Innovative Lives

Better Bellows

Better Bellows
Nathan Kane's inventions range from toys such as the Pass-It football with a built-in TV remote and the Project-A-Nathan Kane explains the bellowsSketch opaque projector for children, to production equipment such as low-distortion bellow folds used in industrial machines. On September 17, 1997, Kane captivated students from the Rosa Parks Middle School in Olney, Md., the Burgundy Farms Country Day School in Alexandria, Va., and, through videoconferencing technology, the Dartmouth Middle School in Dartmouth, Mass., in his presentation at the Lemelson Center's Innovative Lives program (the photos in this article offer a taste of of the students' experience). "Something I think kids don't appreciate or value enough is curiosity," Kane told the students. "It's an innocent trait, but actually a great gift, because intense curiosity can motivate you to explore things and learn."

Meet Nathan Kane

by Martha Davidson

From toys to industrial technology, Nathan Kane's inventions reflect his unbounded curiosity and ingenuity as well as his keen intelligence. At the age of twenty-eight, Kane already holds one patent and five patents pending and is the recipient of the 1997 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, a $30,000 award given annually to a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in recognition of excellence in creativity, invention, and innovation.

As an inventor, Kane has worked independently, designing a respirator mask and an improved method for making bellows; with partners, in improving hydrostatic bearings for industry and creating a playful new consumer product, the Pass-It Remote; and with a team of engineers, in developing an opaque projector that's fun, safe, and easy for children to use. He finds the variety of these technical challenges and working dynamics stimulating. "It's good for me, because it keeps me from getting boxed in," he says. "It helps my creativity, when I'm working on one project and then stop and work on something else for a few weeks. When I come back [to the first one], I have fresh ideas and am more productive."

Nathan Kane's creativity has family roots. His father, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin with a specialty in ethics and free will, is an intensely creative thinker as well as a firm optimist. His mother, a writer, is working on her second science fiction novel, an action-packed fantasy.

Although Kane did not grow up with the dream of becoming an inventor, he always loved to build things. His parents, observing his passion for construction, bought him model plane kits. "I remember being fascinated when I was in first grade and my parents gave me this balsa wood kit with a big blueprint and all these pieces you had to cut out," Kane recalls. "I was into airplanes and building models and radio-controlled gliders. I always took apart wind-up toys and usually could put them back together, or I used the parts for other things, or modified them."

One of the first machines he designed was a tiny, two-wheeled car made from a can. "When I was about nine or ten, I liked to play with electric cars and motors," he explains, "and I made this little vehicle from a tuna can. It had two wheels connected to a pivot, and it would roll until it ran into a wall -- then it would pivot and the tuna can would go off in another direction. I came up with that on my own, and I thought it was the coolest thing! And then I found out that the mechanism was used on a toy police car, which had already been out fifteen or twenty years -- I just had never seen it before. The intention was for it to be something for my cat to play with, something that would drive in random directions and just keep going. So I took it on myself to make this vehicle, and it did work and I was really happy -- but the cat was terrified!"

Growing up in Austin, Kane pursued his interest in aeronautics and mechanics, although there were no formal science fairs in his school district. It was his parents who suggested engineering as a career, and his mother particularly encouraged him to think about graduate school. In high school, Kane's senior project was for a company that did custom tooling for pipes. The company was impressed with his work and offered him a job, but his mother persuaded him to consider it carefully.

"She sensed that I would be happiest being involved in creative work on the cutting edge of technology, where I could have ownership of that work," says Kane. With that company, he would have had to sign a contract of secrecy; he could not work for anyone else and would not have ownership or get credit for his contributions. "It wouldn't have given me much satisfaction. There were other jobs I could have taken, but it's hard to find a job where you can work on the cutting edge, if the aim is to turn out a product, which most companies have to do. Graduate school is the only place you're given that kind of freedom to work on an exciting idea. The problem is, graduate work in engineering often doesn't have a practical application."

