By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Mark Raczkowski makes an unassuming soldier in the war on terror. The 72-year-old Polish immigrant with aquamarine eyes and silver hair shuffles around his tidy Coconut Creek condo in slippers and a blue dress shirt with a gold watch worn outside the left cuff. On his small dining table are scattered green plastic templates, for tracing angles and curves, such as those he drew for the patent that lies nearby: the promising patent number 6,663,046, a safety door for airplane cockpits, awarded in December.
Raczkowski, a mechanical engineer by training, holds four other patents, nonstarters all. In the 1970s, he devised two smokeless ashtrays, including one for cars that would also hold a cigarette to a driver's lips, and bed-making devices of both the collapsible and automatic varieties. None sold.
Then, events. As a 12-year-old in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Raczkowski smuggled messages between soldiers in the underground Polish National Army, for which the nation honored him with three medals in 1994. On September 11, 2001, duty called again. This heretofore pioneer of linen management and ash disposal set about designing a cockpit door that would resist bullets yet also breathe, with vents to share air pressure with the cabin. The door includes a shielded window through which, should the occasion arise, pilots may snipe. Within six weeks, he had submitted his application. Hoping to build a prototype, he asked guards at Miami International Airport permission to measure a jet's cockpit door. After security questioned him for three hours, he says, a commander saw on his passport that he had been to China.
"They categorized me as Chinese spy," he says in his heavy Polish accent, laughing. "So I couldn't get measurements."
Authorities sent the inventor on his way.
You can never be too careful in South Florida, the training ground for one-way-flight hijackers and home of the first anthrax scare. Had the Immigration and Naturalization Service been as skeptical of, say, 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, who slithered into the States through the same airport, Raczkowski might have spent his efforts on more unmarketable gadgetry. Instead, he and dozens of other inventors reached for their protractors in an effort to keep anthrax out of your mailbox and airplanes out of your skyscrapers. The 26-month average wait for the patent office to process applications means those babies are still sluicing slowly through.
Tallying all of the terror-inspired patents is difficult because, as Brigid Quinn of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office points out, people applying for the 360,000 patents a year don't have to disclose their motivations. But a search through patents and pending applications turns up at least 50 innovations apparently spurred by the terrorism of 2001. Inventors have come up with an arsenal of inventions to whack, tranquilize, trick, foil, and track all the would-be wrongdoers out there.
Among the inventions inspired by good old native ingenuity in the past two and a half years:
An antihijacking system employing a "drug-induced sleep," filed by Minh Hung Le of Montreal. "As soon as the pilots receive or sense a signal of hijack," Le writes in the application, "they turn a valve to release the drug-induced sleep into the intended chambers and turn off another valve to stop supplying oxygen into masks. All onboard people (except pilots!!!) fall into an unconscious state." Le suggests "Pentothal, Innoval, or Valium" as the knockout agent. Pilots, naturally, receive working oxygen masks.
A multipronged aircraft antiterrorism system, filed by Wolfgang Gleine of Kakenstorf, Germany, complete with a Tom and Jerry cartoon to illustrate its workings. The system includes a trap door outside the cockpit that opens to a holding cell; a cabin outfitted with seat occupancy sensors, motion detectors, video cameras and microphones; and "fogging or tranquilizer gas generators, noise generators, high intensity blinding/glaring lights, a cabin lighting master shut-off, window darkening devices, and tranquilizer dart guns ... actuated automatically by the evaluation system, or manually by a cockpit input device or a portable signaling device carried by a flight attendant."
An antihijacker system, with a remote controlled mini-armory, filed by Rashid A. Zineh, of Fullerton, California. "Defense stations" at key areas of the plane feature a buffet of options. These include "a defense tool, a gun with silencer, stunt [sic] gun, tranquilizer, MACE or pepper sprayer, arrow thrower with high voltage electric charge, wood hammer, head banger, stomach puncher, foot tripper and trap, head holder, waist grabber, or a leg trapper or breaker" -- all designed to disarm but not to kill, Zineh writes.
A counterterror envelope, filed by Michael Applebaum of Chicago. This is basically an envelope with holes that may or may not be covered with translucent material, so any rat bastard attempting to send anthrax pours it right through the envelope onto the floor of his Montana shack. Also, you can see what's inside before you open it. "Terrorists, troublemakers, pranksters, and/or hoaxers are deterred from committing their mischief since it will not work," Applebaum notes.
A counterterror mailbox, filed by David G. Henry of Waco, Texas. It works on the same principle as the counterterror envelope: You can see through its walls to any suspicious packages. Unfortunately, like even the most stringent counterterror measures, this one has an admitted flaw. "While it may not be impossible to make an explosive device which fits in a small envelope," Henry's application states, "only the most sophisticated of terrorists would likely be able to make such a device." Yeah, for now, anyway.
A system of viewing mail before you receive it, filed by Ray M. Alden of Raleigh, North Carolina. This system would allow you to get a digital image of any upcoming mail before the postal service delivers it so you could decline any suspicious packages. Discover Card solicitations, for example.
A method of compiling electronic patient data to detect a bioterrorism attack, filed by R. Bharat Rao of the Siemens Corp. in Iselin, New Jersey. When enough people (as few as one) come down with symptoms consistent with smallpox or Ebola or severe acne or what have you, the computers figure it out and issue a warning.
A bladder for keeping oil inside of tankers, filed by Keith A. Robinson of Houston. He had submitted versions of his Kevlar and steel bladder before 9/11 but added features to thwart "terrorists who are attempting to cause oil spills by either dropping bombs, artillery shells, or the like on the upper surfaces of the ship, as well as impacting the sides and the underneath portions of the ship with torpedoes." Jerry Bruckheimer would salivate.
An antiterrorist ship control system, filed by John L. Rogitz of San Diego. Apparently to avoid a nautical version of 9/11, the system allows a satellite to track the path and speed of a tanker and stop it if it deviates from its stated headings -- and Fort Lauderdale beach remains free of all pollutants but portly tourists and hobo urine.
A self-contained apparatus for stopping hijacked trucks, filed by Robert L. Nathans of Billercia, Massachusetts. Apparently trying to avoid a highway version of 9/11, this system would shut down any truck that didn't periodically register the proper driver with a handprint or other biometric reading. It also puts weight sensors on the passenger side that could shut down the truck if a second person -- a hijacker with a gun to the driver's head, say -- entered the cab, especially if he did so without gas, grass, or ass.
Raczkowski's still cranking, too. A few weeks ago, he sent letters to George W. Bush, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, and Trent Lott, chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on aviation, inviting them to preview his next potential patent: "Riot Control System for Airplanes and Vehicles." He declines to reveal the specifics of the system but exudes confidence in its potential.
"If they follow my advice, airplanes will be safe 99 percent of the time," he says. "We cannot do anything if the pilot goes crazy."
As of press time, Messrs. Bush, Mineta, and Lott had yet to reply.