The Indefatigable Inventor

An IEEE Fellow offers a humorous take on engineers and inventors

10 min read

Engineers really are different. From early childhood, they want to "fix" things--or at least take them apart and find ways to create new capabilities. When they go to college, the faculty emphasizes that they have a responsibility for bettering the lot of people. When they graduate, they go to work in the appropriate industry or government sector. And there we find civil engineers designing and building bridges, dams, and highways; mechanical engineers doing the same for cars, lawn mowers, and farm machinery; aeronautical engineers with their aircraft, rockets, and space stations; and electrical engineers with power grids, computers, and TVs. In addition, there are chemical engineers, railway engineers, and even systems engineers. All doing their "thing" to serve mankind.

However, long before there were engineering curricula in colleges and even before there were colleges, there were "engineers." A fellow engineer, upon visiting Egypt recently, wrote about how the pyramids were constructed. "Recent excavations showed that these ancient engineers scraped the sand and gravel off a prospective location until they got down to bedrock. They then chiseled a trench in the rock, just outside the area of the proposed pyramid. (The corners of the trench were squared with ropes knotted in the 3-4-5 right triangle configuration, thus guaranteeing 90-degree corners.) The trench was filled with water from the Nile. The bedrock was then smoothed to the level of the water, before they started hauling those enormous blocks from the quarry to begin the pyramids. It's amazing that 3000 years ago, one of our predecessors was figuring out the optimum approach to a problem."

Upon reading this, good friend and engineer extraordinaire Bob Everett, former president of the Mitre Corp., noted, "There is no evidence that human beings have evolved mentally over the last 6000 years. So there was an engineer A in ancient Egypt who was just as smart as engineer B today, although somewhat lacking in computer capacity. He must have had a lot of well-behaved labor and, more important, the backing of the government--the pharaoh. Most important of all, I bet he didn't have any ’-ilities' to contend with." ("-Iities" refers to a group of "requirements" placed on military contracts for aircraft, tanks, ships, etc., covering such topics as reliability, maintainability, transportability, and so forth. Each such "requirement" calls for scads of useless meetings and reports whose only apparent impact is to increase the costs and extend the schedule.)

Of Engineers and Nerds

The word "nerd" was apparently first used in the 1950 Dr. Seuss book "If I Ran the Zoo." Near the end of the story, the wannabe zookeeper, young Gerald McGrew, sails "to Ka-Troo" to bring back other unusual animals.

"an IT-KUTCK, a PREEP and a PROO,

a NERKLE, a NERD and a SEERSUCKER, too."

The nerd, it turns out, is a yellow critter with a red face and tufts of white hair wearing a black body shirt.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., defines nerd as: "an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; esp: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits <computer ~s>" Both nerdish and nerdy are acceptable adjectives.

Thus, nerd was originally considered an insulting term, but engineers quickly adopted it (and "geek" also) as a badge of honor. MIT offers a pin and a shirt pocket protector (to hold all those pens and pencils an engineer carries along with his slide rule, or "slipstick"; the latter has been largely displaced by calculators today) displaying the words "NERD PRIDE" along with "Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

Engineers have a well-deserved reputation for pranks. The MIT Museum for many years had a Nerd Corner, featuring in words and photos the best-known MIT pranks.

For example, in 1958 a Lambda Chi Alpha pledge, Oliver Reed Smoot, Jr., was used by his fraternity brothers to calibrate the Harvard Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge. The length of the bridge, it turned out, measures 364.4 smoots plus one ear. When the bridge was resurfaced in 1987, the 10-smoot markings were redone in the newly paved sidewalk, and it is the job of fraternity pledges today to repaint them as needed.

At the 1982 Yale football game at Harvard, just before halftime, with both teams lined up for the snap, an object slowly came out of the turf nearby and inflated into a 5-foot-diameter balloon covered with large "MIT" logos. And almost predictably, on the morning of December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the famous flight at Kitty Hawk, a model of the Wright brothers' aircraft appeared on top of the MIT dome.

The MIT football cheer also reflects the nerd pride of the Institute:

e to the u, du/dx, e to the udx

secant, tangent, cosine, sine


integral, radical, u dv

slipstick, sliderule, MIT

There are many jokes about engineers, both deprecating and laudatory. Engineers, who've invented their share, love all of them and e-mail them to everyone. Here are a few favorites.

An engineer was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said, "If you kiss me, I'll turn into a beautiful princess." He bent over, picked up the frog, and put it in his pocket. After a while the frog spoke up again and said, "Hey, didn't you hear me? If you kiss me I'll turn back into a beautiful princess." "I heard you. I'm an engineer. I don't have time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog--now that's cool."

