June 2014 Archives

Million-dollar ideas

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Oddly, I don't seem to have written here about Peter's “million-dollar ideas.”

Every so often, he would come up with an idea that he was certain was amazing and never-before-thought-of. He always offered us these ideas for free, with the suggestion that if we were to implement one of them, it would make us a lot of money. It's possible that he was jokingly exaggerating, but I think he was always at least half-serious about these ideas and their potential value; he was always enthusiastic about them, and he often expressed concern that someone else might steal one of them.

There were dozens of million-dollar ideas over the years, but the only one that I specifically remember came at a time when there was a big push to pass a law banning the burning of an American flag. (I think this was in the mid-'90s or so.) His million-dollar idea on that topic was to use a slide projector to project an image of an American flag onto a piece of fabric, and then burn the fabric, thereby getting around the proposed law (by not actually burning a real flag per se). It was not at all clear how one might go about monetizing this idea, but he nonetheless didn't want me to talk with people about it, because that might jeopardize the million dollars.

I should note that most of his million-dollar ideas were more practical than that, in that they involved creating some sort of actual product or service that one could sell. None of them, though, ever sounded to me like something that there would be much demand for.

What brought all this to mind is that I was searching through my old email recently for something else, and came across the following note from Peter, from April 2000:

Hi again --
I realize that I didn't send you my BIG IDEA...

By the right-hand rule in physics, if you have magnetic lines of force at a
right angle to an electric current, motion results in the third direction.
This principle has been used for the last ten years or more to propel ocean
liners.  

My BIG IDEA is to apply this principle to the area in which Ley & von Braun
were concerned...   Not to spell it out in too much detail for all the world
to eavesdrop on...

What do you think?

Peter

I'm not sure what he was talking about. Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun were concerned with rocketry in general, and apparently they wrote a book called The Exploration of Mars, so I assume that Peter was suggesting that rockets could be propelled using electromagnets. But there must have been more to it than that, because that doesn't sound like a remotely new idea to me. Railguns have been used in sf as spaceship-launch mechanisms for decades, and Peter would have been well aware of that.

Anyway, this was a rare instance of his not saying that one of his big ideas was worth a million dollars. But I'm sure it was.