Last night on American Inventor, the third episode of the season that you can now watch entirely online, the theme was money. We started with Carlo from Rome who claimed to have put $10,000 into his copper hats, masks, glasses, and who knows what else. Can someone please explain to me where the cash went? He said it eliminates mental sickness, although the copper didn't seem to prevent him from having crazy ideas. His was just one in a parade of offerings that I am shocked made it onto camera. The definition of "invention" seems to be very loose and flexible, even in the minds of the judges. Carlo did share a bit of wisdom after his rejection, however, when he said, "If the United States can't produce it, maybe China."
The next contestant, swim coach James Davis, put $25,000 into his aboveground swim trainer to help people learn how to swim without getting into the water. This contraption certainly looked expensive to produce. Contrary to the panel's opinion, I think it could be appealing to a lot of people. Your form is difficult to monitor underwater. Also, some people won't get into the water in the first place because they can't swim. From my personal beach and poolside experience, I've met plenty of ladies who refuse to get their hair wet but would use a machine like this at the gym. With more capital, Davis could develop his prototype into the next stationary elliptical. My frustration with the judges' limited vision continues.
If it weren't bad enough that they immediately dismiss inventions with potential beyond the inventors' conceptions, the absolute worst is when they collapse into juvenile laughing fits. Poor David Lee with his helmet and shoulder pad set. He spent $2,000 (and again I am bewildered at what could cost that much when all it consisted of was cardboard tubes and packing foam). This is an instance where I agree with the judges' decision but am horrified at their delivery. I have to remind myself that most of their antics are for the benefit of ratings.
The climax of the show was when Wesley Caudill, a 39-year-old welder who built a racetrack with a pedal attachment that simulates drag racing, revealed that he'd poured $300,000 of his and his brothers' funds into his project. The look of desperation in his eyes was truly heartbreaking, but probably more so because the home audience knows what other inventions he's up against and how unlikely it is that he will advance beyond Chicago. What strikes me most is that he could spend that much for the same opportunity that Elmer, the 78 year-old retiree, got with the solo paddle ball game in which he probably invested less than $10. Elmer had his own tear-jerking moment when he responded to Spanxy's question about what it would mean to him to win. He said, "It would justify a life."
Only one of the inventions displayed last night appealed to me. It was given a sliver of airtime; if you blinked you would have missed it. Sandra Erickson showed a shower curtain liner that you could peel off instead of cleaning. Her product is completely environmentally irresponsible, unless it is biodegradable or vanishes after use, but it's as consumer-friendly as Swiffer mops and Kleenex. Did you see anything worthwhile last night? How much would you spend on your dream?
For a really innovative way to help inventors spend money, check out TechShop, a start-up featured in our July issue.