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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: To find a problem that needs to be solved, just look all around

June 01. 2014 9:57PM

Over the past few months I’ve written about national and international problems: satellite tracking of airplanes in flight, the impending water shortage of this country, etc.

These large problems contain thousands of opportunities for us 99 percent inventors to invent. However, I receive several email inquiries weekly asking this question: “I would like to solve a problem. But I cannot seem to find any problem. Where can I look?” OK, now let us solve that problem first.

I grew up in a mountainous farm country in Japan in the war years. Farms suffered from being overrun by mice. Once their droppings were found in the grain crop being examined by the buyer, he would instantly discount the grade and buying price associated. Cats were the only known remedy for this problem of mice. Every few villages were serviced by a farm, which owned and operated a cat rental business. This is not unlike Hertz or Avis car rental, you go there and choose a cat from the bunch of cats they have.

Price per week differed from each cat. We had to pay a small rental fee per week, and then they’d tell us what this particular cat would eat. In the hot and muggy days I went to this farmhouse about 4 miles away to get a cat. It was in the midst of a busy season, and almost all the cats were out on rental, and the only ones remaining was the super top cat and one tame looking average cat. The owner told me to feed only live freshwater fish. The top cat was huge and looked ferocious, and the owner said he was very good in driving mice away. Our family, I thought, couldn’t afford him. So I picked the cheaper one, and rode back the 4 miles of farm road uphill all the way under the baking sun.

To make the story short, the rented cat didn’t work out at all. He wasn’t motivated. Mice would run in front of him a few feet away, and he wouldn’t do anything. In a few days this cat became a target of jokes in the family. It became my responsibility to return the cat to the rental house, and negotiate some refund in part or whole.

Now let’s get back to the inquiries from the readers: Where can I look? Mice are everywhere. The fact you can’t find them is either you don’t know what mice look like, or you are not motivated. So I would list what mice look like.

1) If you are personally inconvenienced, there sure is a problem or two hiding behind. The sources of the inconvenience could be caused by the problem(s) or caused by you. But you should know your behavior pretty much. So you can discount your part, and concentrate in trying to find the problem.

2) A very simple example: You sit down in a diner and ask for a cup of coffee. The waitress places a cup in front of you, and pours coffee in it. But in the short time span while the cup is empty, you find that the bottom of the cup has a triangular small dry sludge pattern due to the cup being hung by the handle after being washed. Probably it isn’t harmful. But it makes you feel unsanitary. This causes you to think that the place doesn’t pay much attention to thoroughly cleaning everything spit polish. Also this can happen at your home as well. OK, this is a problem. Find a solution.

3) If you hadn’t noticed the problem as a problem, either you weren’t looking for a problem or your radar is not sensitive to look for problems. Some people don’t see a problem as inconvenience. Then, you have to train yourself to be more sensitive.

Part II: Solution

Now let’s look at an average coffee cup. The weight distribution graph along the height is shown in Figure 1. Most average coffee cups are equipped with the handle at pretty much symmetrical around the middle of height, and this is where cup tree’s peg holds the handle. This means the cup, due to its weight at the bottom, tilts with bottom down as Photo 2A shows. The lower cup, Photo 2B, shows that a modified handle reshaped to force the hanging point much closer to the bottom would solve the problem, and all the residue water would run out and keep the cup dry and clean.

Cups must have been invented pretty much right in the middle of the Stone Age, anywhere from 4 million to 8,000 years ago. Originally cups didn’t have handles, I suppose. But sooner or later the cup needed to have a handle to hold hot liquid. Once you fix a handle to a cup, you need to hang it somewhere.

Tell me, 99 percent inventors, is it really hard to find a problem still? This problem was looking at your face about as long as 4 million years! You didn’t see it, eh? Please don ‘t remind me of the unmotivated cat I rented to chase the mice at the farm where I lived as a kid. I had an ignominious duty of returning him/her to the rental house and had to ask for a refund.

My humble and whispering (in shame) request was simply refused. The owner said he didn’t guarantee performance. I should’ve picked the top cat instead. He said all cats are now rented out. So I rode the hot windless uphill farm road in the baking sun 4 miles back to our farm with no cat and no refund. This was 70 years ago.

Shintaro “Sam” Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who improved our life. He is a businessman and an inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, who is credited as the original inventor of today’s portable fax machine. He also developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at

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