On February 27, 2013, Gabriel Mesa joined Jack Hitt onstage at the Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of the ongoing series “Amateur Hour,” in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions. Mesa, who is thirteen, began inventing in grade school. He was a finalist in the 2012 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and has won several awards at the Connecticut Invention Convention. The conversation that follows was recorded live and has been edited for brevity and meaning.
Jack Hitt: When did you decide to become an inventor?
I moved to Connecticut when I was eight and started inventing with what I call the Breath Saver. One thing I learned when inventing is that you can use anything and it will work at least for something you need. So stockpile on a lot of stuff that seems irrelevant. This thing here is a doll stand. I used pillow casing and stapled leather to make a model of the neck. My invention was to help stop the pain and infection from a tracheotomy. Instead of having a tube that would be pulled off and pushed back on, which can be painful, I invented a screw-on connector for the tube that’s attached to the neck.
What happened that you even came up with this idea?
Well, my grandfather has a tracheotomy, and one day I was researching it because I didn’t know what a tracheotomy was, and I found all these problems. I asked him about it and he said it really was painful. At first I thought about making an overcomplicated businessman’s-latch thing. But then I saw a soap bottle with a screw-on cap. I was looking for connectors, something that could be easily taken off and put back on. Another problem with tracheotomies is bacteria. The screw-on is supposed to help keep the bacteria away, too.
Did you show this to anyone?
I brought it to the Invention Convention here in Connecticut.
What happens after a convention like that?
Usually I just start working on something new.
So, what came next?
Next I made a guidance watch, a kind of iPhone on your wrist that would prevent patients suffering from dementia or schizophrenia from running away or forgetting their families. It sends them pictures and other images to remind them who they are.
A guidance watch for schizophrenics?
Right. When patients with schizophrenia were being delusional, they’d get a message on the watch to bring them back. They would see images that would restore them to a calm state of mind. Images of family members or soothing images. The guidance watch notifies you that you’re not thinking rationally. And studies show that hearing this from a machine is much easier for people with schizophrenia to comprehend than from a human.
What happened in your life that made you think to invent that?
Well, I have a relative with schizophrenia, and one day I was looking through the paper and saw a story that said something like, “Dementia Patient Runs Away.” I thought, What would be an invention to help, you know, kind of soothe someone like that? Now it could be an app in, like, four minutes.
Have you talked with doctors to see if it would work?
I actually have, and they thought it was a good idea. And then, you know, the next year the iPhone comes out and the idea’s outdated.
Have you ever invented something that didn’t have a medical application?
I built a trebuchet out of paper.
Remind us what a trebuchet is.
It’s like a catapult, but instead of being spring-loaded, it’s an arm with a longer end and a shorter end. The shorter end has a large weight on it, and the longer end has a sling on it. When the shorter end falls down, the long end propels the sling and launches stuff. With the paper one, I made a little bucket to put rocks and things in, and then I put a sling on it, and it launched about two inches. Then I made a cardboard version.
How big was that one? I think a real trebuchet is something like twenty feet long.
It wasn’t so big, and it didn’t launch that far. Then I made a third one out of pipes.
Out of pipes?
Copper pipes, which would fetch a really good price on the market now. Anyway, my grand-father welded them, and then I added weights to them, and I put a battery in there. It shot all the way across the room, almost hitting a painting and breaking it.
Excellent. Why didn’t you take it outside?
I didn’t think of that.
Did you break anything in the course of your trebuchet experiment?
Just the trebuchet itself.
So, what is this tall thing?
This is an IV tube and this is an alarm. This device is a prototype, an early demo called a proof of concept. The reason I came up with this is because when my grandfather was in the hospital, the doctor tripped over his IV and it was out for almost ten minutes, and the doctor didn’t even notice. See, an IV tube is clear. There are several parts to this invention. And I figured out the first part when I saw some green ivy growing on a wall. I could just color the tube in bright orange so that you could always see the tube. I used those straws from Dunkin’ Donuts in my prototype. But then you couldn’t see the medicine going through it, so I cut up the straw and wound it around like a barber’s pole. That way, you can see the orange tube and also see the medicine flowing in the tube.
Nice. But why the alarm?
That’s in case the doctor does trip on it. Because if an IV is out for a long period of time, it can be fatal. There are other problems from pulling on the line—misconnections and strangulations. You can set this alarm so that it reacts to any change in pressure on the line.
How did you come up with this idea?
I was in my mom’s office. It was Bring Your Kid to Work Day, and she had one of those musical greeting cards for me to play with. I was six or seven years old. So I took the card apart and figured out how the switch worked. When you pull open the card, it’s like pulling on the IV tube, it sets off a sound. There aren’t any greeting cards that play an alarm sound, so my first IV-pole prototype, if you yanked on it, played the national anthem.
