Wonderfully weird

My 10 favourite inventions; 2000 – 2009

By Laura Locke

Jerome (Jerry) Lemelson

You gotta love inventors — those creative, focused, persevering souls who devote their talents to making life better for the rest of us. One of my very favourite inventors is Jerome H. Lemelson (pictured at right), born in 1923 in New York City. Known to his friends and family as Jerry, he was remarkably creative from an early age. He held over 600 patents by the time of his death in 1997 at the age of 74 and his inventions impact each of us every single day.

Lemelson’s first invention, when he was still in grade school, was a lighted tongue depressor for his father, a doctor. Lemelson went on to get his Masters in engineering and raise a family with his wife Dorothy, but he never lost his love of solving problems and inventing new things. He was known for waking up in the middle of the night with a great idea and then heading upstairs to his attic workshop to start tinkering. To name just a few of the products he patented: universal robots that could measure, weld, rivet and transport, fax machines, bar code readers, automated teller machines, rechargeable electric batteries, camcorders, magnetic tape drives, video telephones, light-sensitive contact lenses, plastic tracks for toy cars, crying baby dolls and Velcro dart games.

In 1996, Lemelson was diagnosed with liver cancer, and not surprisingly he fought it the best way he knew how, by inventing improvements to medical devices and cancer treatments. He submitted nearly 40 patent applications during the last year of his life. The Lemelsons ended up richer than their wildest dreams because of the success of many of his inventions, and together they started the Lemelson Foundation, which carries on today celebrating and supporting inventors and entrepreneurs.

The first decade of the new millennium would have made Jerry Lemelson proud – it has certainly been a productive one for creative minds among us. It’s hard to believe that all of the following, though they might have their origins and early development before the year 2000, showed up on our collective radar screens during the last 10 years:

BlackBerries, Segways, Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, blogs, the Euro, Splenda, TiVo, LCD screens, Facebook, consumer GPS units, mapping of the human genome, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Gmail, USB flash drives, iTunes, iPods, iPhones, HDTV, Wii, Smart Cars, Flip Video cameras, Twitter and self-adhesive postage stamps.

There have been many other noteworthy inventions throughout the past decade, and though they might not be best sellers yet, they definitely deserve to be recognized. So here, in no particular order, are my 10 favourite not so familiar, wonderfully weird and pretty darn cool inventions of the past 10 years.

1. HAL, the Robotic Suit for the Disabled

Inventor: Yoshiyuki Sankai


HAL, or the Hybrid Assistive Limb, was created, in the words of Professor Sankai, to “upgrade the existing physical capabilities of the human body.” Weighing about 23 kg, it is comprised of robotic “limbs,” with a backpack containing the suit’s batteries and computer system. But here’s the cool part — it is controlled by thought. When a person attempts to move, nerve signals are sent from the brain to the muscles, and very weak traces of these signals can be detected on the surface of the skin. The HAL suit identifies the signals with a sensor, sends a message to the suit’s power unit, which tells the robotic limb to move in unison with the wearers’ own limbs. It is now being used in Japan to help people suffering from strokes or spinal cord injuries to walk again, but it could potentially add extra muscle to ordinary folks needing some super human help in rescue operations or heavy labour jobs. Who needs science fiction when we’ve got stuff like this happening?

2. The City Car

Inventor: MIT’s Media Lab

City Car

Even smarter than Smart Cars, the City Car is a stackable electric car that could be checked out and returned at key places around the city, like subway and bus stations, where their batteries get re-charged for the next user. One-way, sharable mass transportation with individuality! Electric motors in the wheels allow them to be a streamlined to 1.5 meters long. And they’re gutsy little things — they can go up to 90 km/hr. Patent pending, hopefully we’ll see these little cuties in urban centres soon.

3. The No-Contact Jacket

Inventors: Adam Whiton and Yolita Nugent

The No-Contact Jacket

This is actually a piece of serious personal-defense technology. If the wearer feels threatened, a switch in either palm can be activated which will send an 80,000-volt electrical pulse through the jacket’s material, enough to knock the attacker off his feet. The insulation means the wearer doesn’t feel a thing. Kick-butt fashion powered by a regular 9-volt battery — I love it.

4. The Napali Kayak

Inventor: Murray Broom

The Napali Kayak

Why didn’t someone think of this before? A kayak made of clear plastic, so you can see the marine life beneath you as you glide along. The plastic shell is soft and flexible, kind of like a shower curtain, yet tough enough to resist damage from rocks. And it’s light — half the weight of most fiberglass models. Amazing. I want one.

5. Optical Camouflage System

Inventor: Susumu Tachi, Masahiko Inami and Naoki Kawakami

Optical Camouflage System

Created by a team at the University of Tokyo, this system makes anyone wearing the special reflective material seem to disappear – yes, like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. A video camera records the real-life scenery beyond the subject, transmits that image to a front-mounted projector, which then displays the scene on the reflective material. This is definitely going on my Christmas list.

