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Dream, Build, Fix, Fiddle, Fail and Fly

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Dan Vorhis helped design the world's largest-selling portable water filter, the Mountain Safety Research MiniWorks. Here he wears a prototype of some glacier glasses that never got off the drawing board.
Sir Walter Lindal had a problem.

It was World War II. A good Canadian boy like Lindal was expected to enlist, but he didn't want to get killed. One way around this, judging by his only uncle to survive World War I, was to become an officer.

Which begat another problem. Raised in orphanages, Lindal did not have the college education that might ease his entry into the officer ranks.

Of course, you could be a hero, he thought, but that's kind of risky.

Lindal thought some more. He noticed the Canadian Army had a problem. Its machine guns had heavy barrels, so a soldier couldn't comfortably fire one standing up. Lindal, working in the engineers corps, moved the gun's weight farther back and designed a shorter, narrower round. His gun was not only lighter and better balanced but could hold more ammunition in its magazine.

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From his A-Frame cabin design to a house with a traveling foundation, framed patents line the wall of Sir Walter Lindal's office.
Six months later, Lindal was an officer. In another six months, he was a captain, like his uncle.

"And I spent the rest of the war in research-and-development work and never got shot at," he said.

His brother fought his way up the length of Italy and was shot three times. He crossed the English Channel at D-Day and marched his way through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.

"He had a hell of a time in the war," Lindal says now at 83. "He came back in one piece. However, both of us had small strokes. He didn't recover. I did. I think he was weakened by those wounds."

Clearly, Lindal has done well by the art of invention, even if the Sir in his name is the English translation of his Icelandic given name, Skuli, and not a knighthood. After surviving the war, he went on to create the multimillion-dollar Lindal Cedar Homes business. He secured 17 patents and has six pending.

But Lindal and his fellow inventors — and there are thousands across the Northwest — must also dwell in a world of sometimes maddening extremes and contradictions.

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Francis Reynolds' exact one-tenth-scale replica of a Manitowoc crawler crane supports its inventor. Reynolds is the author of a book on the art of inventing, "Crackpot or Genius?"
The inventor is a national hero. Think: Thomas Edison. The inventor is a national nut case. Think: Rube Goldberg.

The inventor is a person of gumption, a can-doer who doesn't know the word quit. Or doesn't know when to quit.

An inventor is forever finding fault with things — yet ever the optimist ,convinced that he or she will find a better way.

Many are scientists, but their craft calls upon the intuition of art.

They live in a world of ideas, even dreams, but they ultimately produce a physical, often very practical thing.

They are paradigms of success: Post-It notes, Liquid Paper, the light bulb, the telephone and the millions of other things now so obvious and everyday and sublime that we say, "Why didn't I think of that?" Yet they work in an arena littered with failure, even ruin. Nikola Tesla, who shares credit for giving us radio and alternating current, died broke.

"In my mind, inventing for profit is about the most difficult job you can have and the most likely for failure," says Francis Reynolds, a Bellevue inventor and author of "Crackpot or Genius? A Complete Guide to the Uncommon Art of Inventing."

So even now, after a lifetime of problem-solving, all those patents and a small fortune, and after spending nearly half a century on an invention that may well do for the housing industry what Otto Frederick Rohwedder's slicing machine did for bread, even now, Sir Walter Lindal has a problem.

• • •

IT IS POSSIBLE to think of the region's inventors as part of a vast aquifer of creativity that occasionally wells up in seeps and springs and freshets. Just a few weeks ago, Susie Kim of Seattle and her cousin, Debra Kim, were among five finalists in the CBS "Early Show" "Hunt for the Not So Crazy Idea." With their fathers, the 20-something cousins Kim have developed a better box, a "multipurpose adjustable single-sheet container" (patent No. 6,279,818), that can be folded in five, 12, even 32 different ways. It saves space and packing materials.

