A Machine to Save the World
Clifford Bacon was working on his invention when the kid came into the garage and shuffled up to the workbench. Glancing aside, Cliff confirmed that he was Joel Woolsey from across the street—the kid Bobby called a couch potato because he watched TV a lot. Cliff was glad his son, just turned twelve, preferred the outdoors.
Joel stood quietly and gazed at the model. Presently he said, “Why do you need that big magnifying glass to see the tin can?”
“It’s not to see with,” said Cliff, pleased to explain the apparatus. “It focuses the sun’s rays on the can. That’s the boiler. Water in the boiler turns to steam, which drives the engine to spin the generator. So the engine runs on the sun’s heat. We’re in Florida, right?—the Sunshine State.”
“What’s a generator?” The boy’s thick lips seemed to pout, furthering the impression that he spoke in doubt or contempt.
“It makes electricity,” said Cliff. “The electricity charges the battery.”
“It’s a storage battery. So we can have lights at night.”
Joel looked puzzled. Cliff thought he might not have grasped that the device was just a model, that a full-size one would light a city. He picked up the board that served as a base and went outside to a picnic table in the full sun. He heard his wife, Eunice, talking on the kitchen phone, and saw his neighbor, Muriel Wood, trying to start her lawnmower. With Joel standing by, he resisted an impulse to offer Muriel his help.
Cliff filled the boiler with water and turned the glass to collect the sun’s rays. The engine soon took off at high speed. He checked to make sure the battery was charging. When he looked up, Joel was walking away and Muriel was standing beside her mower in obvious frustration.
He had noted that she wore a white halter and turned-up blue shorts, displaying a figure befitting a movie star. Strands of honey-colored hair had eluded the ponytail and clung to her moist cheek. She placed a shapely leg on the mower platform, bent over to grasp the handle, and gave the cord another futile tug. Cliff strolled over and asked if she had checked the fuel.
“No,” she said with exasperation. “Fred told me it was ready to use before he left this morning.” She raised a tag end of the halter to wipe sweat from her chin.
“Sometimes they won’t start on grass,” he said. “Let’s try it on the driveway.”
She went along as he pushed the mower to a flat cement surface. He started the motor with a single pull.
“Oh, Cliff, you’re so clever,” she said, smiling gratefully, and took off across the lawn. The sight inspired a sigh. It might be coincidental, but she often seemed to be outside when he was. She must know how enticing she looked in her costume.
As he stood watching her, Eunice called him from the kitchen window. The solar engine was still running. He tilted the lens out of line with the sun lest the boiler run dry, then went inside with a backward glance. Muriel waved as she steered the self-propelled mower around a tree.
“What was her problem?” said Eunice, doing kitchen things.
“Couldn’t get the mower started.”
He tried to draw his wife to him, but she pushed him aside and opened the refrigerator. Twelve years on a short leash, he thought. Ten of those in the suburban doldrums of Jacksonville, where he had finally become a branch chief in the IRS regional office. He deserved a break.
He went into the living room and wrested a pillow from Bobby, who was about to pommel nine-year-old Shirley. It was time to make a move. Time to expand his life through the fame and fortune he hoped to gain in a noble cause.
The phones rang. Cliff and Eunice answered simultaneously.
“Is Mr. Bacon there?” said a woman’s voice. When Cliff responded, she said, “You called for an appointment with Mr. Sobel, patent attorney. Mr. Sobel will be available tomorrow at ten, if that’s convenient for you.”
“Ten’s fine,” said Cliff. He heard Eunice hang up the other phone.
The following morning Cliff called his office to say he’d be late and prepared to visit the lawyer. He considered whether to take the model. Would it be misleading? While it only approximated the product he foresaw, it should do as an illustration, especially if there was a window facing east. He placed the model in the SUV and headed downtown.
The traffic was still heavy at 9:30 A.M., and Cliff was unable to pass a truck that intermittently belched fumes. Waiting at a light, he contemplated the shimmering pollutants—CO, CO2, hydrocarbons. And he pictured a city with clean air, when vehicles, thanks to his invention, would run on alcohol produced with solar energy. Clifford Bacon had a mission.
Not to say, of course, that he was a bona fide inventor. Seated in the lawyer’s outer office, he felt a bit ridiculous. Most inventors today were engineers who worked for corporations, or at least came here with professional models or diagrams. How would the young receptionist view him, clearly an amateur, with this homemade contraption on his lap? He longed to explain that it represented a practical industrial system, to run solely on wasted energy, pollutant free. A machine to save the world.
Paul Sobel, around forty, probably no older than Cliff, obviously lived a soft life. Untold calories misspent. Cliff placed the model on a chair to grip a pudgy hand.
“If you raise that blind,” he said, “we can have a demonstration.” The lawyer obliged, sunlight poured in, and shortly the engine sprang to life. Sobel sat down and listened to Cliff’s explanation. Then he rose again and closed the blind, causing the engine to slow down and stop. He barely looked at it, Cliff noticed. For a patent lawyer, he showed damn little interest in a mechanical marvel.
