Monday, April 25, 2005

The Essence of Being American

The choicest or most essential or most vital part of some idea or experience defines essence and if America is an idea then Woody Norris is as much its essence as anyone.


I like the thought of America as an idea far better than its more usual worldwide definition as super-power, leader of the free world or any of the other misrepresentations. It’s the idea of America that inspired centuries of immigration. Streets paved with gold is an idea, certainly no reality, as is unlimited opportunity and the right to be whatever and whoever you desire. The American reality is often harsh, sometimes unfair, occasionally wrongheaded but the idea of America is what carries us through the lumps and bumps.


So then, who is this Woody Norris I have chosen as my representative?

Elwoodnorris_1Woody’s given name is Elwood Norris and he’s an inventor. What better choice for iconography in the matter of this country than an inventor. Franklin, Fulton, Jefferson, Whitney and Morse come immediately to mind and yet the very core of our speciality as a nation, it seems to me, springs from the minds of the lesser-knowns. That’s not meant to be a put-down to Woody, but he’s hardly of rock-star fame. A few highlights of his career from NewsMax bring into focus this 2005 winner of the so-called Oscar for Inventors, the $500,000 annual Lemelson-MIT Prize, the largest single cash award for invention in the United States.


Woody makes me grin because his two most recent inventions both attend to things that interest me, flying and noise. In the noise department I’ve often wished for some sort of hand-held terminator device that I could point at boom-boxes or those ubiquitous speakers that increasingly blare from store fronts or make conversation difficult in restaurants. My invention would merely wreck the innards in a surreptitious wisp of smoke and bring blessed silence, Woody’s is far more sophisticated and useful. Norris invented a focused beam of sound waves, sort of like focusing a beam of light. Known as HyperSonic Sound, it generates ultrasonic (above the range of human hearing) sound waves, which can be focused in a tight beam rather than spreading out in all directions. Passing through the air, they generate lower frequency sounds that people can hear, so by merely stepping into the beam, listeners hear sound someone standing a foot or more away can't detect.


"It's going to quiet everything down," Norris said. "If you don't want to be bothered by it, you step to one side and you don't hear it." Thank you Woody, we may at last be able to have some control over drowning in noise.

Airscooter1Norris’s second current invention (he has hundreds patented) is flight for we who merely want to fly with no more training than driving a car. Actually a motorcycle in this case, but at the cost of about two full-dressed Harleys.


A licensed pilot, Woody began working on his AirScooter helicopter project out of frustration with ultralight airplanes. Although these small, low-flying aircraft generally don't require regular pilots' licenses, Norris says they are risky and still require too much training.


He hired engineers to help create an ultralight helicopter weighing less than 300 lbs. with counter-rotating blades that neutralize the gyroscopic effect that necessitates tail rotors in conventional copters. Norris says a novice with little or no flying experience can learn to fly in an hour or so. He expects his single-passenger, ultralight helicopter will become commercially available sometime before year's end for $47,000 apiece.


Those ideas and others have earned Norris 47 U.S. patents over four decades in fields including engineering and medicine - not bad for a guy who started taking apart radios at age 8 but never earned a college degree. "I'm interested in everything," he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. But he’s no Edison he says. "That guy used to work and not sleep. I'm the laziest inventor you ever met. My inventing is in my head - I don't have to be in the lab working and sweating."


Lest you think Woody’s a dreamer, his American Technology Corp., which he founded in 1980 is working on commercial applications with automobile companies, supermarket chains, museums, airports, NASA and the Department of Defense. In cars, his sound technology could allow parents to listen to their favorite music in the front seats while kids in back choose their own. A supermarket promoting a sale on cereal could project a sales pitch to shoppers in the cereal aisle, which makes me wonder about the distraction of wondering from beam to beam, but we’ll see. It’s got to be an improvement..


Woody’s going to use his Lemelson-MIT prize to establish a foundation to help struggling independent inventors. "I spent much of my life dying for somebody to help me even file for a patent or make a prototype," he said. "I understand that."


That’s an American attitude in the best and most generous sense of the term, the sort of thing that has made us the holding pond for every brain-drained society in the world. What says more about American values than that the top guy, in the flush of recognition and celebration, thinks about his competitors on the lower rungs of invention’s ladder?


Just gotta make you smile.