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.


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