6. Java Log

Inventor: Rod Sprules

Java Log

Made from recycled coffee grounds collected from coffee shops and office buildings, the Java Log has a higher heat density than real wood, which means it burns hotter and lasts longer. Plus it makes taller, prettier flames, diverts 12 million pounds of coffee grounds from landfills per year, and saves our trees — but no, it won’t make your house smell like Starbucks. Well, maybe just a bit.

7. The PowerSki Jetboard

Inventor: Bob Mongomery

The PowerSki Jetboard

This looks like too much fun. Designed by a former pro surfer dude now in his 50s, this motorized surfboard has a two-stroke engine built inside that gives you 350 lbs of thrust over even the calmest body of water. The controls are on a hand-held, flexible cable. A cross between water skiing (without the boat) and surfing, the PowerSki Jetboard is starting to make a name for itself in California, and for the past two summers has been a popular rental item at Pier Water Sports in Penticton, B.C.

8. Self-Cleaning Windows

Inventor: PPG Industries

Self-Cleaning Windows

The only thing I hate more than housework is dirty windows, so when I heard about this product I got more than a little excited. SunClean glass windows are lined with a transparent coating with a photocatalytic property that breaks down dirt in the sun. Rain water sheets evenly over the glass surface, instead of beading, spotting or streaking. If that doesn’t sound too good to be true, I’ll eat my Java Log.

9. Food Cooling System

Inventor: Mohammed Bah Abba

Food Cooling System

Mohammed Bah Abba is a teacher who comes from a long line of pot makers in northern rural Nigeria. He knows all about the challenges of preserving foods in an area where there are no refrigerators or electricity. His ingenious Pot-in-Pot Preservation Cooling System is basically a small pot placed in a larger one, with the space in between filled with moist sand. The inner pot is filled with fruit or vegetables and covered with a wet cloth. As the water in the sand evaporates, it carries heat away from the inner core. Produce stays fresh for three weeks or more, rather than the usual few days. Winner of the 2001 Rolex Award for Enterprise, Abba is using his award money to make and distribute more of his food cooling system units — a simple, elegant idea that is making a difference in the lives of many families.

10. The Icopod

Inventor: Sanford Ponder

The Icopod

These chic shelters, made from a single piece of laminated paperboard, aren’t just for fun. They’re sturdy, wind resistant, waterproof, well insulated — and don’t require any particular skills, tools or handyman propensities to assemble. The inventor (who has, in my opinion, the greatest name ever) thought they would be perfect for temporary housing wherever that might be needed, from music festivals to shelter during natural disasters. And as it turns out, he was right. They are now being used in a variety of situations worldwide.

Article Sources:

The Lemelson Foundation

The New York Times Company


How slow can you go?

Maybe sometimes we should all just… meander.

by Laura Locke

The Straight Story - courtesy IMDB

My dad competed in track and field events at the Alberta 55 Plus Games this summer. He’s 82. It’s quite something watching grey-haired folks heaving javelins and shot puts for all they’re worth, throwing themselves across the sand in the long jump, and sprinting around the track as fast as their skinny legs will carry them, which is surprisingly fast. But there is one event that I especially like watching, one that I believe is unique to Games geared to the senior crowd. It’s called the 1500 Meter Predicted Race.

The Predicted Race goes like this: prior to the race, participants must submit their name and the time they predict it will take them to cross the finish line. They line up, the gun goes off and they all start heading down the track. Some run, some jog, some walk and some saunter, as if they are out for an evening stroll. No one is running against anyone else, no one seems to get too excited, and they all just make their way around the track, taking their own sweet time about it. The goal is to get as close to their own predicted times as possible, and some of them actually have to slow down at the end because they realize they’re going a bit too fast. No one is allowed to wear watches, so it’s all quite mysterious until the winner is announced. I love it.

The first time I saw a Predicted Race, I had no idea what was going on. I thought I was watching a Monty Python skit, featuring all these apparently demented seniors. Most of them were wearing shorts that were a little TOO short for comfort (both their comfort and mine), and all of them had big grins on their faces. They were meandering around all over the place, each going at a totally different pace.

Once I found out what the heck was going on, it got me thinking. Why are the rest of us always in such a big, fat hurry? Maybe sometimes we should all just… meander.

Last week, when I was racing around Calgary in my little 1993 Toyota tin can, trying to be “efficient” and do as many errands as I could fit into the tiny cracks of free time in my day, the words to that Sam Roberts song floated into my head: “You’re on the bridge to nowhere and you’re gettin’ there fast.” And I remembered the grinning Predicted Race participants, who might also be on a bridge to nowhere, but at least they were having fun, unlike me. I realized if I didn’t get all my errands done that day, it wouldn’t be the end of civilization as we know it. I slowed down, cranked up the radio and smiled at the driver in the car beside me. She didn’t smile back, but you know what, I didn’t really care.

Since then I’ve been consciously examining my life and finding ways to decelerate. We’ve all heard of the somewhat trendy Slow Food Movement, and you even hear now about things like Slow Exercise and Slow Travel. But I’m talking about scrutinizing your day and trying to insert a little time for reflecting and listening and appreciating. Basically, it’s a search for tranquility right in the midst of everyday life, without going to a spa or monastery.

