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Wacky ideas get respect at the U.S. Patent Office

WASHINGTON—Some of the wackiest ideas in the world are preserved in the sprawling headquarters of the U.S. Patent Office in Alexandria, Va.

An anti-eating face mask. Bird diapers. A motorized ice cream cone. Brakes for a surfboard. A spanking machine. A burping beer mug. A cat exerciser.

These are among the dozens of obscure—some might say ridiculous—patents that the U.S. government has issued to inventors. Patents are supposed to help the economy by promoting innovation, but it's a stretch to see the usefulness of some far-out devices.

Not all these patents led to commercial products. One that did was a mechanical "high five" arm. The inventor, Albert Cohen of Troy, N.Y., had said it was meant to let a "solitary fan ... express excitement during a televised sporting event." It consists of a spring-loaded artificial arm and hand, mounted on a table, that slaps back like a missing buddy when it's struck.

Cohen patented his bright idea in 1994 and sold it through novelty stores before he died in 2004. "I still have some of them around," his widow said. "I wish I could find somebody to take them off my hands."

An anti-eating face mask, patented in 1982 by the late Lucy Barmby of Sacramento, Calif., was supposed to help people keep from getting fat.

It consisted of a cup-shaped wire screen that fits over a person's mouth and chin. The user can talk but can't shovel food into his or her mouth. The mask is attached with a strap behind the head. For those weak of will, the strap may be locked with a key to keep it from being removed.

"Under emergency conditions, the strap ... may be cut," the patent adds reassuringly.

"Obesity is a basic problem with which many people today are confronted," Barmby said in her patent application. She said the mask would be especially helpful to chefs, restaurant workers and housewives, "who must frequently cook meals during the day" and face "the temptation to nibble on the food being prepared."

"Many persons are virtually without the strength of will to resist overeating," she declared.

A diaper for pet birds was patented by Lorraine Moore of Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1999. A spandex pouch to collect droppings is supposed to be attached to the bird by elastic straps and hooks with openings left for the wings and tail feathers. The invention is for sale under the more appealing name of "FlightSuits" for birds.

In 1987, the government granted a patent to Chet Fleming of the Dis Corp. in St. Louis, for a way to keep an animal's—or person's—head functioning after it's been cut from its body. The head is placed in a box and connected to a series of tubes that supply it with blood and nutrients.

"It is possible that after this invention has been thoroughly tested on research animals, it might also be used on humans suffering from various terminal illnesses," Fleming's application said. He said the head "might experience a period of consciousness after it has been severed from the body."

Arlen Olsen, a patent attorney in Albany, N.Y., collects odd patents as a hobby. He dug up an ancient one for a "spanking machine" that he said "must have been designed by a sadist."

Another oldie, patented in 1930, was an "apparatus for obtaining a criminal confession" by using a "fake alien" to scare a suspect. No word on whether CIA interrogators have been using it.

In 1965, George and Charlotte Blonsky of New York patented a device to speed childbirth by strapping the mother-to-be on a spinning delivery table, hoping that centrifugal force would help the process along.

In 1999, Richard Hartman of Issaquah, Wash., patented a "motorized ice cream cone" consisting of a rotating cup powered by a small electric motor. The user is supposed to stick his or her tongue out and slurp the contents as the cup rotates.

In 2001, a Japanese inventor, Noboru Yokoya, patented a "braking system" for a surfboard. He proposed attaching two sponsons—little wings—to the sides of the surfboard. In case of need, the surfer pulls a rope releasing the sponsons and slowing the board.

Some other off-the-wall patents include a beer mug that burps when put down on a bar, a shoe air-conditioner, a trap that feeds birds to cats and a trumpet that also shoots flames.

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To see the patents mentioned above, go to www.uspto.gov/patft, click on "Patent Number Search" and look for the following numbers:

High-five arm: 5,356,330

Anti-eating face mask: 4,344,424

Bird diaper: 5,934,226

Head in a box: 4,666,425

Childbirth centrifuge: 3,216,423

Motorized ice cream cone: 5,971,829

Surfboard brakes: 6,305,307

Burping beer mug: 5,536,196

Shoe air-conditioner: 6,594,917

Bird trap-cat feeder: 4,150,505

Trumpet flame-thrower: 4,247,283

Fake alien: 1,749,090

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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