Shed Inventors

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Apr 21, 2009 11:53 AM
By Shannon Duff

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have a reputation for being an industrious bunch. All around the province, there are people who thrive on tinkering with things. People like my dad. He's not a professional scientist or inventor, spending hours in a lab with test tubes, goggles and freaky hair like the guy in Back to the Future. He's a regular person who is always hard at work thinking of new or better ways to do stuff.

On any given day, you can find Dad out in his garage, welding or hammering or sawing something. On the day I visit him for inspiration for my story, I find him in a haze of blueish-gray smoke, wearing a set of dirty coveralls and a welder's helmet, and using a welding rod to fuse "something or other" together. He doesn't see me walk in, so I stand there for a minute or two, looking around his huge, self-built garage.

An iron wood-stove that he made himself sits in one corner. There is a funky looking platform above the garage floor that holds his snowmobile during the off-season. An aluminum contraption resembling a dustpan with prongs - designed to make the tedious, backbreaking work of picking berries a little easier - leans next to a homemade log splitter. The shed also houses Dad's extensive supply of tools and other countless gadgets that he has made for one project or another. This is just Dad's way. If he wants something but feels it's too expensive to buy, he builds it himself. If he conceives an idea for something that doesn't exist, he invents it.

Here are four more people who, in one way or another, are "shed inventors" like my father.

Because sometimes you need a fix
Bernard Cook is originally from Deep Bight, Newfoundland. A bright, animated person who is full of life, he absolutely loves the great outdoors. One of his passions is camping, and being immersed in the wilderness, the fresh air, the singing birds and the pretty sunsets. Bernard's other great love is coffee. For a long time, combining these two proved to be quite a headache for him. Packing two stovetop perks and a coffee press, Bernard found the absolute worst part of camping was getting up in the morning and facing the 15 minutes it takes to make the first java of the day. He says the boiled taste left on the coffee was bad enough, but spitting out coffee grounds was even worse.

During the May 24th weekend in 2007, Bernard hit on a solution to this dilemma. His idea? Fresh perked coffee made in a squeezable thermos-like bottle. He calls it the Survival Perk.

"As soon as your water's boiled, within 45 seconds you can have 24 ounces of the best perked coffee you ever had!" he claims.

"When you squeeze the cylinder, it creates the pressure." says Bernard. This squeezing action forces the boiling water through the filter screen at the top of the cylinder. Short squeezes make strong coffee, and longer squeezes make a lighter coffee. It's designed with heat-resistant polyethylene that helps keep the cylinder's shape between squeezes.

Bernard Cook demonstrates his Survival

One could argue Bernard's energy level is in direct correlation with his coffee consumption, but either way, he's an extremely likable fellow. His pressure-infused Survival Perk may transform the way we prepare coffee at home, in the office and definitely in the woods.

"There's no waiting and you save on your camp fuel, it's lightweight, durable and it floats!" says Bernard, whose company, Demand Innovations, packages the product here on the island. (And there's no Bisphenol A in the plastic - that's the nasty chemical Health Canada has been warning people about in recent months.) You can watch Bernard demonstrate the Survival Perk on his Web site:

Warming up to an idea
Earth, wind and fire: it's a good name for a rock band and a good way to describe Newfoundland inventor Jim Meaney, of Colliers. He's a quiet, reserved, salt-of-the-earth type of guy, who had a simple idea and made it happen. Long before Al Gore and his Inconvenient Truth documentary about global warming dangers, Jim was busy thinking about a way to heat his home without fuel, wood or electricity.

"Twenty years ago, they were saying we were causing climate change. I'm just afraid that if we don't do something now, one day we are going to have the straw that broke the camel's back," says Jim.

The idea of how he could evoke positive environmental change came to him in the most bizarre way. Jim says he was sitting back in an easy chair in his home. Beside him was a stack of pop and beer cans. He got up to bring the cans to the garbage when he had what he says was a "eureka moment."

"You know, when the light bulb comes on? It was just like that, too!" he says.

What came to Jim as he carried those cans to the garbage was a most simplistic way to create solar power. His rudimentary concept of cutting the bottoms out of pop cans, taping them together and then using a hair dryer to blow hot air through them was the beginning of what has become an eco-friendly way to heat a home. Jim says that if he was told 20 years ago that his idea would become an incorporated company and used all over the world by hundreds of homeowners, "I'd say you're crazy." Yet that is exactly what has happened.

Jim's forced air solar heating unit is called the Cansolair, and it's being installed on homes across Canada and in countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the U.K. and Italy. The cost of the 80-pound unit is a mere pittance compared to the thousands of dollars it saves over time in traditional home heating costs.

At a recent trade show, Jim Meaney of
Colliers describes his unique, environmen-
tally friendly home-heating system.

So how does the Cansolair system work? A bunch of aluminum cans (249 to be exact) are painted black and fused together, end to end, and covered by a sheet of clear glass. This unit is attached to the outside of a house. A small electric fan is fastened to the top and when the sun's rays heat the air inside the cans to a certain temperature (43.3 °C), the fan kicks in and blows the hot air into a vent that circulates it throughout the house.