And so I started my scrutiny. First off, I noticed that I tend to eat on the run, especially breakfast and lunch. We try as a family to sit down for supper together as often as we can, but breakfast and lunch are usually solitary affairs because of our crazy schedules. Somehow I’ve developed the idea that eating must involve multi-tasking, so I eat lunch and breakfast, in occasional bites, while I do the laundry or clean my office or something like that. Since I work from home there are always little jobbies to do around the house. So one morning I turned off the radio and sat down and ate breakfast, just looking out the dining room window at the trees and the clouds, all by myself. I didn’t even read the paper while I was eating. It felt weird.

I’ve also noticed another reoccurring multi-tasking moment in my life. Whenever I talk to someone on the phone, I immediately start doing something with my hands while I’m talking to them, like washing the dishes or wiping the counter or checking my email. So when the phone rang yesterday, I sat down and didn’t do anything except talked to the person who called, and listened. It was all I could do to just sit there. I felt so… unproductive, even though I was talking to a wonderful friend that I value very much. I tried to examine how I was feeling and why I was so jittery.

Somehow talking on a phone has come to mean, for me, a chance to chat and to accomplish some mindless tasks. My focus is spread wide and thin. It’s as if we have decided, as a society, that living fast is more beneficial than living deep. This is a major shift in thought and behaviour over the past 50 years or so that has mushroomed in tandem with the explosive growth of timesaving technologies, which is more than a little ironic.

Flashback to when I was a kid and mobile phones weren’t invented yet; when if you talked on the phone to somebody back then, you were literally stuck to the wall and you couldn’t roam around and do stuff. The memory makes me shudder a little. It’s not easy to jump outside the psychology of one’s present day.

Which leads me to recall the slow pace of movies and TV shows in the “old days”. Watching old movies now is a risky endeavour if you want to stay awake, since so often the editing tempo is practically glacial. People walk across the room to get a drink or something, and the camera follows them… every…. step…. of ….the…way. It looks truly strange now. You find yourself waiting for something extraordinary or terrifying to happen, and it doesn’t. They just get their drink and turn around and walk back to their chair.

There have been some intentionally slow movies produced in recent years: No Country for Old Men, Appaloosa, There Will Be Blood, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and pretty much anything released by Jim Jarmusch come to mind, but I especially remember a movie called The Straight Story, made about 10 years ago, starring Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek. It was about an old man who goes on a trip across America on his riding lawn mower, to see his sick brother. He travels about five miles an hour. I loved that movie, but I remember how challenging it was to sit through the whole thing, and how that challenge was kind of illuminating. One of the best parts was looking around at everyone else squirming and fidgeting in their seats, even though they were loving the story itself.

I recently checked out a new documentary, Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, which is all about the little-known music genre called Rocksteady that was popular in Jamaica in the early 1960s. Characterized by a slow tempo and a relaxed, easy-going style, it was hugely influential to the reggae sound that followed. You can’t help but feel mellow and happy listening to Rocksteady music.

So, lately I’ve been scrutinizing my listening choices, too. Besides seeking out the Rocksteady sounds of musicians like Hopeton Lewis, Gladdy Anderson and Stranger Cole, I recently dusted off my classical music CDs and picked out some lovely, languid pieces like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Chopin’s Prelude in D Flat Major. I found some haunting Gregorian chants on iTunes, sung by an amazing choir in Budapest called Schola Hungarica. I’ve been listening to soulful folks like The Weepies, Sufjan Stevens and Lisa Hannigan.

This slow-motion soundtrack accompanying me through parts of the day has definitely reduced my need for speed, not to mention my blood pressure. Little things don’t seem quite so urgent when laid-back, lush melodies are flowing into and around your gray matter. Musical harmonies beget mental harmony. Pouring that second cup of coffee, putting your feet up and indulging in a little contemplation about life in general suddenly seems like a brilliant idea.

And how about slow reading? Lectio Divina, Latin for “divine reading”, is a traditional Christian tradition first set out in 1150 by a medieval French monk named Guigo in his book Monk’s Ladder. His theory, likened to “feasting on the Word”, incorporated four rungs on a ladder. The first is taking a bite (lectio), chewing on it (meditatio), savoring its essence (oratio) and finally digesting it and making it part of the body (contemplatio). Rather than our usual “skimming”, which we all learned as a survival strategy in school, this is more like slowly drinking in the words in front of us, ruminating on certain phrases, allowing our thoughts to play with their significance and then letting the meaning sink in.

Old becomes new when we use this method to read spiritual works, classic literature or anything else. It takes time. But I’ve found that, like mining for treasure, it can yield truly remarkable results. I’ve started writing down some of the quotes and ideas I’ve discovered that plead for closer and repeated inspection, in a lovely blank book someone gave me for my birthday. The gentle art of writing manually is also fast becoming a foreign practice for many of us, begging to be rediscovered.

Sometimes I feel like a rather leisurely salmon fighting against the current of our times, but my experiments in slow living have definitely been enriching. To quote my new Rocksteady hero Stranger Cole, it’s all about being “calm and easy.” A most worthy and sublime goal, to be sure.


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