No. 93, p. 7-8, 10-11
Sunday, July 14, 1985


by Scott Eyman
Staff Writer

YOU CAN HEAR the glorious, smoothly humming hydraulic future in Jacque Fresco's eager voice, see it in the eye in your mind. Cities and their inhabitants thrive under the sea. Houses are heated by pipes laid beneath highways that conduit the gathered asphalt heat into private residences. Grain is stored in the natural refrigerator of the polar regions.

Fossil fuels have been abandoned, as solar power runs everything from your air-conditioning – if you need it in houses that are properly built and insulated, which you probably won't – to your backyard barbecue, where a mirror and two pyrex reflectors cook both sides of the meat at the same time. And when something goes wrong with your car, two handles are turned, the entire engine unit pulls out, a courtesy engine is plugged in and you're back on the road while the garage works to find the problem.

Welcome to the future, or at least Jacque Fresco's vision of it. It all seems eminently attainable . . . until you open your eyes and look around. What you see are 22 acres with four organically flowing domed structures – two of which are finished, one of which is furnished – a little lake with a baby alligator sunning himself by the water's edge, and a landscaped path leading back among 400-year-old cypress trees. It is here, on this quiet patch of land in Venus, Fla., that Jacque Fresco and his companion, Roxanne Meadows, are constructing a prototype of the possible.

"I tried walking around with a briefcase, and selling myself," says the peppery Fresco, a vigorous and muscular 69. "And I found that people think you're an idiot if you don't have anything to show them, if all you have are ideas and a vision. All right. I'll show them something."

Welcome to the world of Jacque Fresco, social conceptualist and inventor, one of those people who create something tangible where before there existed only that most intangible of intangibles: an idea.

There are thousands of inventors, making over 100,000 applications yearly to the U.S. Patent Office. A goodly share live in Florida; there are 230 members alone in the Palm Beach Society of Inventors, whose monthly meetings feature patent attorneys and agents on topics like invention marketing and finding venture capital.

Inventors will tell you that they fall into two categories. The first and largest category are "garage inventors," a phrase invariably uttered with a dismissive sniff because they are mere tinkerers, gadgeteers and visionaries like Fresco. These are people who specialize in a kind of comprehensive anticipatory design whose adoption would necessitate radical alterations in what George Will would call the social fabric.

Because of their expertise with mechanics, electronics and related fields, they are usually eminently employable in conventional jobs, while they make their avocations a hobby, playing with their ideas for their own amusement, keeping their inventions for themselves.

Viewed with either suspicion or condescension, derided as eccentrics, few of them have any money but all of them have hopes. They live for the gratification of that moment when lightning strikes, and an idea is fully formed in their minds. That and the possibility that some – or at least one – of their inventions will be successfully marketed and all those lonely, obsessive hours spent in their workshops will be validated and the lot of mankind will have been improved. And if they don't and if it isn't, well, that's not their problem.

"WHAT I FEEL so bad about is that society is losing so much," says Derrick Smith, his native Jamaica still flavoring his precise, articulate English with a distinct musical lilt.

Smith, now a Hollywood resident, holds six patents for inventions as various as a solar light bulb, a solar furnace, and a no-heat clothes dryer that works off a vacuum tube. The patents aren't much to look at – heavy cardboard folders with an embossed red stamp on the cover and the schematics of the invention bound inside by a ribbon. They last for only 17 years, and, for a small inventor, they can be expensive to pursue. The application fee is $150, the issuance fee is $250, but that's not what enrages inventors. What gravels them are the maintenance fees that were instituted in 1982. Briefly, the new law states that at intervals of 3 1/2, 1/2 and 11 1/2 years from the issuance of a patent, the inventor has to pay $200, $400 and $600 respectively. If he doesn't, the patent lapses.

"The theory is that, because a lot of patents are never used, the technology behind them should be made available to the public," explains Oscar Mostin of the Patent Office, who points out that less than one percent of patented inventions ever recoup their investment, let alone see a profit.

But . . . there is always a chance that your invention could be the next Hula Hoop or Lava Lamp or Weed-Eater. And a patent confers a kind of legitimacy on an inventor, as well as the prospect, however distant, of a payoff, even though the motivations for inventors seem more humanitarian than monetary.

"If I live for another 40 years, and none of my inventions reaches the people, I will not be a bitter man," says Smith. "I was born in Jamaica, but I am not pro-Jamaican; I lived in Canada for 10 years and I am a Canadian citizen, but I am not pro-Canadian. I can see what is good for the world as a whole, and I can only extend my sympathy to a world that will not benefit from the things I have to offer it."

FRANCOIS MOISDON takes a similarly lofty view. "To invent is a calling, like painting. A real painter does not paint just one picture, but rather he paints all his life. He stays with his art because he believes in himself and his gift. What other people think is not important. Only God gives this gift, this ability, and it must be followed or else you betray God."