A small home can be heated within 15 minutes of the sun hitting the pop-can solar panel. "In Newfoundland, with a unit like this, you need to get as much sun as you can," Jim says, adding that while it's not a replacement for traditional heat, it does "greatly reduce our daylight hours dependence on it."

In fact, Jim's calculations show that in a year a Cansolair system can reduce your heating costs by 30 per cent, just because you're not continuously adjusting the thermostat on the wall.

During a recent environmental trade show at the Masonic Temple in St. John's, I find Jim, who has been kept busy answering questions about Cansolair. "I sold at least two here today, and a whole lot of people left their names for me to get in touch with them later," he tells me. At the same show last year, he sold seven units. "We are watching the climate change now and the glaciers melt. The effects are real. This is not going to stop climate change, but it won't add to it," says Jim.

He now has a Newfoundland distributor - Byldsmart - and anyone wanting to check out the environmentally friendly units can get in touch with that company. Meantime, Jim has no worries about running out of pop cans for his business - he gets them from the Multi-Materials Stewardship Board, the province's recycling agency.

Breaking new ground
Dave Taylor of Conception Bay South says he's not really an inventor in the traditional sense of the word. But every time someone comes to him with a problem, he manufactures a solution.

Dave Taylor of CBS is known as the go-
to guy for unique contraptions designed
to spec.

"Everything I do is new to me, so I guess, they're all inventions, really," Dave admits. Take for example, the vegetable washer he built for a local farmer. That's right, an industrial vegetable washer! The farmer needed a way to get the carrots and potatoes he yanked from the ground washed and sent to the market as fast as possible. The owner of Peach's farm in Foxtrap is grateful for what Dave came up with, as the machine saves him hours of work.

Dave also built that same farmer a specialized plow that makes his soil less rocky. It's an intriguing invention. The large, square iron box is pushed by a tractor and as it moves along the ground, its edges dig into the dirt and scoops up rocks, pulling them out right of the soil. "It's better than any product sold commercially," the farmer says.

Dave has a reputation for being the go-to guy when you need something unique built to spec, and nothing is too small or too big. "I even made a few snow baskets for snow removal trucks," he says.

Helping others by using his ingenuity is nothing new for Dave - he's been creating things that help other people since he was a boy. It was something he began doing with his dad. "I can remember being 12 years old at my father's welding machine. I was always with him, watching what he did," Dave says, adding that his dad, now 74 years old, has always been his biggest inspiration.

Dave eventually made a welding career for himself, and today he operates out of his own huge 52'x34' garage on Taylor's Lane in Foxtrap. There he keeps all the tools of his trade at the ready: propane cylinders, welding masks, steel rods - but where are all his handmade gadgets? "Everything that I've invented is gone!" Dave says.

The requests keep piling up, but he doesn't mind. In fact, Dave says he's quite happy with the name he's acquired for himself as someone people can rely on when they need a job to be done.

A whale of a time
Jon Lien has given most of his life to the science of marine dynamics. In his 69 years, he has produced numerous studies on the way humans and aquatic life coexist. He is best known as the "father of Whale Alarms," a product that was his idea and is now manufactured en masse in the U.S. and delivered to fishermen around the world.

Wayne Ledwell is a longtime friend and colleague of Jon's. Wayne speaks highly of him and says fishermen also have a lot of respect for him. "More than anything Jon is a pioneer," Wayne says. "A lot of the work he did is used internationally. He did a lot of good work, not only with whales, but also with protected areas and conservation, and organic farming, in the province."

Jon is no longer actively involved with whale research, due to a traffic mishap several years ago that has left his cognitive thinking ability significantly reduced. However he does have moments of vivid clarity, when his mind locks onto a memory of the some of the amazing work he's done.

Originally from North Dakota, Jon moved to Newfoundland in 1968 to teach animal behaviour at Memorial University. The conservation biologist began research on whale alarms in the early 1980s, after inshore fishermen came to him for help in keeping humpback whales out of their nets. One of his first attempts was what he called "a clanger" - a piece of six-inch pipe with a balloon attached that would make noise and scare away the whales.

This device for keeping whales out of fishing nets is the result of decades of work by the "father of whale alarms," Jon Lien.

"The clangers were a bad idea because they would get tangled," says Jon. "We didn't use them very long." He worked to improve it and came up with a device that used a six-volt battery and a beeper. It was made with PVC pipe. That didn't quite do the job, but he didn't give up. He just started work on another prototype.

"I tried everything, (using) different sounds. It was mostly hit and miss. We really did try everything we could think of," Jon recalls. His next design, he says, was too big and too expensive for the average fisherman, though many did use it.

When the cod moratorium was declared in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1992, the MUN professor started working on alarms to keep harbour porpoises out of fishing gear for New England fishermen in the United States. His work led to the ultimate invention of the Whale Away - a device attached to a fishing net that emits a sound that signals whales and other mammals to slow down (similar to the way flashing hazard lights tell us to slow down), theoretically preventing them from slamming into the net and getting tangled. The frequency of the alarm is at a level that fish cannot hear, so they still get caught in the net.

Because of his years of dedicated research and development into whale alarms, Jon has earned a reputation as the person fishermen and conservationists the world over could turn to. Today, his name is synonymous with whale release and protection. And as recognition of his lifelong work, on June 10 this year, Jon Lien will be awarded the Order of Canada.