By Aaron Pressman and Adam Lashinsky
July 2, 2018

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The history of technology is filled with great inventions that changed the world and many more that did not, at least not yet. There’s a heat wave on the East Coast and I’m cooling off pondering the past.

Ernesto Blanco was born in Cuba, got a mechanical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and later taught at MIT. The shortages in his home country during his childhood cultivated an inventive spirit. In the early 1960s, his attention was captured by something called the National Inventors Council, a government agency dreamed up during World War II to promote citizen innovations.

In 1962, the council offered a $5,000 prize for the best design of a wheelchair that could climb stairs. As recounted by University of South Carolina history professor Allison Marsh in an article last week, Blanco came up with a design for a chair with rubber-tipped spokes that could pop out of the wheel rims and climb stairs. He even built a working, quarter-scale model. Though he later invented many more devices to help disabled people, nothing ever became of the wheelchair.

In the 1990s, a different design using tank-like treads emerged in Japan and entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen (later famous for building the Segway scooter) came up with a multi-wheeled chair dubbed the iBot. Discontinued in 2009 due to its high cost, the iBot may be making a comeback in a partnership between Kamen and Toyota. Marsh notes that none of the designs became financially viable and the arrival of the Americans with Disabilities Act required accommodations for people in wheelchairs, lessening the need for a stair climber.

But they still could be the seeds of a future invention. A crude steam engine was invented in the Roman Empire, scientists spent much of the 19th century messing around with radio waves, and touch screens were developed decades before the iPhone. It’s a messy, sweaty, sometimes slowly crawling process to change world. Makes you wonder what else might be out and about right now that will blossom into the big innovation of the 22nd Century.

Aaron Pressman


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