In his professional lifetime, inventor Harry Herman has worked on projects ranging from total atomic annihilation to the poisonous side-effects of theatrical fog, but he ended up focusing on human mobility very much by accident.
“I was on crutches for a while,” he explains, “and I made a promise to myself that if I ever invented anything else, it would be something that would not only replace the crutch, but do a lot more than a crutch could do.” He waves at a picture of his crowning creation, which hangs on a nearby wall. “This is what came of that promise. We originally called it the Ambulator, but then we decided the name needed reworking. So after some thought, we came up with EasyStrider.”
The EasyStrider Mobility System, if the raw truth be told, looks a lot like a set of crutches. The best way to tell the difference is to test-Stride the device. The base is articulated, which means it can pivot side-to-side and back-to-front like a human ankle. The arms of the system are also mobile—stretching back for forward strides and forward for the follow-through. It ain’t cold fusion, but the device is pretty nifty.
Eight models of the EasyStrider (proud bearer of U.S. Patent No. 5,113,887) are leaning around Herman’s workroom on the fifth floor of a Van Ness Street apartment complex, gleaming with promise. Herman swings around the room on a pair, huffing and puffing as he explains the elegance of the EasyStrider. There is something strangely Gothic about Herman. His hair is a chalky black-gray and rests thickly on the top of his head. When he smiles, his mouth opens wider than you’d expect, revealing teeth that are spaced and positioned strangely—as if they’d grown of their own accord outside the bounds of gravity.
Herman is an inventor from the old school—the chalk-dust-in-the-hair, notes-on-the-back-of-a-matchbook breed of scientist. There are five or six tables in his office, all overwhelmed by files and loose sheets of paper. His fax machine rises on a stack of business cards he’s shoved under it, and the wall above is a rainbow of some 20 or 30 fluorescent Post-It notes, some offering no message. There are three computers—two Macs (one with a CD-ROM) and an unidentifiable laptop prototype, along with five telephones, one a likeness of Mickey Mouse.
In the days of Eisenhower, Herman was a member of the physics department at CONVAIR (a division of the General Dynamics Corp. in San Diego). He was put in charge of research commissioned by the Science Committee of the House of Representatives to determine the number of nuclear weapons needed to totally annihilate the planet.
“For my study,” Herman explains, “I decided that I wouldn’t kill everybody off. All I’d need to do was increase the Strontium 90 in the food chain to the extent that individuals in the Northern Hemisphere would reach the maximum permissible concentration—at which point cancer and so on would set in.” His recollections summon the ghost of that ethereal technicolor-maroon-and-cobalt-blue world of the Atomic Age, filled with sputtering diodes and snapping Jacob’s ladders and the chilled threat of the world we created for ourselves by harnessing sun farts.
“It was depressing stuff. I’d take a date up to above San Diego to do what young men should do when you’re with a pretty girl and looking at a beautiful city and a bay and everything, and I’d look down and I’d think, now let’s see…20 kilatons here with the wind blowing in the right direction….”
It may be that Herman’s research affected him more than he realized. Although he isn’t medically trained, for the past 25 years he’s devoted a large chunk of his time to alleviating human suffering.
Bits and pieces of past projects are scattered around Herman’s office, including some of his other patented creations. On a chest of drawers sits what looks a cross between a hard hat and a Walkman—the “ARSTREAM Helmet”—designed as a guard against black lung. On the far wall of Herman’s office is some promotional material that features a woman sitting in a bathtub on a rubber pillow. The pillow is hooked to a hose, which is screwed into a vertical length of PVC, which ends in a kind of spigot beside the shower nozzle. This is the “BATH-O-MATIC” independent bathing system.
When Herman talks about his plans or products, he always uses the first person plural: “We plan to market them through extensive direct-mail advertising.” The “we” really refers to Herman alone.
“It’s just me. I’m in charge. It was my idea. It’s my company. There are no…employees. No staff. There will be, of course, but….” In the meantime, Herman does all his own promotion, market studies, research and development. Right now, “we” are pretty high on the EasyStrider.
So far, only a handful of people have had a chance to use this new system in a practical way. Retired Adm. Craig Wallace M.D. is one of the few. Wallace is a former head of the Fogerty Institute, a one-time director of Naval Research in Cairo, Egypt, and a former faculty member of Johns Hopkins University. He recently had surgery in his left ankle and foot, and suffers from a tendon disorder. When Herman found out about his condition through a friend, he gave Wallace EasyStriders.
“For me, the thing was a godsend,” Wallace says. “It’s a superb piece of equipment. The difference between Harry’s invention and my old crutches was like night and day. The thing about crutches is you’re not supposed to put your weight on them. But you can do that with these.”
Herman has contracted a manufacturing plant in New Jersey to mass-produce the EasyStrider, and plans to officially launch his invention within the next 60 days in hospitals and orthopedic centers around the country. A new EasyStrider will sell for $200.
“Physically, these aren’t going to break,” he says, pointing out parts of the device’s construction. “The chances of the aluminum failing is slight. These here are solid pins that have spring steel clips on them.”
The marketing homework for the EasyStrider sounds painfully encouraging.
“Approximately 3.4 people out of a hundred…suffer fractures and dislocations and…6.4 people out of a hundred suffer strains and sprained limbs,” Herman says. “If we assume that one in four injuries is to the lower extremities, we can conservatively estimate that one out of a hundred people suffer a break, strain or sprain that would require walking assistance.”
Herman is making final adjustments to the models in his office—tinkering and perfecting, secure in the knowledge that at least one out of every hundred human machines is certain to break down.