One night a wife found her engineer husband standing over their baby's crib. Silently she watched him. As he stood looking down at the sleeping infant, she saw on his face a mixture of emotions: disbelief, doubt, delight, amazement, enchantment, skepticism. Touched by this unusual display and the deep emotions it aroused, with eyes glistening, she slipped her arm around her husband. "A penny for your thoughts." "It's amazing! I just can't see how anybody can make a crib like that to sell for only $46.50."

Q: When does a person decide to become an engineer?

A: When he realizes he doesn't have the charisma to be an undertaker.

Bill Gates' Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

The Better Mousetrap

Any engineer remotely worthy of the name also worries about every issue or problem encountered in his "other life"--off the job. In travel, vacations, play, or at home he tries to come up with some solution, some improvement to each problem, real or perceived.

For example, an engineer encountering a stopped escalator may have a fleeting thought about what it would take, when an escalator stops, to have the steps rearrange themselves so they were like a regular set of stairs with steps of equal height. But most of the time the engineer dwells at greater length on some problem encountered in his daily life--and almost always outside his area of expertise--until he comes up with a "solution."

Sometimes the problem is so difficult that the engineer must make unrealistic assumptions to "solve" the problem, as was the case of an inventor describing his solution for an Automatic Chicken Feather Plucker: "Assume a spherical chicken�"

Because these inventions have absolutely nothing to do with an engineer's "day job," there is little opportunity for implementation. Speaking for myself, I have accumulated a set of inventions that will make life better for many segments of our society. Of course, when one works outside his field, and especially when he works alone, some of his inventions solve a problem or create a new capability that is not of sufficiently broad interest to attract investors. Here are a few that, in spite of my enthusiasm, have failed to generate interest among the investment community.

The Headache Generator:

Several years ago, a chemist succeeded in identifying and isolating the chemical in red wine that causes headaches. I proposed a profitable business in providing this substance for sale. A person who didn't drink alcohol could add a small amount to his ginger ale or seltzer water, drink along with the crowd, and wake up with a splitting headache, just like all the others.

The Birdproof Squirrel Feeder:

This feeder is carefully designed to make it easy for squirrels to get at the corn kernels and sunflower seeds but creates an impenetrable barrier for cardinals, titmice, bluebirds, and other pests.

However, this experience has not discouraged me, and I'm really confident that some of my newer inventions will, with the right promotion, find sizable markets. Several are described below.

The Dirty Clothes Compactor:

It's a well-known fact that dirty clothes take up a lot more space than clean ones. As a result, travelers, especially guys, have a problem getting all those dirties into the suitcase. Here is a simple, elegant solution to this serious problem.

Each hotel floor contains a device similar to a garbage compactor. The traveler simply dials in the dimensions of the appropriate compartment of his suitcase, throws in the pile of dirty clothes, and swipes his room key card across the scanner window to turn on the compactor. The clothes are squeezed into the dialed-in dimensions and delivered to the traveler, shrink-wrapped in plastic. A modest charge is added to the room bill. Note that the plastic wrap also confines any perspiration odors.

The Improved Ski Glove:

There are two fundamental shortcomings in the design of currently made ski gloves and mittens. First, they are bulky; so, after putting one on, it is very difficult then to pull the second one on. The other, and more serious, shortcoming is that there now is no sensible way of wiping one's nose. The makeup of the human body is such that when it is cold, the nose runs. This seems to be true for everyone. My new, improved design overcomes both flaws.

A 2-1/2-inch-long tab at the back of each glove/mitten provides an easy grip for pulling the second one on. In addition, a strip of terry cloth 1-1/2 inches wide by 5 inches in length along the top of each glove/mitten provides a convenient place for wiping that runny nose. The strips are attached by Velcro fasteners, so they can be readily removed during lunch or even changed after a long, vigorous, nose-running ski day. This feature also makes it easy for the more fastidious skier to rinse the strips at night.

The Ski Warm-up Facility:

Skiing is the only sport that has a freeze-up period rather than a warm-up before the action starts. The long ride up the mountain sitting on the chair in subfreezing temperatures with the wind howling ensures that the skier will be frozen stiff when he starts down the hill. Of course, many areas have a warm-up lodge at the top of the lift, but the skier has to pole it for a block or more, take off his skis, climb a half-dozen steps, then enter a humid area, causing his glasses and/or goggles to fog up. In addition, if a rest room pause is needed, there are more steps to negotiate in those ski boots--which ain't made for walking! It must be noted that all ski lodges have rest rooms that are above and/or below the main level.

