WASHINGTON — A capital rite of spring — the swarming of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History by tourists — took on a new dimension Friday when scores of award-winning young inventors set up their works in the museum's lobby.
Think science fair at a jammed shopping center. "March Madness for the Mind," it's called.
Among the attractions: a cheap all-terrain wheelchair made from mountain bike frames. A microwave-based system that makes finding land mines carefree. A computer cord that lights up when it's squeezed, so you can finally sort through the mad tangle behind your desk.
Some of the inventions are as new as chicks. Others are in the patent- or investor-seeking stages. All were stoked with money from the Lemelson Foundation of Portland, Ore., which is rededicating a room in the newly renovated museum this weekend.
The youngest team — 10 juniors and seniors from Clarksburg (Md.) High School skipping their AP classes — stole the show with its light-up computer cord.
Alex Ivanov, 17, a junior with long, thin sideburns and a laconic style, got the idea last fall after he pulled the wrong cord while he was fixing his mom's computer. With $10,000 from Lemelson, Clarksburg's InvenTeam discovered that lighting was the tough problem. LED and fiber optics failed. Finally, a thin glow wire sometimes used as decoration in clubs did the trick.
Only about $2,500 remains from the grant, Ivanov said. Most of the money went for tools and materials, he said. "About a grand went to pizza."
The InvenTeam hopes to complete its patent application by May, and Ivanov's already thinking about the perks.
"First you get the money, then the power, then you get the girls," he said.
Kevin Menear, 21, a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., already is leading an adventurous life. He's traveled around the world demonstrating his device, which uses microwaves to detect land mines.
Ruddy from a recent trip to Cancun, Mexico, Menear said he'd gone there to do research. "Research into tequila and its effects on the human body."
Well under way is a low-cost wheelchair assembled from mountain bike parts by students at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. It's intended for use in the rough terrain of Third World countries.
"The parts of a wheelchair that wear out are all the ones that rotate," explained Daniel Oliver, the executive director of the project. "And this chair can be repaired by any bike shop."
Wheelchair users in Antigua, Guatemala, are the test drivers, and their input has helped improve the prototypes, he said.
Michelle Fenwick, 34, a Washingtonian in a wheelchair pushed by her husband, Edwin, 36, rolled by to size up prototype number six.
She liked its knobby mountain bike tires. Her husband thought it needed a bag behind the seat to carry stuff. He also suggested height-adjustable handles on the back of the chair, so the wheelchair-pusher doesn't have to bend over.
Then they rolled off.
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