As for Benjamin Dickman, he just wanted a way to keep sand out of his food and clothing on the beach in Atlantic City.
Today, all five qualify as inventors. And they, along with almost 50 other
originators from the area, will be the stars of the Franklin Institute's inventively named Invention Convention this weekend.
The "fabulous fabricators," as the Institute calls them, will show off their wares - and compete against each other - tomorrow and Sunday in the Institute's Franklin Hall.
Visitors to the show, meanwhile, can try their own hands at inventing. They will be encouraged to form six-member teams and then will be given material - rubber bands, paper clips, index cards and the like - to build spaceships. There are prizes for the longest flying and most creative designs.
The real fun, though, is the inventions. They range from a cough-pop (a cough drop on a stick, of course) to a "phototherapy device for treating seasonal affective disorders," which is used to relieve patients with the mid-winter blues.
The variety is almost endless. And for every new idea that offers the viewer a chuckle, there is one that challenges the most erudite.
Fetterman first invented because he had to. A polio victim as a boy, he has used crutches for 35 years. About five years ago, he developed severe pain in his shoulders. Inflamed joints from the constant pounding, said his doctors, who recommended he cut his activities.
Fetterman, a Center City resident, didn't find that solution attractive and began working on the theory that if cars have shock absorbers, why couldn't he? He tried a number of materials for new tips on his crutches, ranging from springs to foam rubber. None worked. Then he found a polyurethane material - so soft it is almost liquid - widely used in sports equipment. He enclosed a gob of it in latex rubber, then devised a heavy metal washer to go between it and the shaft of the crutch to diffuse absorption of the shock. It worked.
His shoulder pain is gone, his patent is pending and he is ready for full- scale manufacture.
Furthermore, he likes inventing. "I've been devoting practically all my time to it for the last year or so. I've found I have a penchant for it. I'm working on a number of things."
Amy Seiden, a pupil in the Cinnaminson (N.J.) Middle School, had no such serious motivation. She just has ideas that "pop into my head." The one in the convention is a hinge-like piece of plastic to keep chopsticks from going their separate ways in the hands of the inexperienced. She's also working on an envelope with a string embedded in the glue that can be used to open the envelope neatly and easily.
High schoolers Ron Hevey, 16, of Villanova, and John Miller, 17, of Rosemont, say their idea started as a joke after they noticed the traffic jams caused by students crowding the halls of their high school.
Says Miller: "Kids going into classrooms would make sudden left and right turns - just like cars do on highways - without giving any signal. That would cause a chain reaction in the halls, with everyone crashing into one another."
The two say they joked with the idea of inventing signal lights for people, then got serious as the idea progressed to a backpack device that allows bike riders to signal left and right turns by blowing into plastic tubes.
"This way, both hands can stay on the handlebars," Hevey notes.
Benjamin Dickman, of the Northeast, invented a circular plastic table that slides onto the pole of a beach umbrella because he didn't like sand in his sandwiches on the beach.
Reginald Saunders, of North Philadelphia, is a security officer at a detention center and a member of the Mensa Society, the brain strain group for geniuses only. His inventions, however, run strictly to the practical - an easily assembled cabin for campers who don't like tents and a roller device for removing graffiti.
There's lots more at the Invention Convention, the Institute's second annual.
Visitors will vote on the best invention and best display among the entries of adult inventors, with the winner getting a $100 prize. The younger inventors will give show-and-tell presentations to be judged by the National Society of Inventors. The winners in fourth-grade-and-under and fifth-grade- and-above each will get a $50 prize.
In conjunction with the Convention, Gordon Gould, inventor of the laser, is receiving the Inventor of the Year Award at an opening reception today.
IF YOU GO
The Franklin Institute is at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The convention is tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission: $5 ($4 for children 4-11, free for children under 4, $3.50 for senior citizens).