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Manufacturing Blog: Innovations Against Risk, No Matter How Small

Manufacturing Blog: Innovations Against Risk, No Matter How Small

You are more likely to win the lottery than be eaten by sharks. Inventors still think risks like that are worth avoiding.
In our everyday lives, we assess the likelihood of dangers big and small and take pains to avoid them. But studies have confirmed people are horrible at assessing risk. Indeed, most things people worry about never occur. As the comedian John Mulaney has joked, “I always thought quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem than it turned out to be.”

Still, fear—even fear of quicksand—can lead to innovation. For instance, U.S. Patent No. 8,408,959 (April 2, 2013) is for a collapsible flotation system for “assisting a person caught in quicksand.” Problem solved.

There are about five fatalities from shark attacks in an average year. In the entire world. Even so, there are lots of patents for gizmos to save you from one. Patent No. 4,833,729 (1989) is for a rubber suit with spikes “extending outward therefrom to prevent a shark from clamping its jaws over the wearer,” while Patent No. 7,507,113 (2009) covers a transparent surfboard with a shark locator, an alarm device, and a shark repellant signal generator.

About the same number of people die each year in the United States from rattlesnake bites, but there are numerous patents for anti-venoms and protective gear. One favorite is Patent No. 367,406 (1887) for a rattlesnake bite balm including one ounce of Mexican Claret wine, one grain of lunar caustic (now known as silver nitrate), and one dram each of oil globe-cactus and oil agave.

Patents have been issued for inventions to ward off other potentially deadly animals. Patent No. 3,633,370 (1972) discloses a transparent cage which surrounds the user while he is in the water to keep piranhas at bay. Patent No. 4,640,044 (1987) features a translucent “ant hood” with a top convex lens to fry a fire ant mound with solar power, while Patent No. 4,667,436 (1987) discloses an electric spike for insertion into an ant hill injecting 1,500 volts to electrocute the fire ants.

People almost have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting hit by lightning. That that doesn’t stop coaches cancelling little league games and practices whenever they hear thunder. If you are still worried, Patent No. 4,447,847 (1984) describes a portable lightning rod that includes a built-in umbrella to keep you dry. (I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t stand next to that thing even in clear weather.)

Fear of being buried alive is common enough to have a specific name: taphophobia. Patent No. 652,934 (1900) discloses a casket with a wire bent in close proximity to the chest of the “supposed corpse.” If a person buried in the casket breathes, his raising chest completes a circuit and rings an above ground bell. Saved by the bell!

The mishap of driving off the end of a pier and into the ocean is seen more often in movie comedies than in real life. But becoming trapped in a submerged vehicle is a common enough fear to prompt an inventor to file Patent No. 6,551,159 (2003). It touts a kit including a cutting tool for the seatbelt, a glass breaking tool for breaking the vehicle window, a pair of googles, an air tank, an inflatable buoy bag to lift the driver to the surface, and a locating beacon so to alert rescuers.

Patents can cover inventions for the most mundane of risks as well. For instance, nearly every parent has warned a child about the dangers associated with untied shoelaces. Patent No 5,936,538 (1999) offers a high-tech solution: the two shoelaces are made conductive and connected via a battery to a piezoelectric buzzer. A pressure sensor is also included to make sure the buzzer only sounds when the kid is wearing the shoes but without the laces tied.

In the end, being overly risk adverse may be a problem in itself. Stay safe, sure, but also enjoy life without undue worry or fear.
Kirk Teska is the managing partner of Iandiorio, Teska, and Coleman, LLP in Waltham, MA, an adjunct professor at Suffolk Law, and the author of two books: Patent Savvy for Managers (NOLO) and Patent Project Management (ASME Press).

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