Moisdon, the holder of 10 or 12 patents – he's not sure – came to Fort Lauderdale from Paris 20 years ago, when he was 42. With his full brown beard and trim, neat body, he still looks 42, but nobody that age has had his range of experiences.

The son of a mechanic, Moisdon was making his own toys by the time he was old enough to hold the tools. When the Germans occupied France during World War II, Moisdon was working as a machinist at the Peugeot automobile company, which was retooled by the Germans into a munitions factory.

"It was marvelous, really," he remembers. "Our supervisor told the Germans that he would be happy to make cannons because he so hated the English. Of course, we very carefully altered the size of the parts so that none of them could be used. By the time the Germans caught on, production had broken down. And then one day the supervisor said to us, 'You had better go now. Don't ask for your pay. Run!' So we left. They killed him."

Moisdon went underground, moving from house to house, making a living by taking in butter, rabbits and meat in trade for his ability to transform conventional radios into short-circuit sets, so the French could listen to BBC Radio and find out what was really happening.

After the war, he opened a radio shop, saw it prosper and sold it in 1960, buying an 80-foot boat and living on it with his wife – whom he had met at the French patent office – and children for three years.

Some real estate deals had given him enough money that he no longer had to work for a living, so Francois Moisdon opted for America, land of great opportunity.

Since 1983, Moisdon has been working on a push-button receiver transponder for satellite television, a modest-sized, robot dish that automatically adjusts itself to the incoming signal. It seems practical and needed, and he hopes to have it on the market within a year for about $2,000 per unit.

Ask him about the runt of his litter, the invention that got away, and he brings out a prototype that looks like a pencil box. It is a vertical ship, designed to have its bouyancy adjusted constantly, like a submarine.

"The whole idea of having a ship lay on top of the water is wrong," he says. "It is too easy for such a ship to crash or be stranded." Well, maybe. There's only one problem. A full-sized prototype would be 500 feet long and cost $10 million, which is why the invention has gotten away.

It is, Moisdon says, very frustrating to live in a world where money is everything, because in the sight of that world, if you are rich, you are smart, and if you are not rich, you are not smart.

JACQUE FRESCO hit the road during the Depression, riding the rails west from his native New York. He saw hobos falling off moving trains, bouncing, looking like broken dolls. He saw men with horrible bone and skin diseases spending nights in jail because it was the only shelter available for such congenital outcasts. "This," he said to himself, "has got to stop."

He attended meetings of organizations that claimed to have The Answer to social betterment. The Klan's followers were ignorant and uneducated, Socialists were well-read but without plans, and the Technocrats thought they didn't need money. Fresco came to believe that people were essentially clay molded by experience, not good, not bad, just human beings adjusting to where they've been and what they've seen.

So Fresco studied and worked to make a better world. He designed for helicopter companies and the U.S. Army, designed medical tools with what would become his trademark of smooth, flowing lines. He designed things like a comb shaped like the human head, or a ruler with a ridge down its center, so that it could easily be picked up and maneuvered, products that had no parts, couldn't wear out, things that were forever.

In 1945, with the backing of Earl "Madman" Muntz, he constructed a pre-fab aluminum house that could be built in eight hours and marketed to the hordes of returning G.I.'s for a few thousand dollars. That, he says, was submarined when a government bureaucrat demanded a payoff.

Finally, 4 1/2 years ago, he determined to commit himself fulltime to building his own vision of an EPCOT, an environmental community of the future that would combine the highest of high-tech with nature. He sold his Miami house and bought property in Venus.

There, he and Roxanne Meadows, along with a few helpers, have landscaped, built buildings with material from government surplus – the pleasing white structures are rubberized cement poured over a concrete-and-steel frame – and made detailed schematics and models that they hope to use in a film whose profits will, they trust, finance some of Fresco's more grandiose plans.

To finance what they have done thus far, Fresco free-lances his designs for tools and prostheses to doctors and clients like Pratt and Whitney ("I won't do anything for weapons systems, though . . .") while Roxanne Meadows does architectural renderings and model making.

"The main problem is that I have never found the fat guy with a cigar who can say, 'I like it; let's do it,'" says Fresco in one of the few reflective moments that his genially enthusiastic nature allows him. "I feel that with the ideas and technology I have here we could mount a World's Fair that would knock the Japanese flat on their prats."

IT'S ONE OF those inventions that seem vaguely risible, like a fishing rod holder, or an arm-wrestling training device (both authentic recent inventions). But a Sock Helper, for people who need help putting on their socks? Well, yes. "My grandfather had heart problems," says Sock-Helper inventor Chuck Balash, a systems analyst in Apopka. "When he leaned over to put his socks on, it would make him dizzy. It got to the point where he either wouldn't wear socks or wouldn't take them off for a long time. So I began thinking of a way he could put his socks on with one hand."

Balash's invention was simple: he took the plastic handle off a five-gallon paint can, rigged it so a sock could be attached to the rim and pulled over the foot with one hand. "It didn't take a lot of effort," he admits.

Now, Balash is hoping to go into production with the device. The problem, as always, is money.

