It was excruciating. The laser equipment was in place, the audience was primed and expectant, and the violinist lurked just off-stage, waiting for her cue. As a machine-generated haze spread through the auditorium, I signalled to the man in the control booth to turn off the lights, then settled back in my chair and prepared to experience a spectacular opening to the third annual Popular Mechanics Inventors Conference.

Seconds passed as if mired in treacle, and the lights stayed on. The laser guy looked at me quizzically. This wasn’t good. I signalled frantically to a figure in the dimly lit booth at the back of the auditorium: Lights off!

Nothing happened. One of my colleagues scrambled to his feet and slipped into the booth; I noticed a fair amount of gesticulating. Seconds later, some lights went off and others came on. By now I was beginning to perspire, and decided to appeal to the audience: Had anyone brought a catapult? Perhaps we could shoot out the lights.

To cut a long and painful story short – and believe me, five minutes is akin to a lifetime when 120 people are staring at you and waiting for something to happen – we eventually determined that it was impossible to turn off all the lights at once (don’t ask) and reluctantly proceeded with the laser show in a partly-lit auditorium. It was excellent, by the way, and our sincere thanks go to the friendly and highly professional team from LaserX, not to mention a lithe and talented violinist named Kristel.

There was more. Our flight had been delayed by several hours, so we arrived at the venue late and hungry. This meant we were unable to conduct a “dry run” – an essential step in the run-up to a conference, especially if some of the presentations are delivered minutes before kick-off in the form of unlabelled DVDs and anonymous flash drives. Oh, and did I mention that PC-generated presentations sometimes don’t talk to Macs, or that seemingly perfect videos may develop severe attitude problems when transported to other cities?

In the end, however, none of this really mattered. Our presenters performed magnificently, delivering a heady mix of practical advice and inspirational stories of inventiveness and entrepreneurial derring-do. A remarkably versatile entertainer named Peter Greenwall provided light relief when we needed it most, and during our “punctuation moments”, delegates interacted with a bunch of interesting exhibits, including a turbine-powered car (built by a team from the University of Johannesburg) and rapid prototyping machines (courtesy of the Vaal University of Technology).

Later, after a deliciously languid 10-minute break to shower and change, we assembled in an adjoining room for a black-tie awards function marking the finale of the inaugural Popular Mechanics Inventors Competition. Having named Dr George Vicatos (bottom left) as Inventor of the Year for 2011, I presented him with a floating trophy, announced that he would be receiving R50 000 in prize money, and mentioned that I couldn’t imagine a more worthy winner.

When I sat down, one of my colleagues leaned across and commented: “For a moment there, you sounded quite emotional.” I thought about it. He was probably right, but it was okay.

- Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)