The Satisfaction of an Inventor

UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block remembers an attempt to reduce infant deaths.

Michaela Rehle / Reuters

Are inventions that don’t make their way into general use still gratifying for inventors?

This week, I’m sharing a variety of responses to the question, “What insight or idea has thrilled or excited you?” This installment comes courtesy of Gene D. Block, UCLA’s chancellor, who harkened back to a time early in his academic career, when he took on a medical problem that he hoped to solve with a like-minded colleague:

As a young professor of biology at the University of Virginia 33 years ago, I had just watched a segment about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on “60 Minutes” when I headed off to my lab, as I did many evenings, to complete experiments. As a young father, I thought about how frightening it was that SIDS could occur with almost no prior symptoms. But infants who stopped breathing could apparently be saved if woken up in time.

Although devices had been invented to monitor infants’ breathing, they involved contact with the infant, required medical supervision, and were expensive. It struck me that such a device should be as simple and inexpensive as a home smoke detector –something everyone could have, but hopefully never need, to literally save a life. Ideally the device would not require any contact with the infant. This was my “eureka moment.” When I got to the lab, I ran into a close colleague, fellow neurobiologist and electrophysiologist W. Otto Friesen. We talked about SIDS and I mentioned my thoughts on the need for a simple monitoring device.

This caused Otto to have his own “eureka” moment. He noted how we took measures during lab experiments to prevent our body movements from inducing electrical signals in our amplifiers. Perhaps we could use these electrical signals caused by the infant’s chest movements to measure breathing by simply placing an “antenna” under the crib sheet or mattress?

We quickly got to work, fashioning an antenna from aluminum foil, placing it under a piece of plywood, and attaching it to monitoring equipment. One of us lay on the plywood while the other was able to observe our breathing signal and heartbeat. It worked! We should have been exhausted there at 2 am, but we were exhilarated. Within days we had built a portable version for about $15, adding an alarm that sounded if the infant stopped breathing for 20 seconds. Although it received widespread praise and attention, getting patented and licensed to a start-up company, it never came to market as we had hoped. But I do look back with great satisfaction and even joy for what we discovered.

Email to share an idea or insight that has thrilled or excited you.