kind of fixture to keep them working. While tinkering around, he perfected a new process for bonding glass and plastic. He did this work in his chemistry class at the University of Wisconsin "when I should have been doing my regular experiments."
From that point on, Mohs concocted a variety of inventions and products, many of which he manufactured himself. In 1950, he produced what may have been the first rubber-track snowmobile. In 1958, he started making the Mohs mini-scooter, which weighed less than 40 pounds. By 1959, he was manufacturing aircraft parts and plastic key cases. He then created the aluminum bicycle pedal and a baby buggy that could be rotated 180 degrees to keep baby out of the sun. Then came the Mohs electric motor scooter, the Mohs industrial sidecar, the Mohs bicycle sidecar and the Mohs tailgate toolbox. By 1965, Mohs could boast of being "the world's largest manufacturer of bicycle sidecars, electric and amphibious motor scooters and mini motorcycles."
For reasons that defy conventional marketing considerations, most of Mohs' many enterprises are conducted under the auspices of what is now the Mohs Seaplane Corp. The company actually does operate seaplanes. It once operated a commercial "Sky-wagon" passenger service (Mohs was Wisconsin's first certified commercial helicopter pilot.) Today, it operates mainly as a charter service for Canadian fishing trips and to conduct high-flying scientific experiments.
Mohs also has linked up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in research to help pinpoint locations for new islands in the Mississippi River. Not long ago, he took a project to attempt to figure out how schools of perch are able to regroup when they swim around predators in lakes. Dream Automobiles
Interesting, but not really vintage Mohs.
To appreciate what Mohs is really about, consider his automobiles. They are unique.In a world of mass production, they are handcrafted "conglomerations of nonconformity." That's what World Car Guide wrote in comparing Bruce Baldwin Mohs with Etore Bugatti as an engineer who "designed and build automobiles with a monumental contempt for convention." The brochure for the Mohs Ostentatienne Opera Sedan announces: "A totally new concept, the Mohs shares no components or design philosophy with any other car." Nitrogen-filled tires are standard, but the 549-cubic-inch engine is optional "for those owners who demand the impossible and expect the improbable."
The vehicle is 20 1/2 feet long, a foot wider than a 1970 Cadillac and stands almost six feet high. Its standard engine is converted to run on butane, which also operates a hot water heater and refrigerator, both improbably included in the interior. The inside of the car also is adorned with Ming Dynasty carpets and special seats patented by Mohs, which he claims eliminate the need for air bags by always keeping a person's weight "in the seat of his pants." The seats are actually suspended at shoulder level so that they are free to swing with centrifugal force as the car moves. In the event of an accident, the seats automatically swing forward into a horizontal position so the force of gravity goes to the passenger's seat and legs (while he is cast into a fetal position). This keeps the force of the impact from being spent on his chest or waist as is the case of the conventional seat belts.
Mohs claims that he set out to make the safest car possible given the state of the art in 1968, when the prototype "opera sedan" was built. At the time, it incorporated 20 safety features found in no other car (Ralph Nadar take note). Many of them are still found in no other car. For example, Mohs thinks that conventional auto doors are unsafe. So the opera sedan doesn't have any, at least in the conventional sense. Passengers can't crawl in through the windows either. They don't open. There is only one way in -- through an opening in what would normally be the trunk. The Cars of Kilimanjaro
Another Mohs mobile is the Safari Kar, a dual-cowl phaeton, metal-top convertible. It has three bucket seats in front and rear seats that become beds. The doors are not on hinges but linear bushings and shafts so that they come directly out from the side of the car.
Mohs built the Safari Kar to be absolutely quiet.
"Over in East Africa," he explains, "the antelope species -- the springboks, the hartebeests and all the rest -- are always afraid of the high-pitched noises of an internal combustion engine. So the whole car is padded out. We place aluminum-tungsten alloy bulkheads covered with 40-gauge aluminum on the top of the sheet metal . . . and over that goes 3M special cement, over that goes polyurethane foam, then more 3M cement and over that the Naugahyde."
