Brothers and Sisters of Invention

Marla Cowden has a secret. But don’t bother trying try to pry it out of her.

Like any inventor, she can be as mute as a sphinx. Ask her nicely what she’s been tinkering with lately, and she will probably smile and change the subject.

Translation: “That’s for me to know and for you to find out.”

With a little more prodding she might deign to give the vaguest of answers: “A very simple and unique product to help people organize their stuff.” And then she’ll change the subject.

“That’s one of the big lessons I’ve had to learn,” says Marla, who leads a double life as a full-time housewife from Westport and a part-time Thomas Edison wannabe. “Never go public with your idea until it’s ready — or you might be reading about it in someone else’s patent application.”

Marla is one of twenty or so members of the Inventors Association of Connecticut (IACT), which was founded in 1982 and bills itself as one of the oldest most successful organizations of its kind in the country. According to unofficial group lore, one of Edison’s grandsons was a former president.

Public meetings are held bimonthly, usually in the Fairfield Public Library. On alternating months, a committee meets in closed-door session to critique a single idea. Everyone involved takes an oath of secrecy.

“Think of us as a support group for geeks,” says association president Bob Distinti, an electrical engineer from Fairfield. “Apart from the technical and marketing advice, I think the big thing we get from each other is inspiration.”

There is no rigorous entrance examination. “Just pay your dues and promise to attend meetings when you can,” says Don Ellingham. Naturally, the group has its share of professional engineers, but sprinkled among the regulars are lawyers, college professors, chiropractors, plumbers and just about anyone else who’s ever dreamed of discovering the next big thing.

That thing could be anything, really, from a space-age sump pump to a new board game to a super high-tech switch for converting audio signals into digital code. Occasionally, a member will propose something that’s, well, too strange for even the most open-minded of the bunch.

Distinti recalls one guy, for example, who came to a meeting all excited about a computerized car seat mat he’d invented with built-in weight-detecting sensors. When someone sat down on the mat, a speaker connected to it would pronounce the results in a loud robotic voice to anyone within earshot. “If I remember correctly, the idea was that a fat person would be shamed into going on a diet if everyone in the car knew how much he weighed, or that he’d be inspired to keep cutting back on calories if the diet appeared to be working” says Distinti. “Either way, it seemed not to make much sense.”

Distinti’s inventions are much more practical and infinitely more complicated. With nine patents to his name, he is currently in negotiations with a large computer hardware manufacturer interested in buying one of his inventions. Of course, he’s not talking about it until the deal is set in stone.

Get Distinti talking about the role inventors play in shaping the future, however, and he might not stop. In his view, all inventors contribute to society by simply daring to dream big. “Inventors are people who push the envelope,” he declares. “Without people who take those kinds of risks, we all stand still. And who wants to stand still?”

Among Distinti’s predictions for the future: Machines tethered to personal computers that will cut precision parts out of metal or plastic as easily as a laser printer spits out documents. “We’re about to enter the era of personalized manufacturing,” he gushes. “A craftsperson with an idea for a new birdbath will design it on her computer, press a button, the machine will start whirring away, and in an hour, voilà — the thing pops out of the box like a piece of toast!”

If this all sounds a little too much like something from a Star Trek episode, it is hardly the most way out of Distinti’s ideas. His newest brainchild, a novel reconsideration of conventional physics he calls the “New Electromagnetism,” could, he predicts, lead to the development of interstellar spacecraft capable of traveling faster than the speed of light. Einstein’s theory of relativity says that’s not possible. But who says guys like Einstein, Gauss and Faraday should have the all-time lock on the laws of electromagnetism?

“It sounds pretty weird, I’ll admit, but basically it works by making a kind of bubble around time, putting the space traveler inside of it, and then moving that bubble through space,” he says, ready for his own leap into hyperspace.

It’s just that kind of talk that gets Don Ellingham’s heart beating a little faster. An engineer from Fairfield, he’s been a member of the inventors association since 1997. While others are quick to dismiss such talk as utter nonsense, he is more than happy to allow his mind to venture where few others have dared travel.

“If those of us in the group have one thing in common, it’s that we all like to solve puzzles,” Ellingham says. “As a kid I was always taking something apart, trying to figure out what makes it work. I think all inventors share that childhood sense of wonder. I leave every meeting feeling energized.”

Ellingham is not one who dreams of getting rich quick, of inventing the next Veg-o-matic, or Pocket Fisherman, or Topsytail, the ponytail-making gizmo that cost all of seven cents to manufacture and, thanks to a highly-successful “infomercial,” made millions for its creator.

He knows the odds of such success are long, indeed. He’s reminded of that every time he trips over the cardboard box in his basement that contains the remnants of the medical imaging device he hoped would revolutionize the way doctors probe the human body for disease. Ellingham sunk thousands of dollars into the device, before giving up after realizing he might well go broke before getting through all the testing required to bring the machine to market.

“I still think it’s a good idea,” he says, “but that experience taught me a valuable lesson: Never get too attached to an idea, however good it looks on paper.”

Marla Cowden, who joined the group a little more than a year ago, admits that’s a lesson she had to learn the hard way. A couple years ago, she had what she thought was a winning idea for her first invention — adhesive wall stencils for do-it-yourself home decorators. She drew up the designs and began preparing the materials for a patent application, only to discover well into the process that someone else had independently hatched the same idea. “If I had done better research beforehand I would have known that,” says Marla. “But it was a valuable experience just the same because it inspired me to keep going.”

The club’s central achievement is that it allows someone as inventive as Marla to meet up with people who possess all sorts of invaluable skills.

“There are many stages to getting an invention off the ground,” Ellingham says. “You think you’ve got the greatest invention since sliced bread and then you go blind reading the patent application.” Then there is the expensive, bewildering process of building the prototype.

Ellingham says proudly that Marla’s fellow inventors at the club were able to recommend some off-the-shelf extrusions that would suit her invention perfectly. “The stuff came from another field entirely. But somebody knew it would fit her project, and that saved her some time and money.”

And do not think that Marla and her brainiac cohorts are just having fun. John Ruhnke, a plumbing and heating contractor in Norwalk, will caution you sternly not to treat his fellow creators in the manner of Jay Leno, who will visit the national invention expos and mock the weirdest creations. “I love inventing!” he says. “Nothing is more thrilling. And the best part of inventing is developing the process. That’s actually what I do all the time when I figure out how best to heat someone’s house.” He has a patent pending on some software he’s developed that figures out the overall efficiency of a heating system. And on his company’s website he proudly displays Patent No. 6,129,523 for something called an “Air Purging Circulator.”

It might not sound all that romantic, unless your life is committed to invention. For that person, a patent is an object of bliss. As for the consumers who one day might enjoy the fruits of said invention, they will likely never know the sweat and the thrills that went into its creation.    

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