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Lynn Hummel: Imagination and a pile of junk

When our grandson Sam came to visit us as a small boy he was always taking pieces of lumber and building things. First he was putting wooden steps on trees to climb them and later he was building elaborate tree platforms. When he was about 12, he rode along with me to the landfill (when I was his age we called them dump grounds, but now they’re cleaner, neater, and more orderly). We went past an area where old bikes, lawnmowers, wagons and wheelchairs were unloaded and he went bananas. He was pulling out fishing rods, wheels, parts, junk and an old battery operated scooter. I had a tough time getting him out of the place (I claimed I had to rush to an important appointment).

Thomas Edison, probably the greatest inventor of all time (light bulb, movie camera, phonographs, vote tabulator, etc. — he had 1,093 patents in the U.S. and 2,032 around the world) once said that, “to invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” When I returned from the landfill with him, Sam brought the junk home. The junk was pieces of that battery operated scooter. He worked and worked on it, but couldn’t get it up for scooting. But he had only a few days before he went back to his own home. He left the pile of junk with me, but none of his rich imagination, so though I tried, I never got it going either. I don’t doubt that Sam will be an inventor someday, but believe me, there’s no junk where he lives, so he’ll be handicapped.

Time Magazine, just published an article listing the top 25 invention of the past year. Some were wonderful, like the artificial pancreas, a device to restore partial vision to those with severe retina disease, a “bionic” suit to help paraplegics walk and robot to retrieve wounded warriors in battle zones. Then there are several inventions that require the application of physics I have no idea what they were all about. There are three game inventions. One is a virtual reality headset that enables a game player to get “inside” three-dimensional games. A second is a driverless toy car that computes what “enemy” cars will do. It will sell for only $200. The third is a pen that doodles in three dimensions, melting and cooling colored plastic to create rapid, freestanding structures. Did we need more expensive toys and games? There were two drink and food inventions, one was an alcoholic coffee, which sounds more like trouble brewing and the “cronut,” a croissant-style pastry that’s fried like a doughnut, filled with cream and topped with a glaze. Now that is a tasteful invention.

In its’ own category is a new atomic clock to measure time more precisely. Current atomic clocks are off by one second every million years based on “excited cesium atoms.” This sloppiness has been correctly by physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The new device measures “ytterblum atoms trapped in cages of light,” known as optical lattices. It’s more than 100 times as accurate as the old models and now the accuracy is off by only one second over the lifetime of the universe. What a relief we got that up to date.

What are the most important inventions of all time? One list of three is electricity, the wheel and the internet. A much longer list includes cell phones, TV remotes, disposable diapers and blow dryers. I would add at least two: the “nookie” pacifier for babies and the wheelbarrow for me.

I don’t have the mind of an inventor, but I’ve always been disappointed by an invention I could have made and so could you. It was right in front of our eyes. The first time I was in an airport, people were carrying their suitcases by the handles. Now they pull them by a much longer handle and the suitcases roll with little wheels on the bottom. How obvious was that? Why didn’t I think of that? Why didn’t you? Imagination. But we can all stay alert — there’s probably something just as simple out there just waiting for Edison’s little light bulb to turn on in one of our brains.