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To build a better mousetrap

"Hell, there are no rules here -- we're trying to accomplish something new." Those were the words of probably the world's greater inventor, Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, the storage battery, the cement mixer, the dictaphone, a duplicating machine, a vote recorder and over 1,100 patented inventions. He had only three months of formal schooling because he asked so many questions he irritated his schoolmaster and Edison's mother took him out of school and more or less home schooled him, encouraging his curiosity. Edison was mostly deaf during his adult years but refused to seek any corrections because he could concentrate better when he couldn't hear.

There is an invention competition going on right now. I saw something about it on the news. The inventors are given five minutes to explain and demonstrate their inventions before a panel. The best are selected and encouraged with prizes, but only about one in a hundred will eventually become a patented money-making success. But inventors aren't discouraged -- they remember the old saying, "build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."

I just heard about a guy who never ate anything when he was growing up that hadn't been frozen. So he invented this device that took frozen hot dog buns and introduced steam to them to make them feel and taste like fresh buns that had never been frozen. That seems so easy it's almost unnecessary. Inventors are always thinking (as everybody now says) "outside the box." Like the guy who invented the ear wax mirror. It's a plastic handle about the length of a pencil or phone and it has an angled dentist's mirror on each end. One end is held up to the ear and the other end is down about where the speaker of a phone would be and when a person looks down into the mirror near his chin, he is getting a reflection of whatever is in his ear, be it wax, dirt, a fly or maybe a bean. I wonder why Edison didn't think of that.

I have an idea the inside of an inventor's head looks like a pinball machine with ideas bouncing like steel balls from one side of the brain to the other making lights go on and bells ring with a score board going up, up and up and until something really wonderful is discovered or until TILT -- start all over again.

Inventors frequently combine ideas from different fields or opposing realms that ordinarily do not go together. They play and explore like curious children in a sand box. As Edison once said, "I never did a day's work in my life -- it was all fun." Many of them take an existing product and improve it to make it cheaper, more streamlined, better or faster. Only in the U.S.A. can an inventor get a patent that is an addition or improvement to a previous patent.

Need a belt? I saw a white belt with black numbers all around it at one-inch intervals. The belt was actually a leather measuring device with a little window on the belt buckle that shows the number of your waist size. They probably don't sell many of those in large sizes except the people who want them as gifts -- with a message. TILT.

Buckminster Fuller had ideas outside the box. Instead of a home shaped like a box, he invented a home the shape of an upside down bowl -- the geodesic dome.

One of my favorite inventions is a camera that seems to point straight ahead, but takes pictures from the side of the camera. That way the subject of the photo never knows he's been photographed. No more rude in-your-face photos, and no more poses. The photos are more candid, more natural, more honest.

But just because something can be made doesn't mean it should be. Look at a page picturing men's watches. Some have about four dials on the watch face. One dial may measure seconds but nobody knows what the other dials measure. If you like lots of bells and whistles, this watch may appeal to you, but you'll have to live in constant fear that somebody will ask you to explain every dial, doo-dad, knob and button on the time piece.

I believe inventors capture the unique American entrepreneurial spirit of optimism, enthusiasm, imagination, curiosity, creativity and go-getter ambition. Salute an inventor. Better yet, hug one. We can create anything in America. Trouble is, we've been shipping our good ideas over to China to have somebody else put them together for us.