Age of invention
While most of us are content to sit back and wait for the next innovation to make our lives more convenient, one band of Hong Kong boffins is taking matters into its own hands, writes David Watkins. Illustration by Harry Harrison.
Evolutionary nirvana is still very much on mankind's to-do list. We might be giving ourselves congratulatory backslaps with our wireless internet and microscopic mobile phones, but in the big scheme of things we know only three things: our planet is one of many; we're little more than hairless apes; and we consist of DNA.
The people who managed to make these discoveries achieved personal glory, their names etched into the annals of human history forever. In the 16th century, Copernicus changed the way we saw the universe; 300 years later, Darwin enabled us to connect with the animal world. Watson and Crick, in unravelling DNA, taught us how to decode life.
Of course, for every Watson and Crick there are a million others trying to sharpen the blade of human knowledge. The world is watching with interest the work of Dr John Xin, his assistant Walid Daoud and Professor Hu Jin-lian at Hong Kong Polytechnic University: three people who are pointing us towards a world without ironing-boards and washing machines.
Their revolution will be in textiles, thanks to nanotechnology - the appliance of molecular phenomena on a scale 1/80,000th the size of a single human hair. Using it, they've created intelligent self-cleaning and shape-memory materials.
Of course, places such as Polytechnic University represent the gleaming, cutting edge of human discovery; the combined comforts of sparkling laboratories and government funding. At the other end of the blade is an old, unwieldy wooden handle, where a legion of old-timers with wild imaginations attempt, every day, to achieve brilliance on their terms and out of their own pockets. Three hundred or so boffins make up the Hong Kong Invention Association (HKIA), whose work is anything but a lab-coated cruise to fame and riches - it's more like a punctured dinghy with a broken paddle sailing against a current of measly funding. Against the odds, however, this could be the year when their reputations reach supernova status.
'We currently have an invention that could change the world,' says 88-year-old chairman Cheung King-fung, who, despite his age, is still the go-to guy in town if you are an aspiring inventor. He works 13-hour days, cocooned in a tiny office squeezed into a corner of an old shopping mall on Middle Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. This is the cramped, chaotic headquarters of the HKIA, where you have to stoop under a ceiling that is too low and where at least four people are usually talking at once.
It is also the phoenix that, in 1996, Cheung single-handedly dragged from the ashes of the old Institute of Patentees, Inventors and Designers, which fizzled out in 1986. He was ready to retire then, but says the international body of the Inventors Association pleaded with him to continue with an almighty guilt trip.
'They told me if I didn't do it then nobody would, and then the collective wisdom and power of seven million people would be lost,' he says. 'Who is going to refuse after hearing that?'
Providing a network for innovators that exist unsupported and independent from university or government resources, the HKIA has come up with 90 original inventions. The only membership requirement is that you are actively inventing something.
The world-changing invention Cheung speaks of may go some way to elevating the association's status, however. 'Energy from Gravity' is the slogan behind a non-petrol engine that its makers hope will revolutionise the world in the next 12 months.
Lawrence Tseung Chun-ning and Lee Cheung-kin have certainly experienced the force of nature in their more-than-fair share of ups and downs too. Seventy-year-old Lee was born in China and was sent to the former USSR to design Russian ballistic missiles during the 1960s. He fell from grace, he says, when it was revealed he had married a Japanese-Chinese woman and, for seven years after the Cultural Revolution, was forced to clean toilets.
Meanwhile, Tseung, who is 60, was a technology hotshot who made a fortune during a 30-year career that peaked with an internet patent he created in the 70s called 'Many to Many Communication'. He lost his personal fortune of US$6 million in bad investments and suffered two strokes from the stress.
Yet this has not prevented the two men from bouncing back with a device that, they say, could end the world's oil crisis. 'These days I don't have the pressure - I can think about anything I want,' says Tseung of his potentially glorious second coming. 'My physics lecturer in Britain gave me a choice many years ago. He said, 'Either you listen to yourself or you listen to me. If you listen to me, you will get a degree. If you go your own way I can't help you, because I don't understand your theories.' This was 40 years ago - I had already realised the mechanics of a system that did not require fuel. I've always known I was right.' It takes Tseung 10 minutes to explain his miracle machine and how it will apparently solve the world's fuel problems: by using a pendulum to swing across magnetic lines of force, generating electricity and creating a pulse engine that requires no fuel. He says the device has been successfully applied to create a 200-horsepower car, which the pair plans to ship from the mainland this month.
'Anybody can design such a device - the mathematics are extremely simple,' he says after going through a series of baffling equations. 'We know Nasa has been working on a pulse engine. We know we have the completed device - we can already demonstrate it. Any secondary-school student could have designed this, it really is that simple.'