Why isn’t this in the hospital already? It seems to me, with all due respect, a very clever but obvious fix to a problem.
Well, a lot of my inventions are. The screw-on, the IV cord. No one thought of them because most of us just accept everything the way it is. When there’s a need, then there’s a need to fix something. I don’t think the doctors saw that need.
Why do you think you saw that need?
Maybe because it was my relative? I’m not sure.
Do your friends see things this way or do they realize that you see things differently?
I don’t understand the question.
Well, when you looked at something like the IV tube, you saw a problem and immediately thought up some way to fix it.
I think seeing the problem is actually the hardest part, because finding the way to fix it is obvious. Sometimes the solution doesn’t work, but you know what you’re trying to do. When you don’t know what you are trying to do then you have everything in the universe to choose from. So finding the problem is the first step.
Do you see problems everywhere?
There are lots of little problems, but they don’t need to be fixed. I could find ten problems in a row. But I don’t fix them.
What’s this last invention?
Well, my father and grandfather have sleep apnea, and with some apnea, what happens is your tongue sags into the back of your mouth while you sleep. When that happens, you gasp and it messes with getting enough blood and oxygen to your brain and can lead to a heart attack. The good news is that there are a lot of solutions, but the bad news is the solutions are very uncomfortable.
And what’s the most popular solution today?
CPAP therapy. The CPAP is a mask that pressurizes the air in your mouth and holds open your throat. I tried it on once. It isn’t very comfortable.
So I built a model of the head. This green thing is the tongue, and the windpipe is all this silicone here. When you lie back, your tongue flops back in your throat making it hard to breathe. When that happens you have to wake up and gasp for air, so you’re constantly in a state of—in like a twilight zone. You’re not sleeping.
At first I tried using ferrofluid, a magnetic fluid. I saw a video of someone walking on water, and that’s because it was actually non-Newtonian fluid. When you hit it, it turns solid, but if you walk slowly through it, it will turn liquid. Ferrofluid turns solid when you put it under a magnet, and then it attracts the magnet. Using that concept, I developed a silicone implant for the throat and a magnetic collar.
So, during the day, the implant would be liquid, and you wouldn’t feel it, but at night the magnetic collar would trigger the implant to become solid and pull it up to keep the airway open?
Yes, and make sure even if the tongue was flopping back—
—you’d still be able to get air in.
Right. But then I looked at the cost. Neck surgery is, like, three thousand dollars without the cost of implants. Then you have rehab and all these doctors’ appointments. This was not the best route. So, I came up with a piercing under the tongue. By day, you would have a simple fastener holding it in place—no one could see it. But at night, you would attach a special bolt to the underside of the tongue stud. When you go to sleep, you wear this collar, which is much more comfortable than a CPAP machine. You just tighten it. This one here contains a neodymium magnet. When you tilt the head back, as you can see, the tongue doesn’t flop back.
How did you research the tongue-stud idea?
I went to a store called Black Diamond Piercing.
I see. You just walked in the door at age twelve?
With my six-year-old sister. And my mom. The lady behind the counter was very confused. She thought I wanted a piercing with my sister or something. She starts telling us all these rules and regulations in the state of Connecticut, you know.
What kind of questions did you ask her?
I asked for under-the-tongue piercings, any piercings in the tongue that would be magnetic, and she said that no jewelry there was magnetic—only in, like, cheap stores.
This was a classy piercing shop.
Very fancy. The fancy ones have “diamond” in their names. I don’t think she really got it until she actually sold us something. One was, like, a rod. One was a horseshoe shape. When she was going through the jewelry—you know, “Is this what you want? Is that what you want?”—she unscrewed a little cap on one of them, and I was, like, Ah! Then I realized I could put a magnet on top of the cap. You could use the regular cap in the daytime, so that if by chance you held a magnet near your face your tongue wouldn’t stick to it.
Good call. So, you’ve got your regular day stud and your magnetic night stud.
Right. Your night stud is the magnet and the collar attracts the stud. The exterior magnet pulls the interior stud and keeps the tongue from falling over.
How did you come up with the right tongue simulacrum?
My dummy tongues are made out of ballistics gel, which is the stuff they use on MythBusters to demonstrate the viscosity and density of human flesh.
To replicate an actual tongue, I measured out seventy grams, which is an average tongue weight. I melted it down and re-formed it, and then I put it into water balloons.
Did you want it to have the weight only or also the consistency?
Not the consistency so much as the density.
So, what advice would you give a young inventor?
I think the secret is having a lot of junk laying around. It allows you to tinker with things, and then you can experiment.
You are the kind of person who looks at a holiday greeting card and sees an IV-pole alarm—were you born looking at things this way or do you think the rest of us could be taught to look at the world the way you do?
I think everybody can be taught to look at the world this way. A lot of it is about taking things apart. And playing around. And blowing things up, like on MythBusters.