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Four Mothers of Invention

September 23, 1993|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin set the pace and Americans have been inventing ever since. Last year we set a record.

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"In 1992 we received 185,446 applications and issued 109,728 patents, the highest number in history," says Oscar Mastin at the U.S. Patent Office.

More than 25% of the patents went to independent inventors--individuals working in their basements, attics or garages. And what were they working on?

Nothing grandiose, says Stephen Gnass of Los Angeles, who founded the annual Invention Convention in 1987. "For the most part, independent inventors are fixing problems with existing products that they see in everyday life."

Home-based inventors, he says, tend to be mechanical, have very little business experience and can become obsessed with projects. This may drive their families crazy, but inventors are usually very happy, adds Gnass.

"They are making little tiny corrections in life that will help us all."

Here are the stories of four Southern California inventors.

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It was during Southern California's record-breaking drought of 1991 that Mario Marinaccio of Chatsworth got his idea for a household water meter.

"We were all doing our part--I let my grass die trying to conserve water," he recalls. "Then the city said every household needed to cut usage by 10%. The problem wasn't in cutting back--it was in figuring out how much we were using in the first place."

He made one attempt to lug the metal lid off his outdoor DWP meter and beam a flashlight through the spider webs to the dusty dials that measured use not in gallons but in water units.

"Ridiculous," says Marinaccio, who knew he could do better. And he did, coming up with the WaterMate, which monitors household use in gallons, liters, cubic feet and water units. It costs less than $60, is easy to install and looks handsome enough that it won first place from the GE Plastics Professional Design Competition.

"It took us two years to finalize," says Marinaccio, who worked with electronics engineer Jim Johnson and tool and die maker Ron Lukas.

Customers are finding uses Marinaccio hadn't foreseen, such as measuring ground water in greenhouses and monitoring individual units of a single-meter apartment building. Car washes use the meter and even wineries buy it to measure wine. The WaterMate now comes in several models and Marinaccio is already thinking of spinoff functions such as a control for watering trees or shrubbery.

The meter was a new direction, but not a change in philosophy for Marinaccio, 52, a specialist in industrial security systems. "I've built products all my life," he says. "I was always a fixer."

Born in Italy, and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., he served in the Air Force, and then, 28 years ago, he and his wife, Marianna, settled in Southern California. He got a job with a company that made card keys to open doors and has been developing and marketing security access control products ever since.

He started his own company, WaterMate Technology Corp., in Northridge, to manufacture the home meter. "One of the problems with being an inventor is that you have to find something to do with products after you invent them," he says.

Marinaccio sees himself as an instinctive problem-solver. "If I decide to invent a product--like something helpful for my car--nothing happens. But if you tell me you're having a problem crawling behind the Christmas tree to turn the lights on (as his wife did), I'll build you a remote switch."

The Marinaccios' two-story Spanish stucco house includes Mario's large workshop. But before he sits down at a sketch board or computer ("I have an enormous amount of software for graphics and visual stuff"), he works the problem out mentally, which may take weeks.

"If I get enthused about an idea, it doesn't leave my mind until I get the bugs worked out. My wife and I can be out to dinner with a group and I'll get that glazed look and she'll say, 'Mario's away somewhere.' "

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Londi Palmisano perches on the edge of what appears to be a mod ottoman in her West Los Angeles living room and begins to ease backward, draping herself over the cushion into a relaxed backbend.

"You go down slowly, to find your center of balance," she says, arching her back and stretching her arms over her head.

"The idea is to let go of your body without using any muscles. It's a passive stretch and there is no other way to do it. The first time you try it, you see how inflexible your spine really is."

The object that allows Palmisano to perfect this liberating stretch is an invention she has been working on for more than three years--a cushioned top on an oval-shaped base with balance bars on either end. She has named it the Archer. "I was a massage therapist for 12 years. I know from working with people that all of us have stress and tension in our bodies, and most of us put it in our neck, back and shoulders," she says.

"I had it visually in my head for a long time--a way to bend backward without using muscles."

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