The Weird Uncle of Invention

Posted on February 24, 2011


I’ve always been fascinated by the work of inventors. It’s such a creative act, bringing into existence something that changes how people live. The resulting product often integrates itself into our world to such a degree that it becomes difficult to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. But what about all of those things we create for no better reason than we simply want them? Or because we wonder if we could create them? Or because we just have nothing else to do? In addition to a mother, invention seems to have an extended family, including a weird uncle called Curiosity.

Could I make it as an inventor? I have an inquiring mind. I sometimes put on a pair of fleece sweatpants, walk around really fast, then go into a dark room and take off the pants just so I can see the sparks of static electricity. This, I tell myself, is the sign of a curious seeker of knowledge. It could just as well be, I answer back, the sign of a madman. An argument usually follows and occasionally a great altercation ensues, often escalating to fisticuffs. This doesn’t help things at all, because I hate that word, fisticuffs. What a pathetic word. It doesn’t sound at all like what it’s supposed to mean. When I hear fisticuffs, I think of men in tuxedoes swatting each other with white gloves. It reminds me of a word I used to see in my social studies textbooks: foodstuffs. What in the world are foodstuffs? Wouldn’t the word food serve the same purpose? Peoples is another one. And monies. I think they used four-year-olds to write those textbooks.

* * * * *

A few years ago I was in a London hotel room. I had a heating pad with me, because I had ruptured a disc in my lower back and was in a lot of pain. I used the heating pad in the airports and it helped me survive the ordeal of travel.

In the room, I plugged the heating pad into an electrical outlet clearly labeled, “For electric shavers ONLY.” What could possibly happen? That’s what I was asking myself when I turned on the switch and caused the explosion, a rather loud one, although any explosion in a hotel room tends to be unexpectedly noisy. A thick cloud of black smoke shot out from the outlet and sent a stream of soot across the nearby bedspread. I didn’t actually see the smoke and soot until I opened the door, because the room immediately went dark. When I went down to the front desk to explain what happened, they didn’t seem to understand that I was apologizing for something that was my own fault. The hotel manager came out and began apologizing to me. I tried again to explain, but he continued to tell me how sorry he was, and arranged for someone on staff to move me to a different room. It took five tries to find a room with working electricity. Apparently I had knocked out power to the entire floor. When I checked out three days later, the desk clerk again apologized for any inconvenience. I considered demanding that they replace my heating pad, but felt way too guilty.

We wandered off the subject a bit there, but see, that’s another sign of a great inventor: the ability to stray from the original topic and somehow find your way back. There are great leaps involved in this business of creation. Which leads us to bungee jumping. How was this activity invented? Was it a process of trial and error? Were lives lost in the pursuit of this noble goal of throwing oneself off a bridge and dangling upside-down by a rubber band? What about pole vaulting? What happened to the first guy who ever tried that? I assume it was a man:

“Honey, you know I’ve been working hard on my latest invention, right? Well, I think I’ve got something. What I did was, I set up a stick about fifteen feet in the air and parallel to the ground. Then I run full-speed with this long pole, shove one end of it into a hole, and bend the pole so it can slingshot me up and over the stick. There’s a big bag of feathers on the other side and I land on that, usually. When I get really good at it, I’ll raise the stick and try again. I think this is going to make us rich.”

It had to be a man, didn’t it? I can’t imagine those words coming out of a woman’s mouth. For one thing, most women don’t have that kind of free time on their hands.

* * * * *

One day I noticed that many breakfast foods come pre-cooked and frozen. Waffles, for example, as well as pancakes, bacon, and even eggs. But not toast. I find this odd, don’t you? I’m thinking of launching my own line of frozen toast. The benefit seems obvious to me: Why waste time toasting bread when you can grab a few pre-cooked slices and simply pop them into the toaster? Within minutes you’ll be enjoying fresh, hot toast! I’m slightly troubled by the fact that no one has bothered to do this before. But then, no one thought to make an ottoman until one day somebody said to himself, “Boy my legs are tired. I wonder if it could be from sitting in this chair and holding my feet straight out, for hours on end.”

Speaking of frozen, who came up with the igloo? It must have been a quick thinker. I’m trying to imagine wandering somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. It’s minus fifty degrees and the wind is howling. I need shelter and I have nothing to use except a long, sharp blade of some kind. Not a lot of time for brainstorming there. At the risk of freezing to death on the ice, I doubt it would have occurred to me to build a house out of that very ice. (And even if it had, people in igloos used fires to keep warm. What exactly were they burning?)

And speaking of sitting in a chair, at the suggestion of my dental hygienist, I recently started using an electric toothbrush. I had often ridiculed this invention as unnecessary and lazy, comparing it to the electric carving knife, possibly the most idiotic thing to come out of the 1960s, other than the Super Ball, a dense rubber toy that cost a small fortune, bounced into the upper atmosphere, and always landed on a roof or rolled down a sewer within minutes of purchase. But now, lying flat with a searchlight shining directly into my eyes and a young woman stabbing me in the gums with a sharp metal instrument, I reconsidered.

“Regular toothbrush and electric toothbrush,” she said. “They’re like night and day.”

“Which one is day?” I tried to ask, but she had her entire fist in my mouth and even I found it hard to understand what I was saying.

I went out later that week and purchased an electric toothbrush. I use it every day. And I use my regular toothbrush every night. I really do. So my dental hygienist called it exactly right. This got me thinking. Why not an electric hair brush? Not only could you brush your hair without causing irritating arm fatigue, but you could also use it to remove unsightly pet fur from furniture, and as an occasional head scratcher and scalp massager. From there, it’s a short step to electric Q-Tips, battery-powered nail files, and small lamps that run on static electricity generated by fleece sweatpants.

No, it won’t be long now. One day soon you’ll find it difficult to imagine a time when these amazing inventions didn’t exist — each the product of an inquiring mind, a curious seeker of knowledge, and of course, that weird uncle engaging in some mental fisticuffs.


Posted in: In Over My Head