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In the nexus of art and engineering, inspiration can come from no apparent place. That helps explain Bob Allen's Aureolator, a machine that splits Oreo cookies.
Of the top 100 metropolitan areas in the United States, Seattle-Everett-Bellevue ranks 15th in per-capita production of patents. Its patent output, fueled by biotechnology and software, doubled in the '90s.

Adam Woog's "Sexless Oysters and Self-Tipping Hats: 100 Years of Invention in the Pacific Northwest" catalogs dozens of regionally generated inventions, from major money-makers to curiosities, including the hydroplane, Sno-Seal, plywood, the Kwik-Lok bag clasp, evaporated milk, the revolving restaurant, the down jacket, the gas station, Elmer's glue and the kidney-dialysis machine.

"I'm listed in the same book as the kidney machine," says Bob Allen. "I don't know how many lives have been saved by the Aureolator."

The Aureolator, which would be spelled Oreolator if Allen wasn't worried about trademark issues, is a wooden box of bicycle gears, sluices, a motor and a kitchen knife, all aimed at automatically separating the two halves of an Oreo cookie. Like any invention, it solves a problem, or at least Allen's perceived problem that hand-separating Oreos has a 40 percent breakage rate. It is also a work of art, with an aesthetic balance of components and charming motion, a music box playing "Rockabye Baby" in slow-motion and a dark-skinned Barbie in pink high heels.

The project started when a friend of Allen's gave him a barbecue rotisserie motor in 1976. It had a square drive hole that would be easy to attach things to.

Allen's friend said, "Do you think you can use this thing?"

"I don't know where this came from," Allen said recently. "But I said, 'I think I'll make a machine that separates Oreo cookies.' "

• • •

INVENTORS ARE everywhere. Their inspiration can be found in the most inscrutable and unlikely places.

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Developing new kitchen products, Sabrena Wright is one of two designers for Progressive International Corp. She created a plastic version of the paper snow-cone cup with the straw built in, plus a stand to hold it. Turn the stand upside down and it will hold ice cream cones.
We have major engines of invention in the University of Washington, local biotech companies, medical researchers, Weyerhaeuser and Boeing. Microsoft, the most patent-happy corporation in the state, has averaged nearly a patent a day since 1996.

And then there are thousands of small companies and independent inventors, often working in anonymity, sometimes bothering to patent their idea, sometimes simply hustling to market, other times acting on whimsy.

They are pipelines of our economic lifeblood. Joanne Hayes-Rines, publisher of the Boston-based magazine Inventors' Digest, claims they are our economic lifeblood.

"Without products, you don't have an economy," she says. "That's it."

Sabrena Wright is a player in this economy, driving her Saturn coupe each day from Bellevue to the Progressive International Corporation's two-story building of glass and fake stucco in the suburban anonymity of a Kent industrial park. Workers on the bottom floor call their space Cubeville. Upstairs is Cube City.

"I live in Cube City," Wright says.

At 35, she is one of two designers fashioning new kitchen items like non-stick measuring spoons and cups, a rolling pin, a dish rack. She does not like to call herself an inventor. The term makes her think of people who tinker in their garage. And she is unlike most inventors of the past simply by being a woman. In 1957, less than 2 percent of the U.S. patents awarded American residents included the names of women. By 1998, the number had risen to 11 percent.

Yet Wright is like other inventors in that she has consciously and deliberately learned the sometime-unconscious process of invention. Yes, she was predisposed to it, studying science, embracing the challenge of story problems in her math classes, loving art, making things instead of buying them. She designed and sewed her own wedding dress.

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Through one-way glass, observers watch "Playtesters" try out a new game at the Fremont office of Forrest-Pruzan Creative.
But at Western Washington University, a professor repeatedly challenged her to think of things differently: upside down, straight instead of curved, with or without a lid, or with a lid that could measure.

"I'll see a tool in a magazine and turn it into a pepper mill," she says. "I'll see a shape of a lamp and say, 'I wonder if that would make a cool cake stand.' I'm constantly looking at things not for the way they are."

Two years ago, she was given a design brief, a short form the company uses to start and track projects, for a plastic version of the paper snow-cone cup. It may sound like a silly notion, but the inventor of the paper snow-cone cup did become a millionaire.

