Wanted – Ten Billion Dollar Inventions (Sep, 1931)
Wanted – Ten Billion Dollar Inventions
by RAYMOND FRANCIS YATES
What are the inventions of tomorrow which will be worth billions of dollars to industry? Mr. Yates, member of the Institute of Radio Engineers and well-known writer on scientific subjects, here describes ten billion-dollar ideas. It will be interesting to make your own list and compare it with that of Mr. Yates.
THERE is at hand a new day of big rewards for inventors; rewards larger than dared to be dreamed of years ago. America is particularly anxious to stimulate its genius by the payment of huge sums of money to those who can solve the industrial problems that many of our large manufacturers are now facing. It has been said that competition is life of trade; it is more than that, it is the life of invention too. It has caused many of our great industries to establish their own laboratories in an attempt to better their products and widen their markets.
America needs more inventions today than it ever needed before and thousands of professional inventors have been hired to find these new things; these market builders. However, this, contrary to current opinion, does not mean that the independent inventor is no longer a factor or that his efforts are no longer needed. The Records of the patent office prove quite the opposite. .Manufacturers want ideas and they don’t care where they come from. The fact that many of them have established their own laboratories just goes to show how tightly pressed they have been; how keenly they feel the onslaught of competition.
A short time ago the writer sat in the lounge room of a club. Two chemists, an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer and a business man1 were present. The conversation drifted to invention and research and the business man finally asked those present to name what they thought were the outstanding problems “of the day; to name what he was pleased to call “ten one-billion dollar ideas”. At first there was some dissension but as the conversation wore on, agreement was at last reached and ten problems really in the billion-dollar class were laid down. It was not thought that inventors would receive this amount for their ideas. Rather, it was merely believed that the successful solution of the problems would be worth a billion dollars each to the industry to which they were related.
The first problem discussed had to do with a new source of power. Atomic energy was ruled out as being visionary and at present utterly beyond control, even if it could be produced. Also a substitute for gasoline was ruled out. Such substitutes are known but they have not as yet destroyed our gasoline markets nor do they jeopardize the millions that our gasoline manufacturers have invested in their refineries. It was decided, however, that electricity offers the most convenient, the most reliable and the most flexible means of power. What is needed is a cheap and effective means of storing large quantities of electricity in small light weight containers. Let us assume that a storage battery of new type is invented that will deliver a power of 25 horses for a period of 48 hours. What would this mean to transportation? What would this mean eventually to our gasoline market? In place of taking on ten gallons of gasoline at the gas station, we would simply take on a new container of electricity. During the night, when the service load on the public utility mains was relieved, current could be used to recharge such containers. Even such great water falls as Niagara might be “turned off” during the night and the power generated (some 7,000,000 horsepower) be used in this manner. The electric automobile would be the ideal. Silent, fast and with a flexibility that can never be hoped to be reached in the gas car. Not only that, but it would be free of gas and it would require only an insignificant percentage of the lubrication needed for the gas machine. Surely that would be a billion dollar idea, and conservatively rated at that.
The discussion of this idea suggested the second billion dollar invention; the direct conversion of the heat from coal and other fuels into electric energy. At the present time, we burn coal, produce steam and permit the steam to expand in either a turbine or a steam en- gine. This is a very wasteful process and one that costs us many billions of dollars annually. It has been known for many years that when two dissimilar metals are brought together and heated at the points of their conjuncture, a small electric current is produced. On this principle a thermo-electric battery has been produced, but what we need is a thermo-electric generator of large size where the heat produced by the burning coal will be directly converted into electricity. By this process, at least fifty per cent more energy could be derived from the same amount of coal. And this aside from the advantage of junking almost half of the equipment now needed to produce power. To say that this is a billion-dollar idea is surely leaning toward conservatism.
A flying machine that will be able to operate vertically and horizontally is a much needed idea. True, we have the helicopter, but in its present form it by no means offers a solution to the problem. It is really a makeshift and but a passing fancy of designers. It can never endure. It is simply an airplane with two propellers.
