No one can predict which of today's countless new inventions will have the biggest impact on our future. But inventors all over hope that theirs will contribute to a better life.
Basketball for chickens. The chocolate spoon. Equipment for cooling rabbits. Theater seats entered from a hatch in the floor. Hats with guns, emery board grinders, and an alarm clock that pours water down your neck. Forks with stoplights (a dieting device), ''How to Extract Gold From Wheat,'' and a machine that projects words at random, to aid in cracking writer's block.
Got your attention, didn't they? Culled from the patent lists of assorted countries, these inventions have not taken the world by storm. On those lists, too, are names boring enough to put a statue to sleep - ''Photographic Pellicle and Process of Producing Same,'' ''Art of Compiling Statistics,'' ''Three-Electrode Circuit Element Utilizing Semiconductive Materials.'' But as the basis for (respectively) film, computers, and transistors, these frumpy ideas eventually blossomed into beautiful inventions.
As Lewis Mumford, the renowned historian, has observed, often it is a deceptively ordinary machine that has the most power to change our lives. The invention that made Western civilization, he says, is not a technological glamour-boy - the light bulb, the steam engine, the car - but the humble clock, which cut up hours and days and, for the first time, synchronized the actions of humanity.
All across America, inventors are tinkering with ideas that will affect our future. Some sound ordinary, others bizarre. Many show how one invention leads to another, revealing a series of solutions that ripple outward from the original idea.
And, as one inventor says, justifying the importance of his backyard workshop: All inventions started with one person. To get the ripples, somebody has to throw a stone.
WEATHER FOR SALE . . . ALL-NATURAL INGREDIENTS
Thomas Mee's living room feels like a garden with carpet. Double-height, with a glass wall opening on the ocean, the space has so many plants, so much air and light, that it is difficult to tell where indoors begins.
Mr. Mee is a cloud physicist. His first inventions were expensive, exotic instruments for measuring the atmosphere. They weren't exactly impulse purchase items, so he looked about for a larger market where his expertise would be useful.
''The obvious thing was agriculture,'' he says. ''In most of the world, it's still archaic.''
So he invented fog. Well, perhaps harnessed is a better word. Aware of fog's insulating qualities, he first aimed at a narrow application: using a man-made ''blanket'' of moisture to protect citrus fruit from freezing on cold nights.
After years of development work, in 1975 he patented a system that looks like a chain of Chinese lanterns strung across a field for a giant party. Mee's fog protection for citrus groves is just now becoming commercially available.
It sprays filtered water, pressurized at 500 pounds per square inch, through a special atomizer to produce droplets 10 microns (a hundredth of a millimeter) in diameter, the proper density to reflect heat waves. To blanket 10 acres for 10 nights costs about $1,300, Mee says. By comparison, wind machines, which keep cold air from settling, would cost $15,000 for the same protection. Oil-burning heaters would cost over $300,000.
As he developed the system, Mee found its applications multiplying.
''I began to find that people were interested in the side effects,'' he says.
If the machine is turned on in a desert climate, the droplets evaporate, cooling the area with a kind of outdoor air-conditioning. Eventually, he claims , he will be able to mass-produce outdoor air conditioning at $500 a unit, with very low operating costs.
But the most promising market for his invention is for controlled growing. Fog can cool, heat, and humidify a greenhouse for much less than conventional methods, says Mee, who has installed over 100 such systems, mostly in Europe. Plants can literally be grown in fog, with no soil or watering, their roots exposed to the air. Less moisture transpires through their leaves, so 50 percent less fresh water is needed. Theoretically, Mee says, he could design a closed system, using solar distillation, ''that could grow strawberries in Saudi Arabia.''
THE WORLD'S MOST ENERGY-EFFICIENT BUILDING?
In Canada, architect Melvin Sachs once saw a house being made of shredded wood bound with Portland cement and water.
''The builder was just stacking these blocks up dry, pouring concrete inside the void, and forming a permanent structure,'' Mr. Sachs says.
In that moment, Sachs first conceived the idea for what later became Integrated Concrete Technologies (ICT) - a quick, cheap way of constructing energy-efficient buildings.
Developed with builder Calvin Subow's help, the system involves stacking up hollow plates, then pouring concrete into the open space, transforming the structure into a solid wall. Faster than a speeding contractor, able to build small buildings in a single bound, ICT has alreay won an excellence award at the 1980 World's Fair for Technology Exchange. Sachs himself was this year inducted into the Inventor's Club of America Hall of Fame.