Wright recalled the snow cones of her youth. They dripped. They leaked. Squeeze one too hard and the ice ball shot up. And then there was that last bit at the bottom that had her tilting her head full back.

"Or by that time the whole thing is so disgusting you just throw it away."

But a better snow-cone cup did not come quickly to mind.

"I left it," she says. Which means she started thinking outside the cubicle, during her commute, around kitchenware stores.

Then one night she was strolling along the baking-goods aisle of the Eastgate Albertson's. On an end display, sitting on a clip strip, was a combination cereal bowl and straw. It was a Eureka! moment. Her snow cone would have a straw. Then a colleague mentioned that her daughter's snow cone was always melting at the edge. Wright decided to put a lip on her snow cone.

"And at that point it was send out the drawing and see what it was going to cost."

From design brief to computer-aided design took two weeks. Six months later, she had an ice-blue plastic snow cone in her hand. Last November, the patent office granted "snow-cone holder with integral drinking straw" a design patent, issued for a novel shape, pattern or configuration. She also designed a wire rack to hold four snow cones, inspired by the shape of a flower. Turn the rack upside down and it holds four ice cream cones.

"We just launched this in January," she says, "but we have some big orders for it."

• • •

IN THE COURSE of a year, Wright might come up with 40 to 50 designs. About 20 will go to market.

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While developing an idea, Dan Vorhis fills pages full of notes and drawings.
Sketching at times on airline napkins, Sir Walter Lindal devised an economical way to cut and reconfigure a round log into a squared plank.
A very early prototype of Vorhis' Mountain Safety Research water filter.
That in itself is a remarkable success rate. Some ideas never even reach the patent stage. Others are patented only to keep competitors at bay. Still others simply won't get legs.

Dan Vorhis saw a good measure of success at Mountain Safety Research, helping design the MSR MiniWorks water filter, the world's largest-selling portable water filter. Two years ago, he set himself up as an independent product developer on his Whidbey Island hobby farm, creating the SpecMate, a yo-yo-sized mushroom-shaped device that sticks to a windshield and holds a pair of glasses. He's had to be a jack of all trades, a machinist, a hand at injection molding and a Web site developer. He's learned about printing, prototyping and casting.

At one point he had the idea to sell SpecMates in small aquariums set on hardware store counters. He tried a few in local stores and realized people don't like countertop displays. It was not obvious to passing customers what the SpecMates were. The SpecMates gathered dust.

Now Vorhis has more than $2,000 worth of plastic aquariums sitting in his backyard. He's asked the local pet shop if it would like to have a sale on aquariums.

The experience reminds him of Thomas Edison's 1-to-100 inspiration-perspiration ratio.

"Sometimes it is very discouraging," he says. "You hear that. I've read that. But I've never felt it like I've felt with this project. There are days when you say, 'Should I quit? Maybe I should quit. Maybe I'm being a fool for staying on.' "

Over the past two centuries, the U.S. Patent Office has awarded more than 6 million patents. "There just aren't 6 million successes," says Henry Petroski, author of "The Evolution of Useful Things."

Part of the problem is not all problems have such an urgent need to be solved. Vorhis knows all too well what it is like to sit on the glasses he left on a car seat, but not everyone has done that. Some solutions create even more problems. The paper clip, a paradigm of simple and inexpensive design, still fails often.

"I don't think anything works all the time," Petroski says.

And no matter how good the idea, it must still be executed and sold.

"It's one thing to get a patent," says Alan Pruzan of the Fremont-based Forrest-Pruzan Creative. "It's another thing to figure out how to leverage it."

Pruzan and his fellow principal Andy Forrest breathe some of the inventing world's more rarified air. Clients like Disney and Cranium come to them with pre-formed problems. They then come up with solutions they don't even have to build, let alone market.

