Whimsy and Invention

Why ridiculous inventions are a good thing

Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

These self-wiping spectacles were first worn in France, in 1971.

Go into any library, said Samuel Johnson, and survey the vanity of human hopes. There you will see a "wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue."

Library, shmibrary. For vain hopes, try the files of the patent office.

A laser pointer to divert a cat? A plastic sphere of silence, for tête-à-têtes in noisy bars? A rocket belt, for escaping boring tête-à-têtes? An atomic-powered airplane? A life-expectancy watch? An electric spaghetti-twirling fork? A tiny generator of random noise, to secrete in a friend's office to drive him crazy? An air-bag bodysuit for motorcyclists?

It's easy to poke fun at inventors, but let's not forget the patent lawyers and judges. In June we learned again that lawyers' hopes of defining what can and cannot be patented would still not be satisfied. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision awaited all around the world, essentially punted on the key question: the patentability of algorithms and business methods. In ruling on Bilski v. Kappos, the court "has thrown up its hands and refused to endorse any one test" of patentability, says Steven J. Frank, who wrote on Bilski in our March 2009 issue. We are still no clearer than we were before the decision was handed down.

The more closely you scrutinize the process of invention, the less confident you will be of understanding it. We are told, for instance, that invention typically begins in one person's exasperation over a defect in the standard way of doing things. Oh, really? Then there must be a great deal of exasperation concerning the care and feeding of pets. Look at an airline gift catalog and you'll see dozens of gadgets that appeal to the frequent flier's guilt over neglecting Fluffy or Fido—a pet petter, a doggie umbrella, a timed-release cat feeder, a combination bird trap and cat feeder, a horse diaper.

Whoa, there, horsie. Here we've veered from the ridiculous to the useful. It turns out that miniature horses are particularly good guide animals for the blind—trainable, low-maintenance, long-lived, more dogged than a dog. However, horses can't be toilet trained, and that means they need…diapers. (And toddler-size sneakers, to keep their little hooves from slipping on floors.) Vanity of vanity—yet all is not vanity. Horse diapers make sense.

Again and again this pattern recurs: What begins as a lark develops into a major invention. Remember back when big-iron jockeys dismissed the early personal computers as mere toys? They had a point: The first PCs really were toys. Now, though, PCs and their handheld descendants rule the world. Facebook, begun as a way to keep up with members of the opposite sex on the Harvard campus, is now also poised for world domination. A lot of lesser ideas blossomed similiarly, as you can see in this slide show.

We see the reverse pattern as well, when what begins with serious intent devolves into a form of whimsy. Take the antimissile laser: After decades of work and tens of billions of dollars of government funding, the technology has yet to prove itself on the field of battle. Yet substantial aspects of that technology have found application in protecting backyard barbecues from mosquitoes, as Jordin Kare described in these pages in May. And behind that whimsical invention lies a deeper layer of seriousness, for Kare hopes to use lasers to protect crops from pests. If he does, then he will surely have hammered a sword into a plowshare.

Of course, most inventions, big and little, go nowhere. You have to sift a lot of pebbles to find a grain of gold. That's why the patent law (such as it is) tolerates—indeed, encourages—a playful attitude among the tiny sliver of the population that ever invents anything. Among IEEE Spectrum's readership, of course, that sliver isn't a sliver—it's a goodly slice.

If you have a patent of which you are particularly proud, tell us about it. We promise to take it seriously.

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