A Student examines the bellows-foldDuring his college years, Kane realized he wanted to design products that were more useful and tangible to the ordinary person. So after completing his undergraduate degree and master's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, Kane looked into doctoral programs that offered an opportunity for practical experience. "I looked for a professor who had lots of patents used in industry and who had students working for projects for companies -- and I found that in Alex Slocum," says Kane of his thesis advisor at MIT. Slocum, thirty-five years old, is a professor in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering and a specialist in precision machine tooling. He holds over forty patents, and Kane describes him as having "boundless energy, always in motion, and eternally optimistic" -- in short, a truly inspiring mentor.

Slocum is not only Kane's advisor, but also his co-inventor on a patent for a technical improvement to the hydrostatic bearing. (Kane's name appears first on the patent, since his innovation was the key element in the design.) Kane applied for the patent soon after he arrived at MIT, and it took only a year to be issued. It was his introduction to patent applications, and he was guided through the complicated process not only by Slocum, but by other MIT graduate students and by Slocum's patent attorney. Thus Kane rather quickly gained additional practical knowledge and skills essential to an inventor -- a knowledge of the legal steps necessary to protect an original idea.

His next inventions came about as the result of a summer project. He'd taken on the task of renovating his parents' home, to make it a healthier environment for his father, who suffers from allergies. Doing renovation work is a dirty, dusty business, and exposes workers to many toxins. Hardware stores sell masks that fit over the nose and mouth, to filter out fumes and airborne particles, but the masks are passive -- they have no source of cool, fresh air -- and are particularly unpleasant to wear in hot Texas summers. The only alternative protection was an air-supply mask, which connects a hood with a fresh air-supply unit in another room by means of a long hose. But the commercially available units all came with cumbersome rubber hoses that dragged on the floor and were impossible to use for some renovation work, such as floor refinishing. So Kane hit on the idea of making an extremely lightweight, collapsible plastic hose that stays above the head at all times, attached to a rotary bearing at the top of the hood unit, so that the hose never wraps around, no matter how many times the wearer turns. He applied for a patent for his Feather-light respirator mask, and in the process made an even more significant, more broadly applicable discovery: a more efficient and effective folding pattern for industrial bellows, which he is patenting separately. Nathan Kane tosses Pass-It Remote

Industrial bellows are tubes made of folded or pleated plastic or other material. They may be used to conduct air from one place to another, as in the hose of Kane's air-supply mask, or to protect sensitive machine parts from dust. Traditionally, bellows have been made either of fabric sewn to a stiff support or of plastic shaped according to a classic single- or double-fold pattern that does not allow much extension. These bellows designs resulted in heavy, expensive tubes whose form became distorted as they stretched over limited distances, with a maximum extension of about twenty-five percent. Kane used trigonometry to discover a new folding pattern that allows for longer extension (up to eighty percent) without distortion of shape; it also requires less material to produce, resulting in a less expensive, lighter-weight, more versatile bellows. He then developed equations and mathematical tables that can be used to design bellows to fit specific applications, such as pumps, expandable shelters, collapsible containers, and protective tubes for sensitive machine parts. Recently he custom-designed a bellows for the Weldon Machine Tool company in California.

Kane's thesis at MIT concerns hydrostatic bearings. The hydrostatic bearing is an alternative to the ball bearing. Like a ball bearing, it serves to support a moving machine part, but instead of using metal balls, it relies on a thin film of pressurized fluid. With his advisor Alex Slocum, Kane developed the HydroMax hydrostatic bearing, now patent pending. This invention offers greater accuracy and lower cost to machine tool manufacturers; when it is available on the market, it will improve the quality and lower the cost of precision products, from plastic injection molds to automobile motors.

But Nathan Kane's inventive work has not all been geared to industry. He has a playful side as well, and within the past couple of years has helped design two very appealing consumer products. Ideas for both products were stimulated by class assignments. The first one, the Kid Projector, was developed with a team of other engineering students. Seeking to create a toy that would lure kids away from television-watching and offer a more creative and active experience, Kane came up with the idea of an opaque projector that would be simple and safe for even a young child to use. Team members designed it and researched materials and assembly methods to build a prototype. When they visited a day care center to try it out, the kids loved it! This product is now patent pending, but the team hasn't yet found a manufacturer.

