Tinkerer's paradise

Tinkerer's paradise: By Sara Kelly. At a Pittsburgh invention fair, innovation is alive and well -- and riding motorized suitcases.


Sara Kelly
May 20, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

It took an inventive mind to find the entrance to Monroeville's ExpoMart, a brown metal bunker floating disconsolately in a sea of empty parking spaces just outside Pittsburgh. Perched alongside a twin brown box housing the ITT Technical Institute, this is the Rust Belt's answer to Silicon Valley.

Fortunately for the dauntless hundreds who made it to the Invention Submission Corporation's 14th annual INPEX Invention/New Product Exposition -- the "World's Largest Invention Show" -- last weekend, the building's impenetrable layout did not preclude the sense of manufactured excitement that motivates today's new infomercial-loving invention community.

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But even if a would-be INPEX attendee couldn't find the way in, ample excitement was readily available in the ExpoMart parking lot, which for these five days took on the unmistakable air of a county fair -- minus the 1,000-pound pig and throngs of threatening 4-H kids. Here, local thugs bent on demonstrating the Waterless Carwash wandered the aisles with cans of spray foam. When they weren't busy spraying and wiping, they passed the afternoon looking like a pack of menacing tailgaters.

Meanwhile, some 50 yards behind them, a South African agriculturist inspected twin towers of hay in preparation for another demonstration of Matt Moolman's Burnfree Survival Hydrogel Fire and Trauma Blanket. Lending new machismo to the milquetoast invention business, Moolman threw a blanket soaked with Australian tea tree leaf oil over his head and followed a line of baby powder between stacks of burning bales.

Those who actually made it to the exhibit hall were treated to a much more cerebral brand of invention entertainment. Here, there was a palpable anxiety, a hopeful, performance-based nervousness emanating from the exhibitors as people walked by eyeing their wares and -- so they imagined -- sizing them up for a career-saving stint on the QVC home shopping network.

This is where Indiana inventor's son Doug Boes caught my unthinking eye and purloined two minutes of my time. "You and I both know that your husband has too many tools," he said as he whipped out the Tool Buddy, wheeling it abruptly forward, unfurling its many wrench-drenched arms, displaying its versatility.

I pondered the significance of this line: was he admitting to voyeurism? Had he thought through the possibility that my husband might be, for instance, Rosie O'Donnell?

This is where some advance preparation would've come in handy.

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When attending an invention show, as I learned last weekend, you'd do well to establish a few ground rules first -- otherwise things can rapidly devolve into chaos. These rules are already familiar to the seasoned carnival-goer, but for those of us who can't recall the last time a total stranger demanded two minutes of our time while brandishing something called the "Tool Buddy," just a few quick affirmations may mean the difference between an enlightening romp and an invocation to a Javanese mob riot.

Savvy invention show attendees should shape a set of rules around their own definitions of personal space and tolerance for product televangelism. Here are mine:

1.) Do not, under any circumstances, make eye contact with exhibitors -- unless an exhibitor is flaunting large amounts of chest hair, has a limited command of English or is hawking something you can make private jokes about at his expense.

2.) Approach exhibition staff as you would approach your typical traveling carny or child star from "Diff'rent Strokes" -- which is to say with extreme caution.

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3.) Steer clear of inter-inventor conflict. Do not, as I did, allow yourself to become a pawn in the raging class struggle between the old man who sells the electric water-bottle hoist and the one who sells the home distillation system.

And whatever you do, do not ask for a ride on a motorized suitcase.

By the look on his face as things were winding down last Saturday, you'd hardly know that Belgian inventor Luc Deprez was the show's emotional favorite. With a presentation only slightly less fiery than that of safety-blanket mastermind Moolman, Deprez spent most of the show sitting unsmilingly in his booth. His silence may have had something to do with the poor performance of his "mobile traveling case" in a race against another inventor's motorized leg cast. Or it may have had something to do with his not speaking English.

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Good thing the literature, describing his invention as a "portable and mobile suitcase assuring itself the transport of the passenger," was in English. Otherwise, attendees may never have known that it is indeed possible to ride a motorized suitcase as easily "through carless streets as through busy urban traffic."

When asked for his take on the show, Deprez said two of the few English words he seemed to have memorized: "Comedy Central." Indeed, the folks from Comedy Central arrived as INPEX opened to tape a segment on Luc Deprez and his embarrassing ride-along suitcase, available with either steering wheel or voice-activated controls.

"Could you imagine," read the product description, "Saturday-morning shopping in a couple of years ... you step onto your suitcase and say 'to the supermarket,' upon which the DGPS-programmed suitcase would take you to your destination?" How could Comedy Central resist?

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INPEX rep Kelley Crowley, who works for the show's sponsoring Invention Submission Corporation, said that while the excitement generated by the riding suitcase rivaled that of the fire show, Deprez had a hard time controlling his 12-mph ride during demos. His English-speaking companion added that the product still needs work.

With any luck, Deprez will be back again next year riding his suitcase to teary-eyed victory against an amputee. Perhaps Doug Boes will return with an all-new selection of buddies for handy types of all sexual orientations and marital statuses. Maybe veteran inventor Frank Groth, the man responsible for the Chip Clip, will be back with his Drink Tag adhesive beverage labels, or just to give the place a sense of seasoned distinction. And maybe dear old bottled-water hoister Kerney Sheets will make peace with distiller designer John Smith.

Sadly, though, even with minds powerful enough to conceive a voice-activated suitcase and bodies brave enough to ride one, this year's crop of INPEX inventors won't likely yield much recognition. The odds of inventing a successful product, says the Invention Submission Corporation's Crowley, are akin to winning the lottery.

Pittsburgh-based ISC is surprisingly forthcoming with the harsh realities of the invention business. Between 1994 and 1996, the company's literature states, it signed submission agreements with 4,385 clients. Of those, 37 received licensing agreements for their inventions, and just 12 made more money on their products than they paid to ISC.

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Getting a product to market, concludes the pragmatic Crowley, is "like trying to be a rock star." Except your groupies are mostly graduates of the ITT Technical Institute.


Sara Kelly

Sara Kelly is executive editor of the Philadelphia Weekly.

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