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Her Book on Inventions Is Patently a Best Seller

October 30, 1985|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

Other than finding the fit a little tight, Sniff was obviously pleased with his new sunglasses.

Sniff, by the way, is a dog.

The reason the Maltese was thusly outfitted for the first time is that he belongs to Sylvie Vartan and her husband, Tony Scotti, at whose Beverly Hills home Valerie-Anne Giscard d'Estaing was staying.

She is the author of a book that for three years has been a best seller in her native France, and now is making its debut in America: "The World Almanac Book of Inventions."

The author, daughter of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has crammed within 362 pages in trade paperback format (World Almanac Publications: $10.95) the capsulized stories of more than 2,000 innovations--everything from the wheel to the doggie glasses.

"Those came about 10 years ago because a French optician, Denise Lemiere, got to wondering whether her dog might not like sunglasses, just like humans," the author said while sipping Perrier at a garden table behind the home here.

"I have talked with her. She also perfected prescription glasses for myopic dogs and protective goggles for those who like to lean out of car windows."

Although the book logically begins with the evolution of thewheel--thought to have been introduced about 3,500 BC for potters--no inventor gets credit. "I have a permanent staff of five and a part-time staff of 60 researchers," Giscard d'Estaing said. "We have come up with many facts, but, while exploring the wheel, nowhere could we find a name."

Along the way, during the three years of research, there was no end to the surprises.

Take the croissant. Please, take the croissant. "It isn't a French creation, but rather made its debut in 1683--courtesy of a Polish military officer in Vienna," the 31-year-old writer said.

"The city had been under siege by the Turks, and was finally rescued by the Poles. A man named Kulyeziski, having played a big role, was given the stocks of coffee abandoned by the Turkish army and was authorized to open a cafe in Vienna. To go with the rare coffee he would be serving, he had a baker make cakes in the shape of the crescent of the defeated Turks."

Now he really had a big roll.

Or consider the microwave oven. "That was discovered in 1946 because an American, Percy Le Baron Spencer, while doing research for Raytheon, noticed that microwaves had melted a piece of candy in his pocket."

One of the 14 chapters is on medicine, and included in it is the invention of a Southlander, 49-year-old Glen Whitten of El Segundo, a former dentist who recently got a patent on anti-headache glasses.

"I actually get very few headaches, and was more interested in insomnia," Whitten said by phone. "While trying to find something to help the 30 million insomniacs in the United States, I came up with this invention for tension headaches. I plan to manufacture it in Taiwan, and sell a pair for about $100."

The device, called Dzidra glasses (named after his former wife, a Latvian), works on three batteries that cause a colored shadow to flash on and off over each eye and gives a relaxing sensation.

Giscard d'Estaing said she first became fascinated with inventions at age 12 when she read a book about prehistoric man's discovery of fire. She began wondering who that first person was, although she never did find out.

Her subsequent book, however, does pinpoint cigarettes: "They were invented by beggars in Spain at the end of the 16th Century. They rolled the tobacco they salvaged from cigar butts into small cylinders of paper."

Toothpaste? Although plants have been used since antiquity to combat halitosis, formulas that were mixed with water came later. In 48 BC the Romans used burned deer antler for toothpaste.

The author envisions her work (it has 700 photographs and line drawings) as another Guinness Book of World Records, which renews its popularity each year by coming up with fresh material.

"About a third of next year's edition will be new," the youthful scribe disclosed. "Obviously such basics as the wheel and movable type and the incandescent lamp will stay, but the chapter on the bizarre is the one that annually undergoes the most changes as novel ideas are born."

It is also the chapter that is most fun:

--Three years ago a 14-year-old Belgian, Eric Van Paris, devised a fork to please children whose parents make them eat hot food. A rubber squeeze bulb is connected to the fork. By forcing air through a tube, the steaming morsel is cooled.

--During World War II, the Germans built decoy cows, which they placed on operational airstrips to make the enemy believe animals were grazing in empty pastures.

--Nine years ago an American named Mike Taylor invented a motorized bar stool, allowing the occupant to make the rounds of his fellow imbibers without having to get up.

The irrepressible daughter of a former world leader--who spends her leisure time competing in desert motorcycle races--thinks it is about time inventors got some respect.

"The Edisons and the Bells and the Fultons are known," she said. "But what about the others, the ones who also changed our lives? We know more about actors and musicians than we do about them."

Some will always remain anonymous, and indeed some weren't even human, but at least they now have recognition.

It is said in the book that in the 15th Century a goatherd in Yemen observed that after his animals had grazed on the red fruit of a certain tree, they had difficulty sleeping that night.

The birth of coffee. If it hadn't been for goats, where would Mrs. Olson be today?

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