The Department of Never Mind

A collection of six inventions that prompt a single question: What the…?

A Sea Dart takes off from San Diego Bay on a single ski, a design tested later in the program; earlier models used twin skis. (NASM (SI Neg. #SI 91-1833))
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Terrafugia investors expect customers to be driving/flying early in 2010. Fabricated of composites, the Transition qualifies for the Federal Aviation Administration class of light-sport aircraft, weighing under 1,320 pounds. It runs on gasoline, has a 460-mile range, and will cost just under $200,000. Flight testing of the proof-of-concept vehicle was completed last spring, with 28 flights. Next up: a beta prototype design. So the technology is there and so is the excitement, but show me the market. 

Despite the best intentions, all flying car projects have eventually ground to a halt, due largely to colossal indifference in the marketplace.

—Patricia Trenner


The Airline Idea that Got Flushed

 A lunchtime chat among four co-workers at IBM led to one of the oddest aviation patents ever issued: a computer system for airline passengers to make reservations to use the restroom.

“I had started a lunch group and we’d meet once a week,” recalls Sam Dinkin, then an economist at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. “The discussion at the time was about blood clots and how someone had died on an airliner of deep-vein thrombosis. Then someone mentioned that somebody also had died of a broken neck in turbulence, and we all thought, ‘Well why should anybody be standing up waiting to use the bathroom?’ We’ve got the technology to organize a queue.”

By the summer of 2000, Dinkin, along with co-workers Stephen Bois, Paul Moskowitz, and Phillip Yu, had designed a computer system that could schedule bathroom use either on a first-come, first-served basis or by ranking requests, according to such factors as seating class, ticket price, or frequent-flier status. Then it would electronically notify passengers when it was their turn to go. The result: “System and Method for Providing Reservations for Restroom Use,” U.S. patent no. 6,329,919, issued December 11, 2001.

“It seemed to us like a long shot that it would even be granted,” says Dinkin, now living in Austin, Texas. “Every idea has to be a little bit kooky. If not, someone would have thought of it and filed for it a long time ago.” The inventors had expected that the Federal Aviation Administration would issue new rules about standing in commercial aircraft, especially in light of the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which some hijackers had queued to use the first-class restroom before taking over the airplanes.

What Dinkin and the others hadn’t expected were the howls of criticism from the media, which both ridiculed the invention and held up the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as an example of a wasteful bureaucracy. The next year, IBM quietly withdrew the patent.
Today, Dinkin holds no grudges. “If I were IBM, I wouldn’t want any tarnish from it. No one anticipated that it would be a particular patent held up to ridicule,” he says. As for the patent itself, “I’m happy to put my name on it. It’s called ‘the potty patent.’ Whenever I’m in a conversation with [intellectual property] attorneys, we can have a great discussion. I just wish I had donated it to a charity, rather than let it go into the public domain.”

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