American Inventor

Your suspicion is correct, there is a contestant named Elmer.  The winning inventor with the best new idea, as determined by a four-person panel, gets a million dollars and national fame on this ABC show.  The jury includes George Foreman, who says yes to almost everything, and a sour but articulate British gentleman, who says no to virtually everything.  One of the panel members praises the development of an inflatable neck brace to prevent people from "drownding."

Watch on-line episodes here.  Wikipedia is here.

The ideas included a foot pedal to lift the lid on toilets at night, a funnel for toilet use, a bra with no strap in the back (isn’t that old?), a hands-free flashlight which attaches at the neck and projects upright and forward, a way to rub down the back of your spouse using the TV remote, a computer program which matches strangers in a bar according to their pre-programmed interests (didn’t I blog that once?), a jacket which helps deaf people feel the vibrations from music, and a foam cushion which holds up the heads of small babies.

The winners of this episode came from MIT and Harvard Business School.  Two nerdy guys produced and demonstrated a way of storing bikes vertically in a garage; I wasn’t impressed.

The main lessons are twofold.  First, many people pour years of their lives and love into projects which are absurd on the face of it and could be revealed as such within seconds. 

Second, when it comes to the (possibly) good inventions, it is very very difficult to tell what is a good idea and what isn’t.  Without sector-specific knowledge, how do you know if that no-strap-in-the-back bra is a novelty?  It sounded good and indeed it looked good but I just don’t have the experience (or the attentiveness?) to say.

The real world doesn’t judge inventions with a panel of four quasi-celebrities (sadly Charles Nelson Reilly is now dead) and most valuable novelties are process innovations, produced while someone is working full-time doing something pretty similar.

In my evil, wicked fantasy world I imagine economics graduate students presenting their new Ph.d. dissertation ideas to a jury of four: Paul Lynde, Fred Thompson, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith.

I thank several loyal MR readers for the pointer.


I watched a couple episodes--definitely painful on a level that surpasses even Last Comic Standing. On the one hand, I know graduate students that patent amazing new technologies, drop out or quit their postdoc, and join companies to bring them to market.

But this isn't what they're looking for. They want garage developed solutions to quirks of mechanics, your next As Seen On TV product. This is something all Americans can aspire to and appreciate. The show has been tailored for market, not utility. How appropriate.

Can the audience vote like in American Idol? Idol would have been (even more) lame if
the judges decided everything.

Great post, Tyler.

Question for Mike:

Was Charles Nelson Reilly ever on Hollywood Squares? I could google it but I'm feeling lazy. I remember him most on Match Game with host Gene Rayburn. Back when the likes of Minnie Pearl, Nipsy Russell, Betty White, and one or both of the Gabor Sisters would join the panel. Those were the game show days!

Paul Lynde was the undisputed center square though. Who was that guy who always threw confetti/glitter? The guy with the Colonel Mustard moustache...?

Back on tangent:

I did watch a few episodes of this show, and my observations are:

a) there were too many kids making for teary, awkward moments; next season - if there is a next season - they need to institute age limits, or have a spin-off show for the younger set where expectations (and prize money) are lowered

b) whoever did the screening did a terrible job because, as Tyler pointed out, a significant portion of the pitched inventions were already in existence (at least on the few shows I watched) or stood very little chance of being approved

c) the real lesson to be learned from this show is "do some market research before pouring years of work into a project." By market research, I mean: ask some friends whose opinions you trust, friends who won't just 'yes' you. If a friend came to me with any of these 'inventions' and asked my thoughts, I would give honest feedback. Or, ask friends of friends.

Remember that this show is specifically about making fun of inventors and inventions, and not necessarily about finding good ones. It's obvious that some inventions are "heroes" and some are "heels".

"many people pour years of their lives and love into projects which are absurd on the face of it and could be revealed as such within seconds."

Yes, but without those people we'd not have such things as the "beer belly" or the "Stadium buddy", and then where would we be?

I'd buy the bike claw, given the right price point (say $15 on top of the cost of a regular bike hook). Not going to change the world, but it's a nice little gadget if you bike to work 5 days a week.

I saw that "drownding" comment on television, and was stunned. I thought - are they seriously being judged by a person who says the word "drownding?" Complete disbelief.

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