I have invented a complete solution to this set of problems. Picture a tunnel-like enclosure, somewhat resembling a car wash, at the top of the chair lift. A rubber belt moves slowly through the enclosure. Leaving the chair lift, the skier goes down the ramp and into the enclosure, steps on the slowly moving belt, and sits on one of the chairs mounted on the belt. Then one of the handsome male or female attendants cleans the goggles and offers coffee, hot wine, and snacks. On a bitterly cold day, hot air is blown into the skier's unbuckled boots. If a rest room pause is needed, a button is pushed and the skier is switched to a side track (ladies to the left; men to the right) that takes him/her into the appropriate room equipped with facilities that do not require removal of the skis. When that operation is finished, the skier merely steps back onto the side belt, which shortly joins the main belt. The skier then exits the tunnel warmed and rarin' to bomb that mogul course. The tonier areas--Vale, Deer Valley, Chamonix--would also offer massages and provide TV screens giving a few skiing tips, the latest news headlines, and weather reports.

The Golf Shoe Breakthrough:

A round of golf is really a pleasant way to waste a few hours. Like skiing, with its venue of mountains and snow, the golf course with its vast expanses of green grass, woods, and water just has to provide attractive surroundings. Furthermore, one doesn't need any talent to enjoy the game. As professional golfer Jimmy Demaret once noted: "Golf and sex are the only things you can enjoy without being any good at them." However, except as practiced by the professionals and a few top amateurs, golf is a very sedentary sport. Players ride around in carts that also carry their golf bags. The last remaining vestige of exercise--pacing the distance from one's ball to the nearest marker--has been eliminated by equipping the carts with GPS satellite navigation systems, which tell the players at all times the distance to the green.

Many a foursome has been accurately labeled "the belly brigade," and many a golfer hasn't seen his feet in years. One of the many golf stories (the number of golf stories is exceeded only by those about lawyers) concerns a portly golfer having his annual physical exam. The doctor, having just finished examining his patient's private area, notices his very large girth and says, "Looks like we're going to have to diet." "Dye it?" the upset golfer screams, "My God, what color is it now?"

Recognizing the severity of this problem, I have invented the step-in golf shoe. The shoe is hinged so that the golfer simply inserts the front part of the foot and puts the heel down, causing a catch to lock the shoe in the normal position. The shoe, like a ski boot, also has adjustments to make the instep fit perfectly. Fitting of the shoes can be done at the pro shop, so the golfer ends up with a pair of fine-fitting shoes that he can get into and out of without ever needing to see his feet. A tap with the putter on a small button at the back of the shoe releases the spring, allowing the golfer then to step out of the shoe. The tension of the spring is normally set to open with a tap appropriate for a 20-foot putt on a green with a stimpmeter reading of 10. In a tight match, a skillful player can use this feature to calibrate his putting stroke.

My Greatest Invention:

I've saved the best for last. This invention is guaranteed to take 10 strokes off the average hacker's score. First, a little background. Most golfers, just before hitting the ball, look up to see where the ball is, they hope, going to go. This looking up almost always destroys the swing by causing the shoulders to turn prematurely and the club face to open, resulting in the ball squirting off to the side and, usually, landing in the woods, a pond, or a sand trap. Pointing out the importance of a "steady head" doesn't work, because the brains of most hackers are hard-wired to look up! Keeping the head still for just a little extra time eliminates this problem and will result in a dramatic improvement in the golfer's score.

My invention, which admittedly will require some research by the pharmaceutical industry, is a pill that introduces a 0.3-second time delay between the moment one's brain tells him or her to look up and when the relevant muscles respond to that command. So, before starting a round, the golfer takes one of these pills, and voilà , a much lower score!

Furthermore, there is an additional advantage. When a golfer mis-hits a shot such that it's headed in the direction of other golfers, he yells "Fore!" The natural tendency for one within earshot is to turn in the direction of the shouter--the worst possible reaction from a safety standpoint. The extra 0.3 seconds gives one time to realize this and to turn away from that direction and cup his hands around the back of his head, the recommended approach.


So, for the time being, that's it. These clever inventions are offered to all you entrepreneurs looking for the key idea needed to launch that new company and make your first billion. My advice: Go for it! All I ask in return is a bit of recognition (and a small royalty on sales). My real reward will come from the knowledge that I will have performed a portion of my broader responsibility as an engineer: serving mankind.

About the Author

IEEE Fellow Charles A. "Bert" Fowler, of C.A. Fowler Associates, has been a consultant to industry and government since 1986. His major field is electronics, with specialties in radar; command, control, and communications (C3); counter-C3; intelligence; and military systems. He has held a wide range of industrial positions, most recently as senior vice president at Mitre Corp. He was a member of the Defense Science Board (chair, 1984-1988) and the Defense Intelligence Agency's Science and Technology Advisory Board (chair, 1976-1982), and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions