- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

BUENOS AIRES — Daniel Nunez never thought of himself as an inventor. But the 45-year-old salesman vowed to do something after his failing eyesight forced him to rely on strangers to point out the right bus on his way to work.

“When a bus arrives, I can see it’s a bus, but I can’t see which route number it is,” Mr. Nunez said. “I need to ask, and it’s always a bother.”

Fed up with feeling embarrassed, Mr. Nunez rolled up his sleeves and joined scores of tinkerers, fiddlers and inventors in this city who are trying to devise solutions to all manner of life’s daily irritants.

He came up with the “talking bus stop,” an electric signpost that receives radio signals from buses as they approach. The signpost announces the bus’ route and, if a waiting passenger pushes a button, flashes a light alerting the driver to stop. Mr. Nunez hopes his invention will capture the interest of city officials.

As one of South America’s most cosmopolitan cities, Buenos Aires has long fostered an inventive spirit. Juan Vucetich pioneered the first fingerprint-classification system here back in 1891. In the 1940s, Ladislao Jose Biro, a Hungarian immigrant, developed the ballpoint pen.

The current generation of inventors regularly gathers for exhibitions, competitions and lectures on the intricacies of patents and intellectual-property law. There is even an inventors school for young problem-solvers, age 5 and up.

“The Argentine is someone very capable and very determined,” said Mr. Nunez, whose talking bus stop won first prize in one competition.

At a recent exposition, inventors showed a bottle opener that lets wine lovers uncork a bottle with a single hand, and a low-friction engine that needs little oil.

In a Latin American country prone to violent strikes, protests and occasional political unrest, chaos helps spark creativity — like the “vandal-proof” trash can.

Eduardo Fernandez, a prolific inventor, saw a news report in 2001 about vandals destroying thousands of public trash cans in Buenos Aires. So he and a fellow inventor, Hugo Olivera, devised an iron trash can that can’t be smashed, shattered or ripped from walls.

So far, no one has managed to break into or steal test versions in busy downtown areas.

“They’re still there. They survived all the picketers, meetings, strikes, everything,” said Mr. Fernandez, who has dozens of inventions to his name.

Mr. Olivera was inspired to create a one-hand cork puller after a waiter recounted the ordeal of opening 50 bottles at a party one night.

“His hands felt terrible afterward,” Mr. Olivera recalls. “We did some research, and found out there was nothing on the market to solve the problem.”

Voila, the “Descorjet,” a sleek and efficient cork-popper. The Descorjet has sold by the thousands and is now being marketed in 25 countries and on the Internet.

“It’s a very high-quality item, and we like it,” said Craig Tarbeck at Clever Gear, a Florida Internet retailer that promotes the Descorjet.

While Messrs. Fernandez and Olivera have reaped financial rewards from their ingenuity, others are waiting to cash in.

To foster the inventive spirit, Buenos Aires has an “inventors school” for children age 5 to 16. Inventor Lucas Perfumo, 22, leads the students in investigating everyday machines and trying to improve them.

The classroom is a jumble of gutted appliances and electrical doodads. A boat propeller lies beside a clothes iron. A phone cord runs from an old box of chocolates covered with masking tape.

The room buzzes on a Saturday afternoon as young people eagerly unscrew machines and inspect circuit boards. One cluster studies the arm of an old record player while another pokes at a computer speaker.

“I never get tired of taking things apart,” said Joshua Nicolas Torres, 10, as he probed the innards of an electric pencil sharpener. Joshua said he already has ideas for 34 inventions and considers the school one of his favorite places.

“I can come up with things and use big tools, and I can help other people,” he said.

Some inventors say self-reliance and problem-solving skills are especially handy in Argentina, where many people gripe about the lack of effective government services.

“The government doesn’t do many things. We have to solve our problems alone,” said Rodrigo Valla, 18, an assistant teacher and inventor.

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