The View From Planet Kerth: A world of marvelous lights and flights — but not a Popper in sight

When I was a young boy, I decided that I wanted to be an inventor.

Don’t ask me what put that idea into my head. Maybe I saw a movie about the Wright brothers or Thomas Edison and admired how they changed the world around them.

Or maybe I just looked at all the changes that were happening around me and wanted to jump on the invention bus. After all, it was the 1950’s, and within a few short years I had watched our coal-burning furnace give way to gas, our hand-wringer washing machine give way to one with a spin cycle, and our plug-in radios give way to portable transistor units.

I’m not sure if I had ever heard the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but I somehow sensed that the best inventions were ones that fulfilled basic human needs.

And what was the most pressing need that the human race longed to have fulfilled?

The answer was obvious, even to my youthful mind. Someone had to come up with a way to split Popsicles cleanly apart.

Popsicles always came two to a package, connected by a thinner strip of frozen juice. Each side had its own stick, but any time you tried to snap them apart to share with your brother, they always broke unevenly. More often than not, one guy got a bigger Popsicle than the other guy got. Too often, one of them even shattered into pieces, and then the battle raged. Did the guy who divided the Popsicles get to choose which half he got? Or was he expected to live with the damage that he created?

My mission was clear: If the human race were to be spared the needless bloodshed of Popsicle wars, it was up to me to find a way.

Dad agreed to let me rummage through his scrap bin and use his tools and workbench, so I went down to the basement, certain that I would come back upstairs to bring the world a tasty, frosty peace once and for all.

I found a small sheet of discarded aluminum, and with Dad’s tin snips I formed it into a palm-sized square. Then, using the bench vise and a hammer, I fashioned the sheet into the world’s first Perfect Popsicle Popper — a T-shaped device with a blade to be placed in the groove between two Popsicles, and a flat top that would be struck with the palm to deliver a perfect division between the frozen treats.

Lights out, Thomas Alva! Hit the road, Wilbur and Orville! There’s a new big dog in town!

Except that it didn’t work.

The first time I tried it, I shattered both Popsicles into shards that skittered across the workbench. It was hard to eat the tasty ice chips before they melted, especially since I had to work around all those aluminum flakes they had picked up along the way.

I tweaked the design of my Perfect Popsicle Popper, but with each trial I was left with some sorely abused frozen treats to be chased down and devoured.

Many tortured Popsicles later, I finally gave up and tossed my invention back into the scrap bin, convinced that the only reason that Edison or the Wright brothers had bested me was that they didn’t have to deal with a tummy ache as they invented.

I abandoned my dream of becoming an inventor, and I grew up to be a teacher.

Years later, as my wife and I moved into our first home — a small townhouse — I met our new neighbor and asked him what he did for a living. He told me that he worked for a manufacturing company. I asked him what he did for the company, and he said, “Well, I’m an inventor.”

My ears perked up.

He explained that he had begun years earlier as an operator on a machine that required several steps to perform: clamp, drill, unclamp, rotate, clamp, drill, unclamp. Something like that.

After a few months on the job, he figured out a way to eliminate a few steps. If the object being worked on could be clamped to a rotating base, you could clamp, drill, rotate, drill and unclamp. Five steps instead of seven. Faster. And safer too.

And to a manufacturing company, faster and safer mean money and more money.

After a few more clever innovations, the company called him into the office and told him that his new job was to stroll around the building with a cup of coffee in his hand, watching other people work. He might sit by a machine for days on end, watching somebody operate it. He might ask a few questions.

And then he would invent a small way to make the machine — or the operator — more efficient and safer.

He explained that, after seven or eight years of doing this, his company was millions of dollars richer. With each invention, the company secured a patent and raked in profits every time any other company wanted to use the same idea.

I asked if he owned the patents, but he shook his head. Because the company was paying him a salary and providing the cup of coffee, all inventions belonged to the company.

I asked him why he didn’t strike out on his own, like Edison or the Wrights did. They weren’t company stooges, were they?

He shook his head. “Those guys were on their own,” he said. “But every day that they didn’t have an invention to sell was a day without income. Whatever they built, they provided the tools, materials and manpower. And every penny came from their pockets — or from an investor who insisted on immediate results. Besides, they knew what they wanted to invent before they started. Me, I just walk around with a cup of coffee and look for ways to make things a little bit better.”

Makes sense, I thought, and I realized for the first time that it takes all kinds of imagineers to invent the wonders of our world.

Still, even though we have found a way to light up the night, and even to fly to the moon or Mars, nobody has yet come up with the Perfect Popsicle Popper.

It rankles me that Edison, the Wrights and all those other guys solved all the easy problems and left me trying to do the impossible.

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The author splits his time between Naples and Chicago. Not every day, though. Contact him at trkerth@yahoo.com. Why wait a whole week for your next visit to Planet Kerth? Get T.R.’s new book, “Revenge of the Sardines,” available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine online book distributors. His column will appear every Friday.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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