After a decade and a half of development, 54-year-old former construction supervisor David Ward walked away with a $25,000 grant and a featured spot on the History Channel's Great Inventions Week series for his Strawjet, a farm implement that processes straw in the field into a mat for use as composite building panel. The Strawjet doesn't use the resins and chemicals used to make fiberglass or carbon fiber, creating instead a "greener," more natural material with a low cost that allows it to used for humanitarian efforts in the Middle East.
But making the Strawjet a reality was not an easy process. "I was pretty sure that it was never going to work," Ward said. "For many years, it was, 'David, when are you going to get a real job?'"
A cross between a sewing machine and harvesting equipment, the machine's inspiration came after a doctor who told Ward that tests came back with readings that were off the map from overexposure to worksite chemicals. Parts were the Strawjet were so difficult to come by that Ward said he had to manufacture his own – leading to a trial-and-error process that lasted nearly 15 years.
"Persistence is key," Ward said. "There are a couple people all along who believe in you. You have to have somebody that believes in you."
A pool of 25 semi-finalists gathered last night in Grand Central's Vanderbilt Hall for the awards announcement, with almost 200 people present to cheer them on. Opposite the ceremony, children and passersby browsed a traveling exhibit featuring their inventions. Representing 17 states, the semifinalists were chosen in March from almost 4,300 submissions, from every state in the nation—a diverse cross section, from an 80-year-old businessman from Michigan to a 20-year-old inventor from New Jersey.
Apple Computer co-founder Steve "Woz" Wozniak was on hand to both introduce and inspire the new inventors, commenting that the motivation and compassion of the inventos led them to such great ideas.
"I wanted them to understand how clever thinking [the inventions] are," Wozniak said. "Almost every one of these exhibits is worthy of winning, They all impressed me."
In addition to Ward's grand prize, four finalists were announced: Doctor David Cull, 47, for his "Hemoaccess Valve System," designed to regulate blood flow in grafts used to connect patients with kidney failure for dialysis machines; 48-year-old firefighter Robert Kelly for his "Resc-hue Lite Line," a waterproof, fire-resistant flexible light used for safety in low-light conditions; 51-year-old professor Sundaresan Jayaraman for his "Wearable Motherboard/Smart Shirt," a garment equipped with sensors for unobtrusively monitoring the vital signs of the wearer; and, finally, 20-year-old Kristin Hrabar for her "Illuminated Nutdriver," a driver equipped with LCDs on the outside of the tool and a laser light inside the tool's hollow shaft, making it easy to use one-handed, without a flashlight in the other. Each finalist took home a $2,500 grant and a spot on the same History Channel series, which premiered Wednesday night at 10 p.m. EST.
Firefighter Kelly said he hopes his invention, inspired by the courage of his fellow firefighters, makes life safer on the job.
"It all goes back to firefighters." Kelly said. "When they're in trouble, who do they call? More firefighters. What I'm trying to do is save seconds when seconds save lives."
Kelly said winning the award lends some authenticity to a design that went through some 20 prototypes.
"It feels great," he said. "It makes it a little more meaningful. It makes a lunatic more legitimate."
Hrabar, the youngest the 25, said her idea came to her in third grade, after she became tired of holding a flashlight for her father while he worked on household appliances.
"It was actually my third grade science project," she said. "I had to wait for science to catch up with my ideas."
Hrabar, who began to sell her invention on the market in 2000 at , said the process helped her overcome Attention Deficit Disorder and boost her self-esteem.
"I'm just really excited [to be a finalist]," she said. "It's a really great feeling to be acknowledged by the History Channel and TIME magazine."
As for Ward, the future holds many more prototypes – and the chance to construct a complete mock-up of a house using his winning invention. For young inventors, he said, "believing in yourself is the answer" to success.
But it doesn't hurt to read a few magazines along the way. "I was talking to the guys who were designing [the exhibit] and said, 'This has gotta look like the cover of a Seniorhelpline,' " he said with a smile. "God's honest truth." —Andrew Nusca
The entrance to the Modern Marvels Invent Now exhibit in New York's Grand Central Terminal. Photos by A. Nusca
Grand prize winner David Ward and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
David Ward's prize winning Strawjet display.
Clockwise from top left: Semi-finalist Carol Grove, finalist Robert Kelly, finalist Kristin Hrabar and grand prize winner David Ward.