Few inventions have much impact outside the scope of their immediate purpose, but some are game-changers.
I would like to tell you about one.
The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 4 million babies each year die within a month of their birth; it is reckoned that about 1.8 million of these would survive if they could spend a week in an incubator.
We begin with the invention in the late 1870s of the natal incubator by a Parisian obstetrician, Stephane Tarnier.
He spends a day off at the Paris Zoo and happens to observe chicken hatchlings stumbling about in a warm, hot water bottle-heated compartment.
The doctor has a flash of serendipity and hires the zoo’s poultry raiser, Odile Martine, to build one that would accommodate a newborn. As soon as it is built the doctor institutes a study of 500 babies having low birthweight.
Previous statistics had 66 percent of these babies dying within weeks of birth; incubated babies suffered
only a 38 percent mortality.
We can easily conclude that natal incubators are a wonderful thing and most modern hospitals in rich countries have many of these $30,000 to $40,000 units and the wherewithal to maintain them. But what of the less fortunate countries with hospitals lucky to have even four hours of electricity per day?
Often such hospitals have a junkyard full of discarded incubators provided by well-meaning people, organizations and nations. Electrical considerations aside, there is no way these medical providers can afford the replacement parts or technical expertise to maintain these sophisticated pieces of machinery.
Enter Dr. Jonathan Rosen of the Boston University School of Management. Dr. Rosen was well traveled and had observed this dilemma in many places; he was determined to solve it.
His first observation was that almost anywhere he visited there was likely to be an operating Toyota 4Runner present. He concluded that usually - somewhere not too far away - was a fairly competent auto mechanic.
Working with an organization aptly named Design That Matters, he developed an incubator based on automotive parts: headlamps for heat, dashboard fans and auto filters for purification, turn signals and door alarms to signal emergencies, hatchback latches and gas springs operate the incubator lid and auto and motorcycle batteries to provide auxiliary power.
You might not be able to find an incubator filter in Nepal, but it’s a good bet there is someone who can replace a car’s air filter.
Dr. Rosen said the greatest design challenge was resisting standardization: if it has to be a 4Runner headlight, the value of the incubator goes out the window.
It is said that coffee, Coke and cigarettes can be found anywhere in the world; time to add a fourth "c" — car parts.
The writer is president emeritus of the Tampa Bay Inventors Council and a member of the Naples Creative Writers Forum. He was a CPA in Illinois and has business degrees from the University of Chicago and Notre Dame. He also was a Marine infantry officer.