I’m a natural-born inventor. In fact, one of my favorite activities is lying on the couch, staring into space, and dreaming up indispensable products that consumers won’t be able to resist. I do this all the time.
It’s a grueling process, fraught with obstacles, delays, and setbacks. For example, occasionally while I’m lying and staring, I’ll notice a dark spot that seems to have begun moving across the ceiling above my head. This causes me to wonder if I might be having some kind of neurological episode, but I soon realize the black spot is a small spider, probably working on an exciting new web design that doesn’t involve all that sticky fluid, which can be so messy and difficult to spin. The next day, I’ll see that the spider has managed to travel just three feet to the left, and now I understand that he may be lost and afraid, and waiting for someone to come and find him. It also occurs to me that if people had this ability to walk upside-down on the ceiling, it could prove useful. But then I remember that I once thought the same thing about snowshoes and cappuccino machines, and that theory didn’t turn out to be accurate at all.
Undeterred, I am encouraged by a smiling man on television who says there are companies out there that are hungry for invention ideas, and that they can’t wait to reward me with briefcases full of cash. I continue to think really hard.
During an especially promising session, I imagine that I’ve devised a shaving method that removes the hair from a man’s face without slicing off four layers of skin and causing significant loss of blood. It has to be one of those revolutionary breakthroughs in shaving technology, though. I can’t simply slide yet another razor blade into a cartridge and attach the whole apparatus to a plastic handle. Dragging a single blade around the face is dangerous enough; adding more, it seems to me, is asking for trouble. But if the thing really worked, if I could shave, quickly and without turning my bathroom into a Civil War battlefield, I would give anything for such a gadget, and I’m pretty sure others would, too.
Averse as I am to details that involve manufacturing and distribution, I leap ahead to the marketing phase, and decide that I must never refer to my concept as a gadget, or even a mere shaver. Rather, I’d call it a patented whisker-removal system, and would do an infomercial in which I brilliantly give away a second product, absolutely free. Customers would only have to pay separate shipping and handling. I would also offer an unconditional, lifetime, money-back guarantee. Then, after the first six months, I’d close shop and head to an island in the Mediterranean. I believe this is what all those salesmen hawking vegetable choppers do when their customers figure out that the forty-nine-dollar value they got for nineteen-ninety-nine is really worth about fifty cents.
Another invention I could use myself is some sort of hand-held device that scans unfamiliar food and provides a printed list of the ingredients. This would save me from having to ask endless questions in restaurants, like, “Those beige things. Are they mushrooms?”
Even more than contemplating actual inventions, I lie on the couch and fantasize about making a fortune as an entrepreneur while lying on the couch. In this ultimate daydream, I think about useful items that millions of people require and would gladly purchase. Then, without moving a finger, I instantly have a factory set up that is already cranking out the products and shipping them all over the world. I’m the president and CEO of the company. I picture myself and my hundred employees as we all gather in the corporate cafeteria to celebrate our wildly successful IPO. I also have someone on staff whose sole function is to remind me what CEO and IPO stand for.
You might suspect that what’s holding me back from a lucrative career as an inventor is my own laziness and lack of vision, as well as my refusal to actually learn anything about the process, or even to listen to the smiling man on television and visit his website. And you would be right. At the same time, I have a basic and inescapable mistrust in the system.
The reason for this lack of trust is that we have a tendency to invent – and buy — things we don’t really need. Diapers with cartoon characters printed on them is one that comes to mind. I doubt a baby has any way of seeing them. Speed bumps is another. After going over a speed bump, I usually get so mad that I end up driving twice as fast. I’d also like to meet the person who thought automatic flushing in public restrooms was a good idea. And car doors that lock themselves. And designer covers for toasters.
Some of the best inventions are simple things that we should have thought of sooner, but didn’t. Like liquid soap. Solid bars of soap left on the edge of a sink soon take on an unsettling appearance similar to that of leftovers that have migrated to the back of the refrigerator. But a pump bottle filled with thick, colored liquid makes me want to wash my hands.
I also never fail to appreciate the single line at the bank – and at certain progressive department stores. This is a welcome attempt to introduce justice into the shopping and banking experience, mostly by preventing customers from flying over to the newly-opened register or teller window while the rest of us have been standing in line for fifteen minutes.
And then there are advances we mastered decades ago that we somehow fail to apply when they’re most needed today. The two Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977. They have traveled almost twelve billion miles, are now near the edge of the solar system, and are both still sending signals back to Earth. Meanwhile, we keep putting thirty-day batteries in those black boxes installed on airplanes that carry human passengers. I’ve been trying to come up with a logical explanation for such an oversight. But I guess I’m just not that inventive.