Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Man Before His Time

(A fictional tale told to me by an elderly gentleman on the 69th Street Trolley.)

There's no future in seeing the future.

I found this out after hundreds of hours of thinking that was “out of the box” at a time when no one even knew where the box was. Here's my story.

Apparently, a successful invention is the result of small, logical steps that people can understand and see as useful. If you get too far ahead of the curve there's a danger of being seen as (at best) eccentric or (at worst) dangerous to yourself or others. This explains why it took millions of years to go from throwing rocks at our enemies to launching rockets at them. What would prehistoric man have done if one of the top cavemen scientists had come up with a rocket and launcher? Bop someone over the head with them, no doubt. It's all about “baby steps,” as we learned from Bill Murray in that cinematic classic, What About Bob?.

I bring this up because time after time my great ideas have been poo-poo'ed (if you'll pardon my language) and called stupid, goofy or even “the workings of a diseased mind.” Then again, they said the same things about Copernicus, Galileo and Professor Irwin Corey.

But these “wild” ideas always seem to pop up years later as viable products and services. So, for the record, here are just a few of the ideas I had far in advance of their obvious usefulness:

The Musical Backpack

About 40 years ago, long before The Walkman or iTunes, I saw the need to make our favorite tunes mobile. Unfortunately, the technology of the time posed certain roadblocks to realizing my dream. Undaunted, I devised a system whereby 12 to 15 long-playing albums (LPs) could be placed into a specially designed backpack and attached to a set of those giant NASA Project Mercury-era headphones. Of course, keeping the needle steady and playing while in motion was a major problem. My solution remains proprietary, which is basically 21st century business-speak for, “That's for me to know and for you to find out.” Today, most people see the 1960s as the Golden Age of Musical Appreciation, but I'm here to tell you that people weren't so enamored of their precious music to carry around a 40- to 60-pound backpack full of it with them wherever they went. Helen Reddy and Mac Davis each sang I Believe in Music, but, as far as I'm concerned, they were no better than anyone else about proving it.

The Personal Phone

It was my idea to line every city street and country road in America with phone booths, placed 12 feet apart. I can now see that this was probably not practical, but I contend to this day that involuntary hospitalization was not warranted.


I'll admit that I never called it a “social network,” but in 1980 I devised virtually the same concept using Post-It Notes and bike messengers. Basically, a person could jot down his or her thoughts on the Post-Its and affix them to a 3-feet-by-3-feet section of sturdy cardboard. Each hour a messenger would come to that person's home, photograph the cardboard and deliver those photographs to as many “pals” as had agreed to be on the “pal list.” Snappy comments on those original thoughts were returned using the same procedure. At its peak I had I had nine members, and although it cost me a fortune to run I was sure I could make it a viable business one day. People called me insane. “Who cares what the kid who sat behind me in Algebra class 30 years ago is thinking of having for lunch?” Well, today I'd like to point out to my detractors that the answer is crystal clear … everybody cares!


Operating with the distinct disadvantage that the Internet had not yet been created, I nonetheless scanned resources like dictionaries and encyclopedias to answer questions that occurred to me. Often I would physically go to libraries to look up information. In order to acquire the best route to reach any destination I employed maps that started small, but folded out like budding flowers of useful directional information. Occasionally I'd ask a person for directions. True, my methods were slower, but the resulting information was definitely more reliable.

With the possible exception of those directions I got from my fellow humans. I think people will actually give you wrong directions rather than tell you a simple “I don't know.”

Well, this is my stop. Nice talking to you.

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