When problems of invention and research are discussed, there always appears that old but none the less interesting sub- ject of light without heat. It was brought out for discussion on this particular occasion and it was decided to include it. Not only that but it was decided that we are getting dangerously close to its solution. The last year has seen the development of gas-filled lamps that offer a great deal of promise in supplying perfectly white light at very low cost. This new filamentless bulb has come as a result of researches into the conduction of electricity through gases. It is a billion-dollar idea but it has by no means been perfectly commercialized and it still awaits those final touches by some genius who is bound to receive a handsome reward for his efforts. Indeed, there is an odd race going on in this field of cold light research. Another and highly revolutionary idea is that of painting the walls of a room with a luminous paint which is first “charged” with light and which continues to glow for hours after the charge has been received.
And then we might consider the elimination of static in radio as a problem of the first order. This is especially so since the advent of television, for it is obvious that static is going to interfere more with television than it has with voice radio. Imperfections are more discernible to the sight than to the hearing. It is no secret that a number of our very large electrical manufacturers are now ready and willing to pay one million dollars in cold cash to the man who can solve this ugly problem. Its solution will mean many billion of dollars to the radio industry in the years immediately ahead of it.
The transmutation of the elements was concerned along with atomic energy and while this would no doubt be an invention worth countless billions, it was thought to be far too fanciful to be included in the general list.
A cheaper and more simple system or process for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen was considered and accepted to the list on the pleas of the chemists present. What is needed is a simple nitrogen fixer that a farmer can purchase and operate himself with power received from the electric light company. Such a device would do a great deal to make farm land more valuable and help farmers out of their present difficulties. Naturally the apparatus needed should not cost much and it should be capable of producing at least one hundred pounds of fertilizer a day. Furthermore, the fertilizer should cost but a fraction of a cent a pound if the invention is going to be of maximum usefulness.
There are in various parts of the world, particularly South America, countless billions of tons of low grade coal; that is, coal with a very high degree of ash. What is needed is a cheap and effective way of removing this ash so this coal may be used near the spots where it is found. Naturally, this invention would not benefit the United States, but it would offer very great industrial stimulation to the South American countries and in this way it would affect the United States.
Television must go on the list. It still awaits that crowning discovery that will bring it out of the laboratory and place it at the disposal of the workaday world. Much remains to be done and the inventor who can master the situation will eventually find himself many times a millionaire. To say that once developed television will develop into a billion dollar industry is by no means a fanciful prediction.
A rather interesting debate fixed the position of the ninth invention. Both of the chemists and the electrical engineer kept the floor and after listening to their arguments, the rest agreed that the vast importance of their invention entitled it to be placed among the great ten. It was that of controlling rain; something that man has desired for many centuries. Artificial precipitation has been caused to a minor extent by permitting charged sand to fall from an airplane but the system offered no promise. What is needed is a system reliable enough to be turned over to the city street cleaning department so that rain may be turned on at three o’clock in the morning and off again at four. And if we can control rain there is no reason to suppose that we cannot control snow, inasmuch as rain is only frozen snow. To be able to control snow storms and blizzards, to say nothing of cloudbursts, would be of enormous value when we stop to think of the many millions of dollars damage every year. Incidentally, it was agreed upon that the system needed to effect this control would-be electrical—really a means of controlling the charges in the atmosphere. The system should not involve the use of super-voltages owing to the great difficulty of controlling such voltages.
And what is the tenth great idea? Perpetual motion? No, the idea of perpetual motion was not even considered, although the one non-technical member of the group, the business man, did mention the subject. Perpetual motion is never mentioned as a possibility by men who have won their technical spurs, so to speak. They know that it is utterly impossible. Anything that would nullify the law of the conservation of energy is impossible. Although many men have gone mad trying to batter this immutable law down it still stands just as solidly as ever, and perpetual motion is no nearer solution than it was hundreds of years ago when the idea was first conceived.
Rapid transportation through the medium of electro-magnetic levitation was finally awarded the tenth place. It was argued, and rightly so, that civilization is becoming too centralized, too crowded into large cities. Human health is being sacrificed at too great a pace. Neurosis is becoming a too common ailment. All of this centralization is brought about by the necessity of business and social intercourse. Rapid transportation at low cost would solve that. The New York business man could commute from the Adirondacks if he could travel 400 miles per hour. The airplane is as yet neither fast enough or safe enough for him to use. A car levitated electro-magnetically would function as a sort of airplane under perfect control and near the earth. It would overcome to a large extent that great bugaboo of travel, friction. Furthermore, it is possible that such a car could be made to reach prodigious speeds with safety.