Have You Ever Invented Something...

…only to find out that it already exists?

When I was in college studying for a physics exam, it occurred to me that if we performed radiation therapy using multiple low strength incidental beams instead of a single high intensity beam, we could minimize side effects.

After several days of telling my great idea to my friends, I learned that my idea had already been created, and it was called a gamma knife.

Has this ever happened to anyone else?

Much less purposeful, but I once thought a taco shell made out of something like a nacho cheese-flavored Dorito would be a wonderful product. Skip ahead a couple months and I see that very product on the shelf. I’m still searching my apartment for bugs.

An alarm clock that monitors your brain waves to determine the optimal moment, when you are sleeping only very lightly, to wake you up within a pre-set time interval, but at the latest at the end of that interval.

This exists??!

It’s so hard to come up with original ideas. I’d been playing around with Viktor Frankl’s *logotherapy * (an existential approach to mental health) and wondering how we might apply it using an evidence-based cognitive framework.

Turns out, it’s been done.

That’s just one example. Foo.

Pretty much exactly as I had dreamt it up, yes.

When my daughter Brooke was a toddler (1979) I decided to deep fry chuncks of chicken. I called them “chicken pops” since they popped up to the top of the fryer when they were done.

McDonalds called them McNuggets.

That’s kind of amazing. Good idea!

When I was younger, right around the time that digital thermometers became popular, I thought it would be a great idea to stick one in a baby pacifier.

An ex of mine and his buddy, while high, invented the pacemaker. This took place sometime in the early '90s. When they were sober, they figured out that the idea they came up with had been in use for a few decades.

Don’t tell anybody, but I’m thinking of marketing a blanket… with arms

A big problem with the internet is that it is too easy to find out that your ideas are not original.

Recently, I had an idea for a cartoon where the priest guy at the wedding altar says “you may kiss the bride”, and the groom, holding a phone thing, says “as soon as I update my status”. So I googled and there was a news story about a guy just having done exactly that.

Another time, after reading about an old English politician named Praisegod Barebone, I was thinking about writing a “what flavor LifeSaver are you?”-type quiz where you would learn your Puritan name. It had not been done, as far as I could see, but all the good jokes had already been made (e.g., combinations such as “More-fruit Fly-fornication”), so it seemed no longer worth the trouble.

On the other hand, without the internet, neither idea would have been conceivable anyway so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

I ‘invented’ the idea of using small drones as radar decoys by having them mimic the radar returns of planes that are much larger, faster, and farther away. This would work because the drone, by itself, would have practically no radar returns: Everything the enemy radar operators would see would be bogus radar signals generated by computers on the drone. Imagine the mass confusion caused by scrambling a whole wing of fighters to intercept a hundreds of bombers that don’t exist!

As it turns out, and this I found out years later, the Israelis beat me to the punch.

My next idea was chaff that actively retransmitted whatever radio-frequency transmissions it detected (possibly limited by filters), optionally after applying some algorithm to it (doppler shift, chirping, amplitude modulation, etc.). It’s the perfect thing to drop from your drones ahead of a bombing run. I expect the Israelis have already perfected it.

All the freaking time, although often it’s only later that the item shows up.
Rain-sensing windshield wipers and the electronic book are two that stand out in my mind.

A few years ago I was thinking about annular images, taken with a vertical camera and a parabolic reflector. This gives a 360 degree images which can be used for a variety of things, particularly (at the time) Quicktime VR.

And I imagined a car with a 360 degree hires video camera on top, driving and recording video from the World Rally Championship tracks, to be used for a game that streamed the video off disk, and didn’t rely on 3D graphics technology but used basic transformations of the video to generate photorealistic screen images as the game was played.

Recently I heard about a company called Real Time Race that uses exactly this idea with GPS tracking to allow live streamed real-time racing games during F1 events. <sigh>

Yet another good idea I didn’t follow through (although I could not have really done much other than a simple proof of concept).


When I was a kid (10-ish or so) I invented the bulls-eye level.

15 or 20 years or so ago, I invented a system of controlling and programming lights and appliances throughout your house using addressable units that plugged into the wall and received signals via existing wires (See X10).

I had the idea for a tea bag that fit in your coffee maker, except it was filled with coffee. Pre-measured, no messy filter perfect! I was 10 and then I saw a commercial for the exact product I thought I had invented. I was so disappointed.

In the late '60s, I invented ski brakes. No, I never built a working model (being all of eleven or so), but aside from the face that I conceived them with the prongs facing forward, they were in all particulars identical to the ones which were introduced in the mid-70s and still used today.

In elementary school, I invented the monkey cut.

I once regaled a group of workmates by inventing e-bay long after it existed.

I had seen a TV piece about a guy running a business from a disused warehouse. He stocks private individuals white goods for sale. No prices are displayed. Buyers make an offer and when one is equal to or more than the seller wants, they get it. The guy takes a cut.

I began speculating how he could improve the business using a good computer and went on and on. Until I had a system where there was no warehouse, no salesman, just electronic bidding.

This reminds me of the time I was disussing with a coworker of mine about an eBay-like website, but instead of auctioning off goods, you could auction off services, and perhaps even build up credits of some kind to put to use toward services, and maybe even bring goods into it. That’s when my friend stopped me, much to my chagrin, and said “Wait, but I think you just reinvented capitalism.”


A recumbent tricycle propelled with rowing motions. It turned out there are many different designs for rowing bi/tri/quadra-cycles, including at least one over 100 years old. They all have problems, including one common one: it’s very hard to steer with your arms and row at the same time.