What you have is a vinyl car, one which "is not only quiet in the extreme but low on maintenance, since there is no paint on the exterior. You merely wet, wipe and dry for cleaning. No waxing. No polishing."
Mohs had a hard time getting the EPA to certify his Safari Kars. "I had to make nine trips to Ann Arbor, Mich., and file a 20-page, single-spaced typewritten report at a tremendous cost to me over a period of almost a year to get those three vehicles approved."
He only built three before he decided that "the delay in getting EPA approval on pollution requirements and everything just simply takes too much time and money. It kind of takes the profit out of it." So he halted production, and in the process, backed into another "first" in the automobile business. The brochure for the Mohs Safari Kar Dual-Cowl Phaeton Metal-Top Convertible reads: "Seldom, if ever, in the annals of automotive advertising, is the literature on a new car published after cessation of production. . . " Classy Chassis
The 1981 model Mohsmobile is the ultimate car for space cadets -- a UFO model. "The car rotates as it goes down the road."
What is the advantage of having a rotating car?
"It will look kind of like an air car floating down the street. I think with a rotating body it will create some consternation," Mohs suggests. But he is quick to point out, "The chassis underneath will have to remain lined up with the highway and will not rotate, of course. The license plate goes under the plastic dome because the policeman won't want to see the plate go by every so often."
A funny thing, the IRS did not take Mohs motorcars seriously. In fact, the tax man asked Bruce Baldwin Mohs a pointed question: "Is this a business or a hobby?" Mohs protested the accusation that he wasn't really a serious businessman: "A person doesn't build 1,400 vehicles just for fun."
But to end all doubt that he would receive a business deduction for the expenses involved in producting vehicles, he grafted a German restaurant onto his auto factory "to make very definitely sure they didn't think it was a hobby." Right now, workers are laboring over the Mohs UFO behind a partition that divides the factory from the restaurant's meat locker.
Mohs also is coordinating an international effort to mark the bicentennial of manned flight. According to Mohs, there will be balloon ascensions in each time zone around the world on Nov. 21, 1983, to commenorate the day the Marquis de Arlands and J.-F. Pilatre de Rozier became, in Moh's words, "The first men to fly free of the bonds of earth."
He already has arranged enthusiastic support from the Balloon Federation of America and the Aero Club of France. The U.S. Post Office is issuing a commemorative stamp and "everybody from the airports to the museums has been very cooperative. I may have to take 1983 off just about entirely to coordinate the events."
Mohs has a lot of other projects he is working on. One is to encourage the provision of more healthful food in public places. His patented instant milkshake arose from that interest.It features real ingredients with a special device which ariates the shake and gives it "the ice cream parlor flavor." The Mighty Mohs
Right now, Mohs has set out to patrol Lake Mendota in his own 31-foot scale model of the battleship Wisconsin, complete with 16 antiaircraft gun mounts, three rotating gun turrets and a 10-foot super structure. The trouble is that, for some niggling reason, the bureacrats in the Department of Natural Resources won't give him a license to operate the thing. They insist that Mohs place registration numbers on the hull.
"That would wreck the authenticity of it," Mohs says. He refused to comply and turned to the U.S. Maritime Commission in Washington. "I called to see if I could get a U.S. flag for it," he reports. "The girl answered the phone and said, 'What have you got?' I think she expected me to say a super tanker or something. I said I had a battleship. 'A battleship,' she said. And I said, yeah, and explained it further. She kind of muffled the phone and I could hear her speaking through her fingers, 'Some kook in Wisconsin, he's got himself a battleship.'" In the end, the Maritime Commission told him to go to the Coast Guard. And the Coast Guard said they could register a 31-foot boat, but only if it had a greater gross weight.
Stymied, Mohs told officials, "You've heard of a flag of convenience. How would you like to have a Panamanian battleship cruising around Lake Mendota?"