Studio 360 recently aired a story about garage inventors; people who are innovating, pushing the boundaries of science, and creating without government funding or hi-tech labs. Garage inventors tend to be really smart and really tenacious; sometimes they come up with incredibly useful-to-the-world inventions, like William Kamkwamba who created electricity-generating windmills out of scrap parts in his poor African village; sometimes the inventions are the focus of a personal passion that not everybody sees as useful, from submarines-built-for-one to Miroslav Tichy‘s brilliant homemade cameras (above), created out of need and the belief that “you have to have a bad camera” to make compelling photos. But we’re most interested in the mindset that makes a person a self-propelled inventor. We especially liked this example:

Rachel Zimmerman works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, but she was an amateur inventor first. In seventh grade she created the Bliss Symbol printer, which allowed people with cerebral palsy to communicate quickly. “The nice thing about being 12 years old is that nobody is telling you what you can and can’t do.”

Practicing thinking like a kid is clearly one of the keys to innovative thinking. If you forget what you’ve been told you can or cannot do, the world opens up. Suddenly, there are more possibilities…

We’ve discovered that many of our readers have the “garage inventor’ mentality (whether they have a garage or not). They practice thinking outside-the-box to devise solutions to everyday problems. The process almost always involves being faced with an obstacle or something they need, and then being willing to cast around for a solution, until they figure it out.

Illustrator Maria Emmighausen told us how she improvised a lightbox:

Early in the day on Saturday, I poked around a nearby art shop looking for a light box that would backlight an image, allowing me to see it through tracing paper so I would have a guide for tracing the image.

Porta-Trace Light Box

There wasn’t one (and my Brooklyn apartment is probably too small too accommodate one any how) so I made my way home and in the bright midday sun, a light went off!  I used some masking tape to affix the image I wanted to trace,  topped by a sheet of tracing paper, to the southern exposure window in my apartment. I pulled up my stool and  traced, working against the upright glass; it worked perfectly.  I think it would work just as well for viewing negatives. (It occurs to me that a light box could be used in place of a window in a windowless room, a la James Turrell.)

improvised lightbox
photo: maria emmighausen

Ronna Welsh of Purple Kale Kitchenworks wrote us of her improvisation, which solved a decorating problem and ended up being unexpected fun:

Christmas Eve.  The first day in a long while that my husband and I both had off from work.  Our only day, in other words, to install the newly purchased rug for our dining room floor.

This task first required pulling up the rug tiles that had been on our floor, under our dining table and chairs, for eight years. We discovered that they were, in fact, stuck to the floor.  When we tore them off, they left behind a sticky, black mess, in the exact shape and size of the rug itself.

photo: ronna welsh

The only thing that would take off the stickiness was Goo Gone, but we couldn’t fathom using a quart of the caustic stuff with two toddlers nearby. We turned to the internet for ideas on how to remove the glue from our hardwood floors and learned that vegetable oil might do the trick.

It did, indeed. And, in the process, led us to a new take on “oil” painting.

finger painting with floor goo
photo: ronna welsh

Ronna’s impromptu “oil painting” reminded us of the “reverse graffiti‘ we’ve been reading about lately: graffiti artists scratch away the dirt on a wall or sidewalk to etch images in the dirt…


Oh, the challenge and possibilities of a dirty wall…

Related posts: five futuristic inventions at work now, full of crazy hope
what’s in the innovator’s cookbook?
‘create your own’: building block system for your own inventions
a harlem inventor’s solution for (un)fashionably sagging pants
inventables: porn for inventors and d-i-yers (with samples)

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3 replies on “are you a ‘garage’ inventor?

  1. Not to rain on your parade or Maria’s, but the window has been common knowledge as a substitute lightbox for decades. Unfortunately you always need a sunny day. Another sub is to use a door with a window in it and light on one side or the other.

  2. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve come up with, thinking it was a brilliant improvisation, to discover that it had been done before. We keep re-discovering ideas…and occasionally may come up with something novel only to discover…it was done even centuries ago. For me, the deal is to keep opening up to solving problems, making the discoveries, using our imagination…and in that way to live more fully.

  3. i never invented a garage

    (and, reading the quote, i was never 12 years old ..)

    from your experience, isn’t it the moment we forget about the need and problem, when we become playful, that ideas ..happen..

    i like also the combination of ‘in the garage’ and ‘out-of-the-box thinking’

    ps. scene at impro theater : This has been done before !
    –And then what happens ..

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