Almost to a man, inventors decry the lack of initiative on the part of the investment community, fueled in large part by unfavorable tax structures. It is not so much, they say, a plot against innovation per se, as it is a by- product of the political process that, naturally enough, protects the arrangements that are already making money.

"There are some medical product wholesalers who are interested (in the Sock Helper)," Balash notes, "but the cost could go up to around $35 and that's ridiculous. I could do it myself for a third of that, but the minimum order to bring the costs down is a thousand. And how do you get a thousand orders in advance for something like this?"

Well-meaning to the point of altruism, Balash is typical of many inventors. "Your father's a dreamer," Jacque Fresco's wife would say to his children before she divorced him 25 years ago. Fresco met his companion Roxanne seven years ago. She had heard a tape recording of one of his lectures and took a few of his classes. Soon, they moved in together.

"If she fell in love with a younger man, I'd help her pack," says Fresco. "Love is wanting what's best for the other person, not 'How dare you leave me, you tramp . . .' "

NOT ALL INVENTORS are so pragmatic. Some are proof that cliches exist because they contain truth. Take, for instance, the case of Bob Martindell, inventor of a product called "LCF," which stands for living cell food. It regenerates, he says, cells and tissues and can help cancer patients ("We've turned them around in a week"), arthritis, even AIDS.

"We could have saved Steve McQueen," he says, "we could have saved the Shah of Iran. Hell, we could have saved John Wayne!"

Martindell, 62, agreed to an interview on the fatalistic grounds that, "They tried to murder me last March so I have nothing to lose."

"They sprayed viral pneumonia into my bedroom four nights in a row," he said. "They used one of those garden sprayer things. The only thing that saved me was LCF. I took four ounces and felt better almost immediately."

And who did this?

"A neighbor. Why are they trying to kill me? Because I am a tremendous threat to the drug empire. And my Vertical Take-Off and Landing Aircraft, which would make nuclear war obsolete, is a tremendous threat to the weapons empire. Look, these are enormously powerful corporations we're talking about here, and as long as they can sell dinosaurs and buggy whips, they'll sell dinosaurs and buggy whips. Why change? In any case, you better ask me something else. You won't be able to print this; it won't be allowed."

All right. What were you doing before you invented LCF?

"Uh . . ." (a very long pause). "Landscaping. But that's not important. I'm being followed. My phones are tapped. And I know my mail is being confiscated."

How do you know that?

"Because whenever I write to a publication, I never get an answer."

"WEEELLLL, THERE is some paranoia in the business," says Palm Beach Society member David London. "I think it mainly stems from a fear that someone will steal your ideas."

Understand, there might be a kernel of truth in some of the deeply ingrained fear of the socio-industrial axis. To pick a few obvious examples of creative and marketing lassitude, we are still largely dependent on 19th-century inventions: our cars run courtesy of the internal combustion engine, we still listen to music – for the most part – by putting a needle in a wax groove, and we still read by the light thrown off by screw-in incandescent lamps.

"Look, the disc brake existed in Europe for 50 years," says Francois Moisdon. "But it was under patent there and American manufacturers didn't want to pay royalties on the invention. Citroen adopted front-wheel drive in 1936, for God's sake. When the patents expired, American manufacturers adopted it. But for 50 years, people died who shouldn't have because of a criminal unwillingness to pay inventors what was due them."

"We don't do anything unless the Germans and the Japanese do it first," grumbles Jacque Fresco. "It's like those dunderheads who won't put up a red light at a dangerous crossing until a child is killed."

"I think inventors would be much happier people if we devoted as much newspaper space to science as sports," says David London.

But then, by nature, inventors are congenital loners, not well suited to unions or fraternal organizations. "I went to this Palm Beach Society just once," says Francois Moisdon dismissively. "I couldn't stay. Their inventions cannot work and they all sit there patting themselves on the back. They are dreamers who refuse to lose their dreams."

These, then, are human beings who are so different that most people perceive them as either world-class crackpots or slightly dangerous geniuses, classifications that may not be that far off the mark for a legion of dreamers who refuse to lose their dreams.

The Patent Office's Oscar Mastin points out that fully half of his department's 3,000 employees are patent examiners. Mastin explains that "inventors understand their inventions, but they rarely understand the patent process."

"Nah, I don't get upset if people think I'm crazy," says Jacque Fresco. "If you go to a mental hospital and someone calls you a name, would you get upset? Of course not. Well, that's the way I think about the world. They don't know any better."

Awash in his visions of a world of order, rationalism and value systems where everything is allowed so long as it is not destructive, Fresco leans back in his rounded rubber house – sharp angles are banished in his world of the future – that stays pleasantly cool without air-conditioning even in the heat of a Florida summer.

"The way it has always been is not the way it always has to be," he says. "I don't believe in the Great Man theory of science or history. There are no great men, just men standing on the shoulders of other men and what they have done. Man, in the collective sense, is the hero of science. Man, in the collective sense, is the hero of Earth."