After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Letdowns From Inventive Heights

Posted on September 1, 2010
Filed Under Business, Technology | Leave a Comment

Inventors often feel they are in the service of a higher goal than cleverness, but sometimes ingenuity has to be based on more than good intentions. This thought occured to us on reading in The New Yorker, as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, of the Rescue Reel. This is a well-meaning device, created at a cost of $335,000 in the inventor’s personal savings,  for letting people down from skyscrapers when it’s not possible to take an elevator or even the stairs.

Unless the $1,500 purchase price can be reduced considerably, or building codes in major cities become further sources of inflation, the Rescue Reel would seem to have limited potential, despite its cleverness. Its inventor, Kevin R. Stone, a California orthopedic surgeon, visited The New Yorker’s offices recently to describe how the device works, after explaining that he was deeply moved by the fate of the people trapped on the upper floors of the World Trade Center. So much so that he proceeded to develop the Rescue Reel on the model of a fishing reel.

“I remember thinking right then (on 9/11), If I can reel in a four-hunded pound fish, why can’t I reel out a four-hundred pound person?” Well, most of the panicked people would weigh less than that, a factor in favor of relieving stress on the mechanism, at least.

We get stressed thinking that a skyscraper descent system – down the exterior of a glass-walled tower – might even be needed again. Possibly so, but heaven help us if that’s the case. What needs to be learned from 9/11 is how to provide security against an attack on an office tower, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been doing a pretty good job of that at the nation’s airports. Also, we’re fighting a war to dissuade any further aerial terrorism. Maybe that won’t do it, but how many people can you picture letting themselves down the outside of a burning, smoke-belching skyscraper? Or even one in which the elevators are merely stuck, and you don’t feel like walking down all those stairs?

As The New Yorker puts it: “Providing a Rescue Reel for every office worker and apartment dweller above the reach of a Fire Department ladder would cost billions, yet no more than a tiny number of the devices, presumably, would ever be used; in terms of the greatest likely benefit to the largest number of people, mightn’t a sounder investment be colonoscopies?”

We’re not looking to deter inventiveness in writing this, and we note that Dr. Stone feels the price of Rescue Reels will come down considerably when/if they go into mass production.  But all kinds of questions arise if you picture a smoke-filled corridor with dozens of panicked people, and a limited number of Rescue Reels on hand to save some of them. Better that we apply all possible ingenuity to attempting to insure that the ghastly sort of no-exit situation created on 9/11 doesn’t occur again.

Use Rescue Reels, we’d suggest, for making rappelling safer for rock climbers. Though there, it’s the sport that matters, not the assurance of a safe descent. Foreseeable utility needs to accompany inspiration, doesn’t it? – Doug Bedell


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