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The Mothers and Fathers of Invention : Creators Who Gamble on Gadgets and Tinker With Technology Walk Fine Line Between Genius, Crackpot

September 24, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Yoshiro NakaMats is an inventor, a venerable among crackpots and their solar-powered can openers. He is a millionaire lessor of his floppy-disk technology to IBM and holds more patents than Thomas Edison (2,360 to 1,033).

Daniel Fowler is an inventor, a raw beginner and a high school dropout among doctors and doyens . He has yet to sell any of his edible drinking straws loaded with tea, coffee or Kool-Aid pellets.

Extremes, yet consorts. Also representative of the infinite spectrum of human inspiration and mental perspiration that will gather at the Los Angeles Convention Center Friday for Invention Convention '87, a three-day meeting of minds, dreams, gadgets and life's improvements.

NakaMats, 60, of Tokyo, will definitely be there. He is to speak and demonstrate his latest invention, a $70,000 reclining brain chair said to enhance memory, sexuality and creativity by giving the reclined a series of ultra-wave jump starts.

Fowler, 31, temporarily of Orofino, Ida., will definitely not be there. He's barely halfway through a 15-year sentence for burglary. At a commutation hearing last year, a prison board denied his petition and its premise that with invention comes rehabilitation.

"But I have finally achieved something to show that I'm not a loser," said Fowler in an interview via a public telephone at Idaho State Correctional Institution. In March, however, Fowler remained on a losing streak--the recipient of 20 days in solitary for making telephone calls to the media in violation of prison rules. "I've been told that my straws could earn anywhere between $2 million and $60 million. Figure 5 cents (his profit) on the dollar (of sales) of somewhere in the middle and that would make me $1 million a year.

"But that's looking at it real good. It could also be a flop."

Invention Fever

Transistor wishes and Cabbage Patch dreams, of course, are the raging fever of inventors. Hence events such as the Invention Convention (open to the public on the weekend) that will bring 300 inventor-exhibitors to Los Angeles.

And hence the Inventor's Workshop International Education Foundation (40 chapters and 2,500 members in 10 countries) of Tarzana, the nonprofit group sponsoring the convention.

"This is the inventor's opportunity to expose his product, to learn about patents and marketing, even to find the financing or production facility that will get his invention to the marketplace," said Maggie Weisberg of Fort Jones, Calif., president emeritus of the workshop. "Corporate researchers. Buyers. Suppliers. Venture capitalists. Patent attorneys. They will all be there."

From Dolls to Missiles

So will Jack Ryan of Santa Monica. He invented the Barbie doll and guidance systems for Sparrow and Hawk missiles. Terri Paul, with a double doctorate, will attend. She invented the one-mile cordless telephone. And NakaMats. He has refined everything from helicopter crop dusting through golf putters to that odd spelling of his name.

This, however, is Hall of Fame stuff. What of our Rube Goldbergs (UC Berkeley, Class of '04) and Thomas W. Crappers (yes, the one who invented manhole covers) and nutty professors next door?

"Well, we'll be showing one invention that just might revolutionize the way we monitor electricity," related Weisberg. "Each year, utility companies lose $6 billion to theft of electricity. This new meter will prevent theft by flagging, immediately, any unusual changes in the flow.

"Someone has invented an earthquake-proof dome that will convert an outdoor stadium for indoor events . . . also a hydrofoil surf board that allows you to fly over the waves in heavenly flight . . . a concept that uses the microwave principle for a hot-water heater . . . a high-rise fire escape, a little protective cage, that makes it possible to descend one floor at a time without going swoooosh zip, all the way down to the ground at once."

According to convention planners, there are a myriad better mousetraps out there. Such as the Camper's Cocoon that triples as a covered hammock, a lean-to and standard pup tent. Or the home heater fueled by ears of corn. Or an accelerator board to make an Apple computer work 200 times faster.

Many exhibitors, however, seem to have reinvented the wheel. Or at least the Rubik's Cube and the corkscrew. The cube has been converted into an electronic game and the corkscrew now is wall-mounted and electrically operated.

Alarms are popular this year. One not only signals fire but also squirts water. Another is a clock and bedside lamp that flashes to awake the deaf. There's also a device to make sure you don't sleep through the Big One.

"It does not predict an earthquake," said Gerold Baker of Westminster. "It doesn't give you any kind of warning. But you can set it anywhere from zero to 8 on the Richter Scale and when the quake hits, the alarm will wake you up.

"I call it: 'Wake Up with Quake Up.' "

According to Weisberg: "Only about 12% of all inventions will reach the market."

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