The second consumer product is a toy (of sorts) for adults: a universal television remote control housed in a colorful foam rubber football, with a small hole in one end for signal emission. Called the Pass-It Remote, it is both clever and practical: it can be easily tossed without damage to the mechanism; it is easy to spot; and it won't get lost between the couch cushions! The inspiration for this product came from an assignment to make a family-friendly computer keyboard. Discussing it with a friend, Kane suggested making a cushioned keyboard that could be tossed around like a Frisbee; his friend immediately leaped to the idea of a TV remote in a football. They made a prototype and applied for a patent that would include variations for other types of electronic devices. For this product, too, they are seeking a manufacturer.Students use Pass-It Remote

Kane is very much concerned with promoting invention and creativity in young people. While at MIT, Kane has worked as a volunteer with a middle school class to design a model solar car for a New England car race, the Junior Solar Sprint. He also came up with an idea for a design contest for high-school students to stimulate young inventors; although proposed to local school authorities, the contest has not been implemented. In September 1997, Kane captivated students from the Rosa Parks Middle School in Olney, Md., the Burgundy Farms Country Day School in Alexandria, Va., and, through videoconferencing technology, the Dartmouth Middle School in Dartmouth, Mass., in his presentation at the Lemelson Center's Innovative Lives program, where he demonstrated and discussed a few of his inventions.

"Something I think kids don't appreciate or value enough is curiosity," he says. "It's an innocent trait, but actually a great gift, because intense curiosity can motivate you to explore things and learn. In high school, peer pressure often forces kids to push curiosity aside, to do what will make them popular. But I'd like to say to kids, don't be embarrassed. If you follow and cultivate curiosity, you'll be happy; and if you guide that curiosity to things that society needs, you ultimately will be successful. As you get older, you'll realize curiosity is a fantastic gift. It gives you staying power, because you love learning for itself."

Kane regards this kind of curiosity as being an essential component of invention: "An inventor is someone with a native curiosity about how things work and how to make things better. If you don't have that native curiosity, then designing a product to meet a need won't be very much fun. But that's not good enough by itself; you also have to be really aware of what the market needs and how to apply a new technology or a new idea. That's the other ingredient."

The most rewarding aspect of invention, he says, is "when you finally, after all the trials and tribulations, make a prototype that really works and is mass producible (sic), not just a one-off. It's a feeling that's incredibly ecstatic -- an absolute high!" And the worst part? "When you have to do things that you just aren't motivated to do. There are a whole lot of things that aren't fun -- certain parts of writing a patent, for example, or the frustration of research when you feel like you are just spinning your wheels. Also there's the uncertainty of whether someone else is coming out with something like your idea, or maybe something that's better." Videoconference with students in Dartmouth, MA

Kane definitely feels called to a life in invention. He envisions himself in ten years working as a consultant, perhaps teaching, and involved in one or more start-up companies: "I like to have my hand in more than one thing. I think the ideal thing is to have at least one invention on a small enough scale to be completely your own, that's totally under your control. But it's also great to work on a bigger idea with a group, because it's more exciting. I'm a very sociable person, and it's fantastic sharing ideas. I don't want to work just completely by myself, because I couldn't do much for the world that way. ...I think that as time goes on I'll definitely move more into industrial applications and away from toys -- at least until I have kids. I have a lot of engineering skills that I've learned, and I want to use them. Anything that uses my training, that's what I want to work on."

That he is putting his native curiosity and his training to work is evident from the recognition he already has received. The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize he earned is a truly distinguished award, intended to encourage and inspire careers in inventing. As Professor Lester C. Thurow, chairman of the Lemelson-MIT Prize Board, observed in announcing the award, "Young inventors such as Kane keep America on the forefront in the race for new and better technologies...As we enter the twenty-first century, it is these young inventors who will lead the charge."

All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 16 April 1999.

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