Thursday, June 4, 2009

(More) Family Traditions

I can write stuff: books, reported pieces, essays, even the textual haikus that go up on Twitter. But I’m not one for making stuff.

I was curious to know how someone devised a machine that makes books. So I called Jeff Marsh, inventor of the Espresso Book Machine. He explained that he’s always been “a fixer of things. If I can ask the right questions, I can fix a problem or solve it.” He said that the basement of his childhood home was set up with a lapidary lab, geology lab, electronics lab, and chemistry lab, which gave him the confidence to try out ideas and to follow his curiosity.

Though he’s a thing person and I’m a word person it turns out that we have something in common: inventors in the family. Marsh’s grandfather Albert J. Marsh had numerous patents, including one for the metal alloy that allowed for electrical heating, as in the toaster. My great-grandfather Lehman Weil created an early washing machine (the story is that he sold it to Maytag for $10) and the traffic light. I’ve heard other claims about the traffic light, but I do, somewhere, have a 1905 newspaper article describing Lehman Weil’s “Gift to the City of New York”. He was compelled to create his Stop-Go Signal after he witnessed a small child run down by an automobile in downtown Manhattan. In his presentation to the mayor, he read a poem he had written about the risks posed by the automobile.

Lehman Weil’s pride and joy was an early airplane, his Ornithopter. In some drawer I have his manuscript “The Story of the Weil Flying Machine”, which, in lovely embellished cursive, he wrote in anticipation of great success (and fame and fortune). Which never happened. But he didn’t give up. Here is my great-grandfather and his Ornithopter:Maybe there is a gene for quixotic enterprise. You think?

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