All we need to make it work, he says, is world peace. Might be a problem, that.
'When we talk about the need for world peace, this is why - all the amazing things we could invent but get abused. We could have mastered the huge amount of energy that is already around us; instead, we use it to make bombs that get into the wrong hands. If we have hate in our hearts, we'll end up dying together. We will get nowhere.' Of course, for every grand idea, such as a fuel-less engine, there's an invention that seems a bit potty - literally. Like Archimedes shouting 'Eureka!' in the bath, inspiration tends to come from unlikely places. For 50-year-old HKIA member Leung Sik-kau, the magic came from sitting on the toilet.
His invention, the Anti-Splash Bowl Ball is described as the contraption that 'kicks off all embarrassment during the time in the toilet'. His belief in it is so strong he sold his flat to raise $1.8 million to fund his activities. Not surprisingly, his wife isn't too pleased.
'My wife won't let me do our accounts anymore,' says Leung. 'In fact, she won't let me near them.
She has taken charge of everything and she thinks I'm wasting time and money. I have to beg her to
give me money to continue my research, but she will only give me $3,000 a month to do it. She is not too impressed.'
Neither is the Hong Kong Productivity Council, which has so far declined to grant Leung a patent for his creation, currently still in the experimentation stage. Successful applicants can enjoy up to $100,000 from the government's Patent Application Grant Programme, which covers 90 per cent of the development costs for an idea deemed patentable. Research and development grants of up to $2 million are also available from the Small Entrepreneur Research Assistance Programme but, unfortunately for Leung, some people don't share his round the U-bend vision.
His highly specific story of how he came to realise the necessity for the Bowl Ball is too grisly to print - suffice to say diligent hand-washing would have done the trick and it will make you think twice before shaking his hands. Yet Leung's faith in the product - as well as his others, including a customised pizza fork rejected by Pizza Hut last year - is unshakeable.
'I spent four or five months doing research,' he says. 'It involved going to different shops and assessing the different shapes and sizes of toilets. I measured them all and then hired a plastic moulding machine to make the samples - because you need different-sized balls for different-sized bowls.'
Then there's Ricky Chung Tat-chi's Automatic Musical Barbecue. Resembling something out of a bad 60s science fiction movie, it comes complete with flashing lights and a rotisserie that can, apparently, give new meaning to the term 'funky chicken'. The machine, which cost Chung a handsome $2 million to create, can even remember how it cooked your food according to what song it was playing at the time.
Lee Siu-fai hopes his palm-sized earthquake detector, dubbed the Quakestar, will also take off. A pressure sensor enables it to sound an ear-splitting alarm at the hint of the slightest vibration, while it is capable of alerting rescuers searching through rubble for up to seven days after the event. The 60-year-old has spent $2,000 of his own money developing the project, having also had his proposal for a development loan turned down by the Productivity Council.
These and many ideas, from the sublime to the silly, are all vetted by Cheung, who begins his day at 9am and claims to be visited by at least three inventors daily. 'They come for advice on how to market their products, how to obtain loans from the government, things like that. I ask them if their inventions are beneficial to improving living, otherwise they should not waste too much time, money and spirit on it.'
There can't be many 88-year-olds as motivated as Lee to ring the changes personally, but he maintains nothing makes him happier than hearing about new ideas. It's especially impressive considering he missed out on being Asia's answer to Bill Gates by a whisker. Instead, he was working as a coloured contact-lens importer until five years ago.
'Look around you,' he says, leaning over his tiny desk. 'All our mobile-phone keypads, that voice recorder you have there - they're only possible because of touch pads,' he says. 'And that's my invention. I came up with that 30 years ago and now look at it all ... the computers, telephones - all soft touch. All my invention.'
Cheung created a revolutionary pocket electronic organ in 1973, but only patented its touch-pad technology as applied to musical instruments. While the pocket organ sold a few thousand units in Europe and the United States and won him a couple of awards, he missed out on the bigger prize. 'I did not profit from it. I had a patent, but I was stupid because I only made it cover musical instruments and nothing else. It's very funny isn't it?'
That he can laugh about it speaks volumes, but Cheung is determined to rebel against what he
regards as Hong Kong's profit-conscious climate, one that is not conducive to the sort of trial and error the vocation demands.
'The problem here is, all too often, people expect you to make a fast profit, make a lot of money and then get out and keep it,' he says.
'People think inventors are crazy because it is such a slow process and you're seen to be losing
a lot of money on things that won't take off. People must realise that, without inventions, life would
be very different.'
Additional reporting by Helen Wu.