Forrest-Pruzan devised Cranium's Cosmo when the company asked for what came to be called a "desktop distraction," a whatch-ya-ma-callit that would give a cubicle worker a chance to push back from the desk and get in and out of a tactile, fun, four-minute experience that left him or her feeling "lightened and enlightened." Research involved an after-hours anthropological analysis of how workers used some 300 cubicles in an unnamed downtown insurance firm. They brainstormed ideas like a bubble gum machine/calendar that delivered a puzzle a day over the Web. The right answer yielded a piece of brain-shaped candy. A mouse coliseum would have a player navigate a maze with his or her Web mouse.

At last they developed Concept No. 17 — Oracle Caddy, with a Post-It note dispenser for game directions, an oracle wheel that the player spins to get a fortune, a pencil holder and a calculator. They put it in an ugly Plexiglas container, added letter cubes for word games and tested it all on more than 100 people over several weeks.

When they finally settled on the product that is now Cosmo, with 15 activities that range from trivia questions to quick diversions like type with your nose, they were for the most part done. It was up to other people to develop a Z-fold that would dispense the Post-It-style game directions like tissues and a container that would hold clay and keep it moist.

"All we have to do is think of the light bulb, think of the phonograph," says Forrest. "Fortunately, we've positioned ourselves in the market so that we make other people figure how to do that."

• • •

AMERICA IS a great country for invention. It is itself an invention, notes Hayes-Rines. Democracy and capitalism, the twin pillars of American society, aim to foster the robust competition of great ideas, yet the best idea does not always win out in the marketplace.

"The odds are horrible," says Reynolds, the Bellevue inventor and author. "An inventor needs to recognize those odds, and the sooner he can identify what he's working on as a loser, the sooner he can quit wasting time on it and get on to another one that may be a winner. And he needs to understand that most of the things he's going to tackle are going to be losers. The average beginning inventor will never recognize that. Every new idea he gets is going to change the world."

Reynolds, 82, has patents for a clip that holds sheet music on a stand, a hydrocopter and a self-injecting dentist's syringe. While working at Boeing, he helped develop a piece of missile-guidance hardware based on a radio-control mechanism he used on a model of the fireboat Alki.

The fireboat took 6,000 hours to build. His one-tenth-scale model of the Manitowoc 3900 crawler crane took 7,000 hours and is so detailed the operator's head turns with the crane.

And he also has an idea that will change the world. It's dual-mode transportation, which would let automobiles both be driven at normal speeds and be transported on automatic guideways at up to 200 miles an hour. One dual-mode guideway could replace dozens of freeway lanes.

He first started working on the concept in 1980. He figures it probably won't be adapted for another 50 years.

And this might be the final tragedy of the inventor's life: Some ideas simply have to wait for their time to arrive, and social change does not tailor itself to an inventor's years.

Which brings us back to Sir Walter Lindal and his problem of problems.

In 1954, Lindal started working on a waterproof plank that could be used as a roof, avoiding the need for shingles. Over the years, he figured out that only the heart or center of a log would stay waterproof, but that he might use the smaller logs ordinarily overlooked by the timber industry. Sketching at times on airline napkins, he figured out a way to cut a log in vertical jigsaw pieces, using 92 percent of the wood instead of the more typical yield of less than 50 percent.

"I call it squaring the circle," Lindal says. "That's supposed to be impossible."

The jigged pieces can be rejoined to form planks for both roofs and walls. Now, where homes rely on wood cut from large timber, they could be built using only small logs. Forests would not need to be cut; wood could come entirely from plantations of fast-growing poplar hybrids. Housing developments could be built near the plantations, cutting transportation costs.

But here's Lindal's problem: He can't sell the house idea, not even the idea of a plank roof, to his sons, who now run his cedar-home business. Make no mistake: His boys love and respect him. The lobby of their business off I-5 features a bronze bust the boys and their sister gave him for his 80th birthday. But they don't want their customers to be guinea pigs for another of his inventions.

"It's flattering," Lindal says. "They say, 'You're ahead of your time, Dad. Wait another 15 years and you'll be famous."

Eric Sorensen is The Seattle Times science reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer. Seattle Times database specialist Justin Mayo contributed to this story.

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