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Better mousetrap builders

How small-time inventors - alone or in clubs - make widgets for fun (and maybe a profit).

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GIZMOS: Tom Knightlinger of Zebulon, N.C., shows off his "Popabrella," which keeps the rain off of cameras.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff

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Mothers of invention have turned up here at the Yankee Invention Exposition in the old Armory. So too have some fathers and grandfathers, and not a few offbeat uncles and aunts.

They watch for corporate product scouts, venture capitalists, anyone who'll inspect the whiz-bang widgets they have lovingly contrived. Joe and Melissa Sugameli, from Roseville, Mich., show their "Lil' Sleepy Head" restraint, meant to keep babies from slumping in car seats. Tom Knightlinger, from Zebulon, N.C., touts a tiny "Popabrella" that can keep a camera dry. Octogenarian R.P. "Lux" Wilkinson, from Ardmore, Okla., offers fraud-busting checks with photo identification imprinted in their corners.

Mr. Wilkinson is a consulting petrologist by trade. "If you need a drillin' deal," he drawls, "I've got one of those, too."

Meet today's would-be Edisons, the best of whom might land their work on store shelves and in late-night infomercials. America - culture of invention - celebrates these endearingly earnest characters. USA Network's new reality show "Made in the USA" stages inventor competitions, awarding winners with a year on the Home Shopping Network. Jay Leno sent a camera crew to Waterbury last week.

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