Soapbox

Inventor Bruce Smith hopes to hit pay dirt by hawking his machine that turns soap scraps into new bars. Today, a TV shopping network. Tomorrow, maybe he'll really clean up.

July 20, 1999|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The inventor wakes before daylight. He has loaded cardboard boxes into his Buick Regal and the car smells like soap. Alone, he leaves his split-level house and at the end of his driveway turns left, toward the chance to sell his dream.

The idea came to him 10 years ago, when he worked in a factory. He was a supervisor at a liquor company, and he felt trapped. Everyone else in his family -- his mother, his father, his twin brother -- had the security of a second income. What he had was 18 years in manufacturing and a couple of dreams that didn't work out.

Until one restless night when he awoke with three words floating in his head: "soap, mashing, machine." Sure, it was a silly idea -- a device to turn scraps of soap into a new bar -- but the world is full of silly ideas. Maybe there's room for one more.

He holds that hope as he drives to Annapolis, where a television crew set up stage yesterday on the City Dock. The 45-year-old inventor knows his dream boils down to 10 fleeting minutes on a TV shopping channel. He knows that 70 million households might be watching. He knows he's next.

This is the eighth time Bruce K. Smith has appeared on the QVC television shopping network and though he has done well -- even sold out a few times -- he isn't exactly rich. He gave up his job in 1996, and for three years lived off Soap Busters and his wife's salary until he went back to work as a bus driver.

Today could change that. Maybe someone out there will be a buyer for Wal-Mart or Target or Sears ...

And to think, the inspiration came playing football at Bowie State University and paying his tuition working at Roy Rogers, taking so many showers he saved even the smallest soaps.

He didn't tell anyone at first, not even his wife, Shirley. He taped his first demonstration in his brother's basement. There he is, sounding like Mr. T: "When you're soap is too small/ And you can't use it all/ Who you gonna call?/ Soap Buster!"

To craft shows and hotel lobbies he lugged his prototypes, and his wife could tell when it didn't go well. His mother said, "When people see things the first time they ooh and they aah and you don't know whether they accept it or not, like the steamboat or the airplane ... everybody laughed at them. People laugh at things that are brand new."

But CBS called in 1992 and featured Soap Busters alongside a collapsible tricycle and a glow-in-the-dark-toilet on the show "Wish I Had Thought of That." People called after that, and one stranger, Tim from Rochester, told Bruce he'd find a manufacturer for his invention. Three years later, Tim from Rochester called back.

A Massachusetts manufacturer made the first Soap Busters in 1996, and a year later, the inventor was on the QVC, so nervous that the host did all the yammering: "Look at these colors, folks," and, "This is a one-of-a-kind," and suddenly, "Sold Out!"

Bruce hopes it happens again.

He has five minutes left when Bea calls from Pennsylvania saying her $15 Soap Buster "is a blessing" and that she makes fragrant soap with her favorite perfume. Then Donna calls from North Carolina. The inventor beams and the clock ticks and just like that it's over. Bruce is off-camera and the woman who invented a two-sided puzzle game is on.

Now he's packing, clearing the table for the man who invented an automatic ice cream maker. The man who invented the soap-saving device is going home to Spencerville, Md. He has to work, so he'll call later to see how many he sold.

He leaves hoping QVC will call him back.

Inventions are accidents, he believes. You see a problem, you fix it. He has a few more himself, though he won't say what they are. Surely, there's room for one more idea in the world.

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