A good old US penny

If you close your eyes and think about what a child imagines when they hear the word inventor—the house full of strange objects with mysterious purposes, the stacks of notebooks filled with drawing and diagrams, the patent certificates—you might get something close to Brent Farley. But we’re not children and Farley is very real and it’s all a little less magical than it was in our imaginations once upon a time.

I stumbled across this video of Brent Farley, who really is a bona-fide inventor. It’s part of a series by photographer David Friedman, on his Ironic Sans blog. You can check it out here: Meet Brent Farley. I watched it twice, I was so fascinated. Also, he melts a penny in his hand with a blow torch.

The things we invent today exist so often only in that ephemeral parallel world we call cyberspace, where things are real but not real. (Or maybe we just like to cling to the illusion that they’re not real). Or, they are the parts that make up the things we use to create our parallel worlds—the microchips and memory cards and mother boards, that get slicked up in plastic or aluminum and shipped off around the world.

This is invention of the everyday, a reshaping of the most mundane parts of our lives, of the objects that pass through our hands almost unnoticed. It’s not one single genius inspiration that changes the world, but an endless series of small ideas that pile up in our homes, get used, tossed away, forgotten. No savvy design and marketing here, just a lot of duct tape. What’s more real than duct tape?

The irony is that most of Farley’s inventions also only exist in a parallel universe, filling stacks and stacks of notebooks in a frenetic rush to get out of his head and going nowhere.

There seems to be something quintessentially American about Farley—the can-do optimism, the fleeting 15-minutes of fame that leads nowhere. Most of all, the sense that life and all its myriad problems can be magicked away, that there’s always a solution, a fix-it, out there. I can see these items flitting across the screen on a late-night shopping show, with the “As Seen on TV” logo blinking in the corner. And I can see some enlightened being snorting in derision at the build-up of waste, at the consumerism, at the uselessness of it. I think that’s actually what got me about this video—the tragic-hopeful other side of the crass consumerism that is so easy to deride.

The other inventors in this series are also interesting, but disappointingly prosaic. Brent Farley’s story left me feeling sad and wistful, but somehow retains the magical possibility of the inventor tinkering away in the basement, looking for his next big idea.

Ironic Sans: Meet Brent Farley

© 2017 Lea Zeltserman