We’ve spent the past few weeks going through dozens of entries for the 2012 Popular Mechanics Inventors Competition, an annual challenge that never ceases to produce a fascinating mix of ideas, some of them inspired and others so far “out there” that we emerge from a judges’ meeting with wide eyes and a desperate need for a drink. (Disclaimer: I’m not advocating the consumption of alcohol as a stress-reliever… merely admitting to my own frailty.)
Despite our carefully worded entreaties to keep it fresh and original, and above all, real, we continue to receive sketches of machines that belong in comic books, descriptions of technologies that defy at least one Law of Nature, and signed non-disclosure forms for inventions that have no conceivable point. Against that, we encounter focused and very bright people who conceive, design and sometimes even build devices that deserve our admiration.
Last year’s winner of PM’s Inventor of the Year title is a case in point. Dr George Vicatos of the University of Cape Town was awarded R50 000 in cash (he shared it with his two collaborators) for his groundbreaking facial reconstruction system, a device that has already made a dramatic improvement in the quality of patients’ lives.
Why am I scorning the “out there” brigade? Actually, I’m not. Whereas their ideas may not result in patentable or marketable ideas, and generally don’t fall within our judging parameters, I love their willingness to share. In 10 years’ time, perhaps one of those ideas will become reality and the person who conceived it will emerge a multimillionaire. At that point, if he or she looks me up and says something on the lines of: “You had your chance and blew it, you utter dork”, I’ll happily agree.
With the wisdom of hindsight, we’re beginning to suspect that the word “Invention” may be a stumbling block for some of these fine people. In some cases, it could have the undesirable effect of eliminating perfectly acceptable variations on an existing theme. Would an annual “Innovation Competition” be a better idea? We’ll discuss it and get back to you…
* The results of PM’s Invent 2012 competition will be announced at the inaugural FutureTech conference in Bryanston on 25 October.