Why is Wilson Greatbatch trying to take something out of a fish and put it into an orange?
The long answer (abbreviated): Greatbatch, an electrical engineer by profession, has a fondness for interdisciplinary projects. This time it's genetic engineering. He figures that the genetic antifreeze material in the arctic flounder can be transferred to the Florida orange. That would, he predicts, "lower the freezing point of the orange by 3 degrees." What works up north for the arctic flounder might work down south for the Florida orange, but how will it taste? Never mind. It's a neat idea.
"Why, we could really do the people in Florida a big favor," Greatbatch said Saturday at the two-day Patent and Trademark Office's 14th annual National Inventors Expo in Crystal City.
And the short answer to the question: Greatbatch is an inventor.
Some of Greatbatch's ideas have worked before. In 1958 he did heart patients around the world "a big favor" by devising the first implantable cardiac pacemaker. Inspired by blinking highway lights, Greatbatch says his invention "is essentially a highway flasher crumpled down in size to fit inside the body, redesigned so that it will work for 10 years off its batteries (instead of a few nights) and then wrapped up in something that the body won't reject. Like stainless steel."
It sounds simple, but it took a long time. "Everything that I have ever done that's worthwhile took 10 years," says the 66-year-old Greatbatch. "I have about eight projects lined up to do. So I am going to have to be a pretty old man."
At a ceremony yesterday afternoon, Greatbatch was one of five venerable inventors being honored and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, two of them posthumously. The other 1986 honorees were Luther Burbank (the plant breeder posthumously honored for developing the July Elberta peach, the Shasta daisy, the spineless cactus and the white blackberry); Harold E. Edgerton (the 82-year-old inventor of the stroboscope); and Ernest H. Volwiler, 92, and his deceased co-inventor, Donalee L. Tabern (the team invented the anesthetic Pentothal).
They're an imaginative bunch, inventors, but few, if any, of the almost 65 exhibitors who were displaying and demonstrating their patented inventions over the weekend will make it to the Hall of Fame. There is a historical backlog. In 1973, Edison was the first and sole inventor to take residence in the Hall of Fame. Thereafter, the selection committee has been bringing up the rear: Bell, the Wright brothers, Diesel, Goodyear, Goddard, Ford and Dow, for example.
Whether serious or whimsical, practical or abstract, inventors see the world with a particularly prismatic imagination. If the artist Man Ray hadn't created a coffee cup lined with fur, perhaps one of the exhibitors at the 1986 expo would have invented it, slapped a patent number on it and hired a marketing specialist. Never mind what the coffee would have tasted like.
There is, after all, nothing that can't be improved, nothing that an inventor can't take apart, analyze and refine, except perhaps the mousetrap.
Annette Funicello, ex-Mouseketeer, probably never dreamed that her peanut butter jar needed remodeling. But James R. Wollin, an eighth grader from Lake Mills, Wis., and a winner in the Weekly Reader National Invention Contest, has redesigned and renamed the jar -- the good old jar, which always seemed quite basic. Wollin's creation, called the Jar of Plenty, is really a fat glass tube with two lids (one on top and one on the bottom). It will save tedious scrapes of the knife for anyone determined to get at those elusive last teaspoons of peanut butter. Now, with a flip of the jar and a twist of another lid, what was on the bottom is on top. And it probably tastes exactly the same.
If only Antonio Stradivari (Cremona, Italy) could have met the inventor at Booth No. 40: Ernest Nussbaum (Bethesda). Stradivari and his sons could never have imagined that airlines would charge half fare for a cello to buckle up beside its owner. But Nussbaum, an amateur cellist, has found a solution for the problem. He invented the folding cello. For $695 plus shipping, the Travielo (whose case measures 31 by 6.5 by 7.5 inches) is the Stradivarius of carry-on luggage.
There is no stopping Nussbaum now. He has a patent pending on a Travelbass. And after that, who knows? A folding harp?
Around the corner, at Booth 44, was Bob Grawi, from New York City, with Haight-Ashbury threads and a taste for ethnic music.
Grawi has invented an electric, stringed musical instrument. Part harp, part guitar and part airplane, it's a Gravikord.
But can you play Bach on a Gravikord? Is it well-tempered? Yes, but that's not Grawi's act. His tastes, he says, run more to "folk music with a ragtime-rhythm quality to it -- in the improvisational spirit." Saturday afternoon at the expo sounded more like an environmental afternoon in Yes! Bookstore as the burblings of the Gravikord wafted through the air. "Snow falling under a streetlight," said Grawi of his free-form composition.
Greatbatch's 10-year theory of invention may have application here. Grawi has been developing his Gravikord for the past decade, and there are now nine in existence. The Inventors Exposition was, he says, "the big coming out" for the 'kord. "If it doesn't sell, or it's a flop . . . I'll still be involved . . . I really feel identified with it," says Grawi.
But just in case it's a runaway hit, Grawi, as of Nov. 13, 1984, has a patent.
After all those years without a patent, why bother? And who would ever guess that the secret ingredient is a control-rod joint for an airplane?
"Inventors are horribly paranoid people," says Grawi. "I developed the Gravikord to a state where I thought it was really finished . . . I just wanted to feel confident and not be looking over my shoulder at who's taking pictures."
The 38-year-old Grawi invests greater hope in another of his inventions -- the walking ladder. "You can move the ladder without getting off it, basically. It has an extra step and you can walk with it. It's kind of new.
"I feel like there may be some money in this one," says Grawi. The patent for the walking ladder is pending.
But, really, do inventors get rich quick? Or even at all?
"I have heard that that possibility SK,1 SW,-1 exists," says Mark O'Connor at "corporate exhibit" C11. He and his father Rodney O'Connor (a professor of chemistry in Texas) have designed a comb ("d'flea") that has porous teeth. The well-groomed cat purrs gratefully while the comb's teeth dispense insecticide that kills off the fleas. As Mark O'Connor tells it, his father "thought up the idea because, with three cats, he was tired of having them tear his arms off every time he tried to powder or spray them. Cats love to be brushed, so he thought, why not put insecticide in the brush?"
As for the pot of gold -- "We haven't seen that by any stretch of the imagination," says the younger O'Connor.
Ask Hall-of-Famer Greatbatch about money. He lost a lot of it on a biomass energy project ("the right thing at the wrong time"). He spent five years trying to apply the principles of the cardiac pacemaker to paraplegics with bladder-control problems ("that was a complete disaster").
The bottom line, according to Greatbatch: "The financial reward should be the very last thing on your mind. If you are thinking about the money you are going to make, you should be off in the stock market."