US inventors battle budget cuts, keep producing useful/exotic ideas
The people who brought you the wheel, the space program, microcomputers, pollution, and pollution-control technology are back. One hundred new inventions, all now in production and with price tags up to $ 1.5 million, are on display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry -- one visible result of the $67 billion spent on research annually in the US.
This year's inventions range from the practical -- a new can opener and new firefighting equipment, to the strategic -- a new technique for producing high-speed tool steel without imported cobalt, to the futuristic -- the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's new space-vehicle metals and a laser spectrometer for detailed chemical analysis.
Robert Jones, editor of Industrial Research & Development magazine, which has sponsored the invention award for 18 years, sees the latest inventions as proof of the continuing high level of achievement in American industry. He feels that shows such as this encourage vital research spending because "we can demonstrate that the companies which are most active in research and development are the ones which have thrived."
Over the years, along with government research agencies, the consistent winners here have been companies with generous research budgets such as General Electric, Westinghouse, RCA, Union Carbide, Dow chemical, Hewlett-Packard, and Honeywell.
But Jacob Rabinow, one of America's most prolific inventors, isn't sure US industry as a whole is getting the message. As the holder of more than 200 US patents and the chief research engineer for the National Bureau of Standards, Mr. Rabinow was named Scientist of the Year at the Chicago show -- awarded in past years to men such as space pioneer Wernher von Braun and William P. Lear, developer of the Lear jet.
For Rabinow, inventors are vital to national productivity but at the moment are being badly neglected by US industry. One result of this neglect, he reports, is that 40 percent of US patents today are being filed by foreigners. Rabinow sees US inventiveness declining because US conglomerates are so large that they lose flexibility and lose interest in developing new products.
As he praises the "beautiful simplicity" of the "Young Roll-Top Can Opener" which prevents contamination of food, Rabinow says that "inventions like all creative arts are the result of a random process, not a logical process." Therefore he believes that "companies run by bookkeepers" stifle invention.
Yet Rabinow agreed with other inventors here that even bookkeepers can't snuff out inventors, because the inventor thrives on challenge.
For Peter Gavin, a chemical engineer at the Argonnne National Laboratory in Illinois, the challenge was "our need to know what is going on inside a nuclear reactor." His answer was a high-temperature microphone which for $3,000 gives instant warning of malfunctions within a reactor's core.
George Savanick, a hydraulic mining physicist with the US Bureau of Mines, like Mr. Gavin had the full backing of the US government in his work -- and came up with a $1.5 million, fully portable "Borehole Miner." Borrowing a few ideas from oil drilling technology, this device punches a 16-inch-wide hole in the ground, drills down, and then mines uranium or other ores remotely by pumping high-pressure water down and pumping ore-rich slurry back to the surface.
The borehole mining technique eliminates sending any men underground, leaves no environmental damage from the mining, and is being used commercially in Wyoming just seven years after research began.
Don Widmayer's Controlled Environment Systems Inc. in Rockville, Md., is proof that great things also come from small firms. He admits he might not have gone ahead had he know the development cost beforehand. But he did invent a device to dim fluorescent lights to take advantage of sunlight. With over 50 percent energy savings achieved on "ECALO" systems installed so far, Mr. Widmayer says his devices could save the United States between 100 million and 200 million barrels of oil a year.
In another case, a frustrated fireman decided there should be a better way to use water to fight fires. Jim Daly and Don Bryant respondend by leaving their corporate jobs and setting up Amfire Industries in Tampa, Fla. Two years later they employ 30 workers turning out a water-driven high-speed drill which cuts a small, neat hole through concrete and steel to spray water inside buildings. The innovative technique gives quick access to fires, minimizes damage to buildings, and protects firemen form exposure to the fire.
Metallurgical engineer Walter Haswell got even quicker results from his Crucible Specialty Metals Division of Colt Industries in Syracuse, N.Y. When unrest in Africa threatened cobalt imports, within a year Mr. Haswell reported commercial production of the first cobalt-free high-speed steel used to make cutting tools for machining the highly alloyed materials used in aircraft and space vehicles.
When callenged, US industry can come up with the answers, says Colt vice-president Haswell. But he sees problems facing today's inventors because "the no-growth philosophy permeating our society is making for a climate that does not encourage ingenuity."