Sachs says an ICT building's energy costs are half those of comparable conventional structures. He says the Livonia, Mich., building housing his company ''may be the world's most energy-efficient medium-size office.''
ICT could be most valuable in the third world, where ''housing crunch'' means much more than high interest rates. Nigeria, for instance, predicts it will need 750,000 housing units a year for the next five decades.
"Every government promises housing,'' Sachs says. ''Not one delivers on that promise. Can you imagine what would happen if we could demonstrate the technology to meet the need? THE SOUND OF A COLLAPSING COAL MINE
Walter Nold takes a lump of coal, places it in the jaws of a ''C'' clamp, and tightens down the screw. Then he holds it to a long microphone.
Through the headphones of his invention - the Seismitron - comes a sound like a hundred tin cans being rolled down a driveway.
''That,'' he says, ''is the sound of a coal mine collapsing.''
Mr. Nold is one of a handful of people in the Boston area whose only source of income is inventing. His Seismitron, an instrument that lets underground workers hear a cave about to collapse, was first developed to save men boring out a New York water tunnel. The insurance company expected 25 fatalities on the project. With Nold's help, there wasn't one.
His latest project looks like a heavy-duty Cuisinart. It is a de-aerator, used for taking the gases out of liquid. An ''uncarbonation'' machine, so to speak, that works 20 times as fast as conventional methods. New applications are constantly appearing, from degasifying hydraulic fluids for the space shuttle to making ultrasonic cleaning fluids more efficient.
''I have whole new worlds opening up,'' he says. THE TRUMPY WIND MOTOR
Walter Trumpy stands proudly next to his wind motor. It doesn't look like a windmill. It looks more like a flying ping-pong table.
''It's the simplest thing in the world,'' he says.
The Trumpy Wind Motor is made of several flat boards that rotate around a central axis. It operates somewhat like a Ferris wheel turned on its side: The boards swivel, always facing the full brunt of the wind. Simple. Efficient. Mr. Trumpy claims it can operate at wind speeds five times as great as those safe for propeller systems.
''This thing can stand up to 100-mile-per-hour winds,'' he says.
Trumpy, a former McDonnell Douglas electrical engineer, has also designed a folding model to be mounted on the roof of an electric car. When the car is parked, an unfolded wind motor can help recharge the batteries. THE PIRANHA, AND OTHER BENIGN INVENTIONS
''The Piranha'' eats just about anything you feed it, apparently. Most in-sink disposals are run by an electric motor, but Piranha is powered by the water coming from the faucet. The examiners at the energy-related-inventions program of the National Bureau of Standards think it's a great idea.
''Why I didn't think of it, I don't know,'' mutters one. ''They tested it at the (United States) Naval Academy galley. The cadets put plastic knives in it. It was so quiet they couldn't tell it was running.
''Consumer products are a favorite with inventors. They are easy to produce, and their potential market is huge.
Jess Bateman has designed what he calls a ''MicroLite'' - a hand-held device to detect radiation leakage from microwave ovens. He has also invented an electric meter run by ''power cards.'' These cards could be sold by the local utility, enabling consumers to buy a preset amount of power and eliminating the expensive overhead of meter readers and billing departments. ''There are roughly 70 million meters in this country alone,'' Mr. Bateman says, respect in his voice.
A fellow member of Inventors Workshop International, Peter Updyke, produces a theft-resistant picture hanger. ''There are 5 billion picture hooks in America, '' he says, going Bateman one better. ''That's a lot of picture hooks.''
But it is products with a scientific edge, designed by inventors with some scientific training, that will be the most important inventions of the 1990s and beyond, experts say.
Harry Freeman, of Slatersville, R.I., inventor of the fastest hamburger-patty forming machine in the world, who saw the last whaling ship enter New Bedford and knew Clarence Birdseye personally, talks happily about the future. He believes America will have centralized solar heat, as in Iceland. He thinks we will ride in jet-powered cars over more resilient roads. He sees us eating more fish, living in prefab housing, and learning about computer-designed products in computer-run classrooms. We might, he admits, have to have a universal monetary system.
''I don't look at life the way it was yesterday,'' he says. ''I look at the way it'll be tomorrow.''