IN THE MEANTIME Patent No. 02138
A BRIEF HISTORY OF UNDERGRADUATE INVENTIONS
A reclusive student gropes for a buzzing alarm clock. He pushes the snooze button--which releases a weight, which pulls a pulley, which, through some complicated mechanism, starts the shower, lays out his clothes, pours milk on his cereal and plops his thick black eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose. Does this man reside in Canaday? Leverett Towers? No. If four-eyes lives on campus, he's refined his apparatus to the point that he needn't leave his room because nobody's seen him yet. In fact, a historical survey of Harvard inventors proves that practicality and an urge to make a buck have long quashed students' nerdish creative impulses.
Take, for example, one of Harvard's most influential innovator-alums, Edwin Land. As an undergraduate, Land invented the polarizing filter: layered sheets of plastic that block waves of light moving in certain directions. The Faculty was so impressed that they gave the 20-year-old a lab of his own for the project. Wall Street paid attention, too; soon everything from cameras to car headlights, sunglasses to red-and-blue 3D movie glasses used Land's polarizers. The young inventor went on to found Polaroid, which quickly expanded into the instant film business, and then into the instant film camera business, and so on. Along the way, Land made a whole lot of money and gave a whole lot of it back to science departments at various institutions. He paid Harvard back for his first lab handsomely with a $12.5 million (that's in 1968 dollars, by the way) donation to build the Science Center, which as any good Crimson Keyer will tell you, is as breathtakingly hideous as one of Land's cameras.
To their credit, not every Harvard inventor is stinking rich--at least not yet. Daniel H. Schumann '94 is following his father, Helmut W. Schumann '41, in turning invention into a career. Papa Schumann held patents for the high-speed motors that powered instruments on US bombers during World War II. Son Daniel got his start in the Engineering Department; his junior project offered a 1984-ish solution for office building security. It proposed connecting a booth to a building's entrance. The entrance would be password-protected and impenetrable until the booth's door was secured. The chamber's claustrophobic scale would deter all but the most diminutive of piggybackers. The next year, Schumann constructed an electric bicycle. Although he was unable to market it as he had hoped, it did take him--literally and figuratively--to his job at Ford Motor Company.
For Linsey Marr '96, senior project inspiration stood right in her common room. Working with a Boston design firm, she refitted a halogen lamp (not yet the bane of the FDO) with a fluorescent bulb and a more efficient reflector. The result used one-third the power and produced more light than the original, but you still couldn't dry your clothes on it.
Alas, these examples, as marketable as they may be, betray the sheer ordinariness of invention at Harvard. Gone are the days of the house regattas, those races on the Charles aboard heaps of junk blessed with more House spirit than seaworthiness. As for feats like putting a car atop University Hall--best leave that to the folks down the River.
These days, the only recourse for Harvard's creative engineers snakes down the back stairwell of Pennypacker. The four-story beer funnel has long been a tradition among Union dwellers. These 40 feet of tattered tubing, duct-taped where needed and capped with a simple plastic funnel, hang as a testament to a freer spirit of invention than exists in the austere labs of Edwin Land's Science Center.