Peek at the patently absurd


Inventions: A Web gallery provides a glimpse into a few of the odder contraptions some latter-day Edisons are cooking up.

March 18, 2002|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,SUN STAFF

If necessity is the mother of invention, who is the mother of necessity?

Tom Griffin may wonder about that.

It's not that he likes to concern himself with imponderables. It's just that he sees a lot of spectacularly odd inventions in the course of his work - inventions such as the "gravity-powered shoe air conditioner" and the "flushable vehicle spittoon."

He didn't make these up. Patents exist, and Griffin shares them with the public in the Web-based Gallery of Obscure Patents.

The gallery can be found at It is run by a firm that deals in managing intellectual property and is a former branch of IBM.

Patent research is part of Delphion's work, according to spokesman Rich Dobinski, at the company headquarters in Lisle, Ill., just west of Chicago. Going through all the patents led some employees to think it might be entertaining, and a good draw for the company, to offer on the Web a collection of some of the strangest proposals they saw.

"The gallery seemed like a good way to interest people in inventions," Dobinski says.

Each entry presents a picture of the invention, a brief summary and a link to more patent information. Only about three or four patents are featured in the gallery at a time, but a click away is an archive showing all the inventions that have been posted on the site.

Now on display are: "Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion," "luminescent playing cards" and "Braille slot machine."

A Braille slot machine might seem to some an idea long overdue, but Dobinski says the "anti-gravity illusion" is one of his favorite entries. He points out that one of the patent holders is a Michael J. Jackson of Los Angeles. The Michael Jackson? Dobinski wonders. There is a strong show-biz aspect to the device, as explained in the small print.

Another of Dobinski's favorites is the "human slingshot machine" - "The ride is similar to a bungee jump, except that two separate bungee cords are used, and the jumper (rider) starts on the ground," the patent explains. "The ride keeps most of the thrilling sensations of bungee jumping, but reduces or eliminates many of the dangers, including hitting the ground, swinging into a tower, and getting tangled in the cords."

This is not just theory. After the slingshot machine was featured on the Web site, Tom Griffin was driving through Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and saw one in operation at an amusement park. The park there also made use of another gallery offering, the "levitationarium for air flotation of humans."

The world soon may be beating an interstate to Pigeon Forge's doors.

Griffin, who works for Delphion at its San Jose, Calif., office, has his favorites, too. One is the "greenhouse helmet - worn completely over the head of a person so that the person can breathe in the oxygen given off by the plants."

The plants are inside the helmet on little shelves alongside the wearer's head. Griffin points out that the plants in the patent picture are cactuses.

Some of the patents seem quite practical, like the "transparent color-coding of intravenous tubing and intravenous fluid reservoir." Others make one wonder: "Method of hydrometeor dissipation" - that is, a way to make clouds go away - and the "hyper-light-speed antenna ... [for] sending the signal at a speed faster than light."

Visitors to the site are encouraged to drop off tips on strange patents they may have run across. Every few months Griffin heads a group that looks through the contenders and picks a few for future display. The criteria, Griffin says, are something of interest to the average person, a good graphic and a grabbing title.

For the more historically minded, there is a sister Web site, the Gallery of Historical Patents, containing such entries as the first lawn mower (1868), safety pin (1849), dish-washing machine (1886) and Edison's phonograph (1878).

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