After the Department of Energy turned thumbs down on his energy-saving space heater, a burly inventor stormed into the energy office bellowing and swinging his six-foot contraption like a baseball bat.
"Bureaucratic bastards." barked another spurned inventor, who stalked the DOE bureaucrats in the Office of Energy Related Inventions all the way to their out-of-the-way Gaithersburg basement.
Yet another inventor, a farmer from North Carolina, handcuffed himself to a desk and refused to leave until the government heard him out. He wanted $5 million for a rudimentary engine.
"Many come with less and expect a lot more," says the beleaguered energy department official who spent four hours with the shackled farmer. "Much of our day is spent stroking these people."
All manner of contraptions designed to solve the nation's energy crisis flow into DOE each year and soon are designated for the scrap heap of history. Consider:
Cars powered by windmills mounted atop the roof. As the auto moves along wind is supposed to turn the windmill, which charges the battery and thus generates electricity to run the engine. Budding Rube Goldbergs sometimes forget that the car has to move in the first place.
Magic additives that promise to add dozens of miles to every gallon of gas.
Government engineers dismiss such doomed concoctions as "mouse milk." Some inventors insists oil and water can mix.
"The inventor never calls it, "mouse milk," says Tom Coultas, a senior evaluator who invented a rocket engine stabilizer that landed Americans safely on the moon.
"To them, it's always, 'XYZ64,' the magic additive. Most are scientific sugar pills. You put it to increase gas mileage, so by God, it's going to work. It's the placebo effect. Buy anyone can increase their gas mileage 10 percent. Just put a lead brick on top of the radiator and drive carefully so it won't fall off."
A plan to dismantle the Rocky Mountains and move them, pebble by pebble, to the Canadian border. Reconstruction of the craggy peaks would not only open up the arid West to rainfall, the inventor reasoned, but would keep cold air masses from ravaging America's heartland every winter and sending home heating oil bills through the roof.
"I almost died when I read that one," chuckles senior analyst J. R. Lepkowski, whose staff does the initial screenings, killing immediately almost every other idea that comes into the building. "It was gorgeous."
Indeed, after President Carter promised to reward energy innovation in his mid-July energy pep talk to the nation, inquiries to the office of Energy Related Inventions virtually doubled overnight from the 200-300 ideas the office normally receives every month.
"Anytime the administration plugs energy, our girls are constantly on the phone," says office chief George Lewett, an industrial engineer who has dodged his share of vitriol inside DOE's boondocks bunker at the National Bureau of Standards. "We have inventors and their congressmen screaming at us all the time."
Sound and fury aside, Arab oil sheiks can sleep easy. The government annual $2 million effort to subsidize small-time inventors with better energy-saving ideas has yet to spawn any magic gizmos that end the energy crisis.
In the five years since Congress passed the Non-Nuclear Energy Act and ordered DOE to gas up American ingenuity with a little money, bleary-eyed analysts have pored over 11,000 gadgets. Of those, a mere 111, or 1.3 percent, have been recommended for federal largesse to help inventors develop prototypes. Five have made it to the market place
It's a miracle people come up with that many good ideas," says Coultas. "The technical expertise of the general public is abominable."
Among the 111 winners is the Washington state inventor whose system for reheating scrap steel is expected to save steel companies millions of dollars in electricity. James Withers, a Winchester, Va., man got $125,000 for his technique of fabricating high temperature turbine rotors that could make turbines more efficient.
Amidst the discards lie hundreds of perpetual motion machines, magnet-powered motors and wood-burning cars. To be perused by DOE, according to Lewett, an invention must 1) work, 2) use nonnuclear power, 3) have the potential to save or increase the supply of energy and 4) be saleable.
Otherwise, it's no-go. When the government tries to explain to inventors that the contraption defies Sir Isaac Newton and the laws of physics, many tend to get riled. Almost one out of five protest their rejections.
Which is one reason the energy department prefers to deal with the ideas on paper, discouraging visits by inventors themselves.
"Sometimes, you need a guard when you leave here at night," says an energy analyst who receives fiery-eyed inventors downtown.
Trained to blast turkeys on sight, energy evaluators can pick from among the dozens of form letters designed to shoot down oddball ideas.
"In the science of mechanical engineering, there is no free lunch," says one staffer. "Some inventors don't realize that you can't create energy from scratch."
"I'm their pen pal," says Jack Bernens, "attorney-chemist-raconteur extraordinarie" who wears a beard with his rumpled corduroy jacket and writes about 15 "Dear Johns" daily. "Sometimes, I even wish them luck."
Lewett signs the letters. "He's not very well liked," says one engineer. "After all, 99 percent of our customers are unhappy."
Nonetheless, Lewett, formerly an industrial engineer in private business, says no idea is too "outlandish" to consider. After all it costs him $23 a week to commute to work from Fairfax in his 1974 Valiant.
"I keep it in tune, inflate the tires, use radials," says Lewett of his efforts to achieve maximum gas mileage. "But if something came along that would boost me to 200 miles per gallon, hell's bells, you can bet I'd be the first to grab it."
Any time publications like The National Enquirer tout the latest solar powered hair curlers, the office is inundated with letters.
Ideas pour in from retired air-conditioning mechanics and elderly Americans with time on their hands, say officials.
Most of the ideas (1,475) float in from California. Next comes New York (749), which has had more proposals recommended for (12) than any other state. New Hampshire appears to be the smartest state: four of its 46 submissions have been recommended. Solar power ideas and automotive improvements account for the largest category of new arrivals.
Should ideas pass the initial screening, DOE farms them out to government engineers or private consultants for further evaluation. To move up the pipeline, inventions must offer more than what's now available on the market.
"We're looking for something new," says attorney Don Corrigan, an affable Irishman who serves as congressional liaison. "Say you come up with a car that gets gas mileage as good as a diesel Rabbit. That's not good enough. We already have a diesel Rabbit."
If DOE rejects an idea because it isn't new (but might be competitive), the letter might help win the inventor a hearing -- and a loan -- from the Small Business Administration.
Of course, Pat Donohoe, chief of DOE's inventions branch is all revved up about the free evaluation program, calling 111 recommendations out of 11,000 ideas a "good yield."
Helping the "little guy takes time," he sayd, "We're providing incentive. It's good for the nation as a whole, and, in the long run, it will save people energy" -- and the taxpayers and inventors money.
"Look at it this way," he says. "We've kept them from mortgaging their homes and borrowing from their brothers."