A father of invention: One man’s tale on becoming an inventor of ‘bizarre and useful devices’

November 7, 2009 10:25:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Bob Elder -- inventor, artist, world traveler, problem-solver -- likes to make things. Rarefied, mechanical things; practical, labor-saving things; beautifully artistic things. Give him a challenge, and chances are, the gears will start tumbling. The 76-year-old retired mechanical and design engineer already holds patents for various widely-used components of farm, material-handling and asphalt-laying equipment. And, he''s a deft hand with stained glass and wood-cut art, as well. 


Walking through a carpet of fall-tinted leaves covering his hilltop property in North Columbus, the former manager of plant engineering for Kerr-McGee sums up his compulsion to create in two succinct words: "I''m curious."  


Outfitted against the stiff, autumn breeze in a comfortably-worn denim workshirt and cap, Elder thought back to his early years in Arizona, where he was born in 1933. He points to a couple of experiences that probably planted an inventive seed or two. 


"We lived in an area with very sparse resources," he shares. "I grew up making my own toys out of whatever I could find." 


Later, as young man, he worked for a ready-mix cement company, daily handling heavy, dead-weight loads.  


"I was a 120-pound skinny kid at that time," he smiles, remembering sore muscles. "I finally had to quit. ... Then, about three years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea ... "  


That''s how one of Elder''s concepts, the Sac-Handler, came about. The simple rope fitted with sturdy, plastic handles makes large, cumbersome bags of products like dog food, mulch or fertilizer easier to move.  


"No telling when you''ll get an idea. A lot of ''em come during the night. And, I go everywhere with a pencil to write things down because that''s my brains," he chuckles.  




Fired up 


Elder''s stone-sided workshop (which he built, of course) sits next to the 1940s-era home he shares with his wife of 55 years, Angela. A sign above the door proclaims: "Bob''s Workshop." Inside is a tool-buff''s wonderland, stocked with tantalizing selections of drill bits, clamps and saws. A shelf bulges with paints and varnish. A scuffed work table attests to past projects. It''s here Elder worked on his latest invention, the Ember Scoop. 


"We were visiting our son in Oklahoma City; he always had buckets of ashes on the patio, cooling before he could get rid of them," he says of the initial inspiration. "He told me, ''Dad, you really need to do something about this.''" 


The "something" Dad did turned out to be a handled scoop with a rectangular basket to separate large, hot coals from ashes.  


"It lets you keep your hot coals; you always have fire. And it provides a safer environment for ash deposit," Elder notes. "It works equally well in fireplaces, wood stoves, barbecues and outdoor wood furnaces." 


The scoop, manufactured in Oklahoma, went through multiple design variations. 


"That''s typical of inventors," the engineer explains. "You may have five or six versions; you keep changing, improving." 


Ember Scoops retails for just less than $25 in Columbus at Military Hardware, in the New Hope community at An Open Door Floral and Gifts and on eBay at B.E.Products LLC. It''s also in shops in Olive Branch, as well as states including Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. 




Sweeter than wine 


Another of Elder''s ideas has been "a poor man''s version of those aqua-globes you see on TV for your plants." The bulb-shaped globes use gravity to deliver sips of water to houseplants. 


To challenge himself, the veteran designer devised his own version by drilling a hole through the cork of a wine bottle and attaching a heavy copper coil to penetrate soil and keep dirt from clogging the opening.  


"But when I went to start to look for empty wine bottles, I learned a few things," he grinned. "This area drinks a lot more whiskey than wine."  


Only time will tell what Bob Elder has up his imaginative sleeve next. 


"He likes to have five or six projects going on at a time," Angela lets on.  


Before long, inventing will take a back seat to travel. The couple will take an ocean cruise, as well as a fourth trip to Israel, in 2010. They''ve also visited locales including Ireland, Scotland and Amsterdam. 


But, it''s safe to say the self-professed creator of "bizarre and useful devices" has more ideas percolating. His advice to aspiring inventors out there?  


"Simple is good." 


And, he might have added, "Stay curious."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.