Southwick Research

An Autobiographical Collection of Observations and Investigations

by J. Wanless Southwick, Ph.D.

 

 

 

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"Inventions"

 My experience with inventing may help would-be inventors. I'll share some of my original ideas here and let you decide why market success for my "inventions" always eluded me. To see nine brief articles on the invention process, which I edited for the Inventors' Journal, click here.

Make water flow up hill: When I was a teenager I kept a file folder marked "inventions." One novel innovation caused me to bet my Logan Senior High School (Utah) physics teacher, Mr. Harry Kemp, that I could make water flow up hill. He good naturedly accepted the bet. At the appointed demonstration time, with fellow students looking on, I showed him how to do it. Although I sort of won the bet, I never could find a practical application for my "invention," because it was more practical to accomplish the same thing with a hydraulic ram.

Anti-Gravity: Also during high school I enthralled by the idea of anti-gravity space travel. Of course, I could not reduce the idea to practice, because it was an imaginary concept not founded on any known physical process. None-the-less, I used the idea for a 1955 English class writing assignment. I could never figure out why that paper generated enough interest at my high school that I was interviewed by two strangers about the source of my ideas in the paper. As a 15 year-old youth, I worried that they thought I may have cheated by plagiarizing the story. They were a bit mysterious in the way they interrogated me. I answered all their questions, but couldn't tell if they were satisfied with my answers. I always wondered what it was all about, so I kept the story that I called "To the Moon" (PDF 0.50 MB) in my filing system. This happened two years before Russia launched Sputnik into space. The United States landed the first men on the moon on July 20, 1969. My little fictional story put the first men on the moon on September 3, 1976, which coincidentally, turned out to be the date when Viking 2 made a soft landing on Mars and began sending photos back to Earth. Real space travel used rocket power, but wouldn't anti-gravity be a great way to travel, if the laws of physics allowed it? (Think of the Absent Minded Professor [1961] and his "flubber" powered car.)

Urban Design: One idea stored in that "inventions" file folder was an urban design where streets had no stop signs or stoplights. Each block was octagonal in shape with one-way traffic going around the block. Instead of straight streets with traffic-halting intersections, the streets would gently undulate through the neighborhoods. Traffic would diverge and merge at at intersections, with vehicles always heading in the same direction. It was a whimsical idea, jotted down, toyed with, tossed in a file, and never presented for serious assessment to those who deal with problems of urban design and traffic flow.

Teaching Aids: As my children were growing up, I made "learning machines" for them. Later we called them "teaching aids." The simplest was a card holder made out of plastic, electrical contact screws, wires, a green light, and two electrical probes. I made a variety of learning cards for my kids and was impressed with the way it helped them learn. I wondered if my teaching aid could be patented and marketed. This curiosity led me to discover patent attorneys (and their fees), the voluminous documents in the U.S. Patent Office, and the difficulty in obtaining a patent.

It also led me discover the Salt Lake City, Utah based "Intermountain Society of Inventors and Designers." I learned a lot from affiliating with inventors and "wan-a-be" inventors in that society. Eventually I became president of the Society and spearheaded the publication of a monthly "Inventors' Journal," (PDF 2.09 MB) which described the activities of the Society.

During this time, I modified and improved various versions of my "teaching aids." I even demonstrated an LED (light emitting diode) version at an "Invention Convention" sponsored by the Society at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City in 1973.

The best version was developed in collaboration with a friend and neighbor, Joseph M. Kirton, who was an experienced inventor. It used conductive ink to activate a single, wireless probe, which learners used to make selections among possible answers. I assigned my rights in this invention over to his company, because at that stage of my life, I had neither the financial wherewithal nor the time needed to reduce the invention to practice and market it. We received a patent (PDF 0.69 MB) for the invention. Years later, I was pleased to see a commercial product that seemed to use the conductive ink concept for a children's learning game. Later, in my career as an educator, I watched the development of powerful, interactive, multimedia learning software that made my teaching aids look extremely primitive.

Light-Tag Game: One summer night, as I watched my children and their friends chase each other around at night, using flashlights, I thought of a game, which I called, "Plazer." It involved using light sensors to detect when a light beam hit a player and signaled that the player had been "hit." I couldn't reduce the idea to practice, but I submitted the idea to the WHAM-O corporation for their consideration. Since the submission to WHAM-O was unsolicited, I wasn't surprised that I never received a reply. I was pleased to watch the development of similar games over the years. Decades later I enjoyed watching youth play "Laser Tag" games at night.

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