Rick Wagner's Inventions

I like to invent. It's pleasurable to develop new ideas. Listed below are some of my inventions that will actually work. My inventions that won't work, such as super-conducting cold-pipes (1986), and the space cable elevator (1976) are not listed here. Also not listed are my numerous inventions developed at TRW in the normal course of my work, inventions associated with my research at USC, and other minor inventions.

Self-Sharpening Razor Blade

A self-sharpening razor blade can be made from steel sheet that has a "sharp" hardness profile. This can be produced in a three-step process. First, carborize steel sheet on one side. The carbon diffusion will produce hardness on the carborized side that increases toward the surface. Second, mill the sheet to expose a region that has a steeply increasing (and concaving up) hardness curve. Third, weld two of these sheets together, hard side to hard side. Use vacuum pressure weld, for example. The resultant sheet cross-section hardness profile will be sharp. A blade formed from this material will tend to stay sharp as material away from the edge will wear faster than material near the edge. Originated in 1979.

Planar-Illuminating Camera Flash

A camera flash produces a spherical light iso-intensity profile. As a result a photograph of a group of people arrayed in a straight line will show the people toward the center being more brightly lit. A camera flash that produces a near-planar iso-intensity profile will more evenly light such a scene. This can be achieved by using an annular parabolic reflector and a toroidal flash element located in the focus of the parabolic annulus. The parabolic annulus is formed by sweeping an inclined parabola around an axis parallel to the camera axis. The axis of the parabola is inclined from the annular axis by an angle approximately equal to the lens half-angle. Hence, the parabolic axis sweeps a cone so the parabolic annulus projects light toward the periphery of the photographed scene. The combination of illumination directly from the front of the torroidal flash element and from the light reflected from the parabolic annulus will produce a more nearly planar iso-intensity profile. Originated in 1980.

Space Shotgun

This idea was inspired by the "smart rocks" (and later "brilliant pebbles") approaches to strategic defense. Instead of firing space-based rockets at ICBMs, the idea is to use a space based gun tube to accellerate a spinning 100 lb package of #2 goose shot. When the package is the right distance from the target, it deploys the shot which, because of its spin, spreads out into a disk which the target then flies through. The velocity difference gives each piece of shot the explosive power of a stick of dynamite. I propose a 100 ft long, ten inch diameter, graphite composite tube. The tube pressure is kept constant (50% of burst pressure, for example) by intelligently throttling the hydrogen and oxygen propelleant. When a swarm of enemy ICBMs is detected, aiming information is computed for the array of space shotguns. The shot package trajectories are designed to descend (go slower than the gun platforms) and intercept the rising missiles. Shot that misses will just burn up in the atmosphere.

Because only the payload (the shot) is accellerated, total system weight is minimized, leading to more bang for the buck. Velocities, pressures, masses, orbital flight times, etc. have all been computed and found acceptable. Originated in 1987.

1999 update: The August issue of Scientific American magazine has an article explaining why anti-balistic missile system's can't work. The space shotgun is not addressed.

Fluidic Muscle

Actuators for anthropomorphic robots have always been problematic. An actuator that simulates muscle will be useful. The fluidic muscle is made from plastic tubing reinforced with fabric aligned at a 45 degree angle as shown in the figure below:

Muscles of any size can be built up of bundles of fluidic muscle tubes. The force exerted by the bundle is proportional to the pressure of the fluid fed to the bundle and is also a function of the contraction. When fully contracted, the force exerted goes to zero. Originated in 1994. Note, August 16, 2009: a similar device has invented independently and patented.

Electric Hot-Airship

Hydrogen is an excellent lifting gas. Because it's di-atomic, it doesn't diffuse through thin membranes like helium, and I highly recommend it for ballooning on Mars. On Earth, however, hydrogen presents an explosion hazard. After reading about Count Von Zeppelin's efforts to revive the dirigible airship industry in Germany (LA Times, January 22, 1997), it occurred to me that for very large airships, using hot air might be optimal. The problem with helium is that it's expensive and has to be replenished frequently. To achieve high altitudes or descend, dirrigibles must sometimes vent helium. To re-ascend, they release ballast water. Using electric heating elements in air-filled gas cells can provide lift in large dirigibles. Power from the engines can be easily diverted to generate electricity to heat the air to ascend. Waste heat from the engines can be used for sustaining heat. Hot air can be vented to descend quickly.

Hot air provides only one fifth the lift of helium, but as airships are scaled up, the larger volume available for air cells mitigates this problem. Increasing scale also improves efficiency: heat replenishment power is proportional to gas cell surface area which increases with the square of scale, yet payload capacity increases with the cube of scale. Most dirigibles in the past were destroyed when flying in stormy weather. Modern imaging satellites and weather radar should allow new airships to avoid that danger. Originated in 1997.

More inventions.

Email Richard dot J dot Wagner at gmail dot com

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This page updated July 25, 1999.
This page updated December 20, 2002.
This page last updated August 16, 2009.