SAN MARCOS — When the country went to war in 1941, Albert Baak designed fuel regulators for bomber engines.
In 1945, a Los Angeles home-heating company asked him to design a more efficient air-conditioning system.
And when Baak's wife grew tired of pulling her golf cart, he designed a battery unit to power it.
Today, Baak, a 77-year-old retired aeronautical engineer, continues to work over a growing pile of aluminum parts in his garage. Now he designs and builds equipment to help the disabled.
His "gadgeteering," he said, has resulted in a device (Baak calls it the mobile) that enables stroke victims and others with limited mobility in their arms to feed themselves, write, knit and play the piano.
Made entirely from leftover pipes and scrap metal donated by local businesses, the mobile is an arm sling attached to a series of pulleys and adjustable weights that make an arm feel as if it were "floating in water" and enable the arm to rotate with little muscle strength or coordination, Baak said.
Initially designed for a stroke patient at North County Health Center in Oceanside, the mobile allowed a patient to feed herself a graham cracker seconds after her arm was strapped in, Baak said.
Therapists were so impressed with the device, Baak said, that it remained at the center for other patients and he constructed another one for the first patient to have in her home.
With about 60 patents from his days as a Honeywell engineer and former president of Cam-Stat Inc., a Los Angeles home heating systems company, Baak said he stumbled into designing the equipment last April when a neighbor suffered a stroke and asked him to build a simple finger-exercise device based on the models used at the center.
"I saw the devices they were using, and they weren't much," Baak said. "I began to visualize all these other possibilities, and I would lie awake at night thinking about it."
Baak made the finger-exercise device from rubber bands and wood scraps. Then he began volunteering at the physical rehabilitation center, and in the evenings he would experiment in his garage with ideas for therapeutic devices by fashioning them out of aluminum rods and other pieces using a lathe and drill press.
"I would watch my arm movements every time I ate," he said. "I came to realize how complicated a piece of machinery my arm is."
Baak has made three mobiles so far--each donated to patients--and he is building a fourth, scaled down to size for patients at Children's Hospital. Each one, a refinement of the last, requires about three weeks to make, he said.
"The mobiles would cost between $5,000 and $10,000 for a company to build," Baak said. "But since I get most of the material donated, I can build one for about $80."
Mary Shubin, 24, who received the third mobile, said therapist-prescribed exercises with the device have helped her regain some arm and shoulder strength after other therapeutic devices had failed.
"I was just amazed when I put my arm into this the first time," Shubin said. "My arm felt like it was floating."
Shubin, who suffers from near-complete paralysis as a result of a car accident, said she was able to write again after working with the device for eight months. Her first note was to Baak--in jagged letters, she wrote, "Thank you so much for your help and support. God bless you." Baak keeps the letter in a scrapbook tracking the progress of the patients.
Marsha Buske, an occupational therapist at the North County Health Center, said that the Baak mobile and other devices that he has made, are "totally innovative" contributions to physical rehabilitation.
Buske said the center has called on Baak to make portable support devices and game boards to increase patients' strength and coordination.
"These are things we cannot get on the market," Buske said. "If we didn't have these things, we would have to go without."
Baak says, "The things I do now are very elementary. Any good engineer can do it, and it needs to be done. The credit belongs to the patients who are determined to use their arms again."
The youngest son of a German immigrant, born in a small Iowa town, Baak said his design engineering started early when he had to make his own hockey sticks and other toys.
In the entry hall of home sits a grandfather clock that he made from scratch 12 years ago after seeing a shop full of grandfather clocks.
His wife of 49 years, Gladys, who accompanies him on visits to the disabled, says she has never known him to be at rest. "He is always thinking and inventing," she said. "He would often be sitting there staring, and I know he's drawing things on the wall. One of his favorite places to space-out is in church."
Baak said he will patent his invention once it has been refined to his satisfaction.
Another task, he said, is to encourage more engineers and engineering students to explore the needs of physical therapy. In May, he will be returning to his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, to advise a program that allows senior mechanical engineering students to design devices for disabled students.
"This is more fun than going to work," Baak said. "The smiles on the patients' faces is reward enough for me."