“I hate to rain on your parade,” Sobel said, “but there’s nothing here that’s patentable. Lens, steam engine, power pack. And I’m sure you’re aware of other ways to turn sunlight into current.” He shoved a small calculator, presumably light operated, across the desk. “In fact, a firm we represent makes a solar furnace that generates five thousand degrees.”
“There’s more to it,” said Cliff. “Instead of a magnifying glass, picture a dome with many lenses focused on the boiler. Stationary. No energy needed to track the sun as the earth revolves.”
Sobel shrugged. “What firm would handle it without patents?”
“There’s more. Fill the boiler with sea water. Salt-free steam drives the piston. After each thrust, the steam escapes into a condenser using cold sea water as a coolant.”
“So? What’s that get you?”
“Drinking water,” he said with animation. “The Bacon Generator-Distiller solves three huge problems: energy, water shortage, and global warming.”
Sobel folded his hands, appearing to give it thought. Had he seen that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts? Wasn’t that a recognized principle in patent law?
“It would be a hard sell,” said the lawyer. “You’re bucking oil, coal, and nuke. Who’d take it on?”
“Maybe the government,” said Cliff hopefully.
“You’re dreaming. There’d be swarms of lobbiests to block it. But you might wangle a grant from the NSF or EPA to build a pilot, say big enough to light a public building.”
“I’ll look into it.”
“If it works out, I’ll be glad to register your trade mark.”
“Thanks, Sobel. Send me a bill for your time.”
“Oh, I will. Sorry I can’t be of more help.”
Cliff took the lawyer’s advice and wrote to the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Several days later he received letters enclosing application forms for grants. Applications to compete with Ph.D.’s in vast research laboratories. And both agencies warned that funds for development were severely limited.
He brooded. Even if he got a grant, there was no way he could produce a convincing prototype. It would mean taking time from work, hiring engineers, leasing land . . . Too big for a little guy to pull off.
So the dream faded. The model languished in the Bacons’ garage. Cliff tried not to be discouraged, but clearly saw that fossil fuels and uranium would hold the day. Only when VIPs were thirsty or choking would energy—clean, free energy—be drawn from the bountiful sun.
Days passed. Eunice decided to visit her parents for two weeks, taking the children. Cliff drove them to the airport.
On returning home, he saw Muriel take a potted plant from the trunk of her car. It looked like she might need assistance. But he heard a lawnmower and saw her husband follow it around a corner of the house. Muriel tried to open the screen door holding the plant, and Fred cut the motor to help. Then he sauntered over to chat with Cliff.
“Where you been keeping yourself?”
“Still at IRS plucking the geese. How about you?”
“Same old same old. Decided to take two weeks off.”
Muriel had reappeared at the back door, apparently to linger and watch them. Her hair was loose today, touching her shoulders. She wore a T-shirt and jeans, simple attire sending complex signals. Cliff made a point not to look as he talked with Fred. How could such a dolt have such a doll?
His eyes met hers for a moment.
What did it mean? Fred’s taken over the lawn care. Or, sorry, I’m pinned down for the duration. To ask would be awkward, maybe embarrassing. He’d probably never know.
As he was about to go inside, Joel’s father, Ed Woolsey, lumbered up the driveway. He apparently wanted to talk but took his time. Like his son, he was chubby, shapeless, a balloon going flat. He wore a baseball cap, and the legs below short pants were white and knobby. Cliff had heard he sold life insurance.
They exchanged greetings, platitudes. Long time no see. Everybody’s up to their neck these days; might as well be living in different states. Then: “Joel tells me you’re quite an inventor.”
“Really? I showed him a model.”
“He tells me it makes electricity from sunlight.” Was that a question? Woolsey tilted his head a little, squinting against the evening sun. Perhaps he meant to convey admiration. What did he want?
“Joel’s slipping in school,” he went on. “Did poorly last winter. We enrolled him in special classes so he could go to the next grade in September. Well, he’s got this science project to do, and they want the parents to get involved. I’m a real klutz with these things. Thought you might lend him your model.”
“Lend it?” said Cliff, scratching his head. “I don’t know. It’s hardly something Joel could have thought up himself, much less built.”
“Sure, I know that. Me neither. But you’ve seen these assignments they come up with. We borrow books from the library and sweat it out. There’s not a kid in that class could count frogs’ eggs without their parents’ help.”
“Well, why don’t we take a look and see what you think. See if you’d really want to pass it off as something Joel did.”
They went into the garage, and Cliff explained the apparatus. Woolsey touched the rim of the magnifying glass. “This really makes enough heat to boil water?”
“Joel saw it run.”
“He told me. I think this would do fine. We’d only need to borrow it for a week or two. We’ll print up a sign to explain it. What do you suggest we say?”
“Oh . . . maybe, ‘Solar Power: Our Gift from the Sun.’ Something like that.”
“Hey, that’s great. They’ll love it. You mind if I just take your model with me?”
Cliff watched him plod down the driveway bearing the planet’s best hope. Maybe someone with powerful connections would see Joel’s exhibit and promote the idea. Fat chance. They’d probably own shares in Exxon or General Electric.
Facing an evening alone, he decided to drive to Jack’s Bar & Grill for a beer and a cheeseburger. Maybe watch the game on television. Maybe get drunk.