Three ideas got through on American Inventor this week. Two had heart-stirring, sniffle-inducing back stories about helping people, saving lives and overcoming adversity. The other was a marginally useful gee-whiz consumer product. Guess which one got through.

Spoilers ahead.

Once again, the folks producing and editing this show love to sensitive tear-jerking moment. You could just imagine how thrilled the production folks must have been when they saw a hardened police officer’s lower lip trembling as he described how colleagues of his had died, and how his invention may be able to save others in the future. And oh, what glee them must have felt when judge Sarah Blakely started getting weepy at the thought of a deaf boy’s struggle to be understood. They even started playing Superman (It’s Not Easy), ferchrissakes. Oy.

But pathos-friendly storylines and mass-market products that can bring in a gazillion dollars are apparently two separate things. Those two heart-stirring products could seriously make a difference in the world, but for different reasons, they didn’t make it past the judges. So we’re left with gadgets and gizmos, and nothing that stirs the soul. Maybe that’s too much to ask from reality TV.

Good ideas
The Wallbanger, a tactical utility pole that S.W.A.T. and police officers would use to safely break down doors. Using a battering ram to break down a door can put officers in danger — it can take a long time, and the people using the ram are vulnerable to gunfire. This device uses a flash-bang grenade and focuses the explosion on a door to knock it down. It’s pretty cool, and the footage of the product in action sure looked convincing. Peter warned that this wasn’t a mass-market product, but the rest of the judges loved it.

The Voice Inside, a handheld voice recognition and interpretive system for the deaf.  Hearing people speak into a microphone and have their words appear onscreen for the deaf person to read. The deaf person would type out his or her reply; those words would be translated into speech, basically fostering conversations without the use of an interpreter. Sounds like a great idea, but it’s still very much in the concept stage. Pat worried that the $50,000 seed money wouldn’t be enough to implement the idea. The rest of the judges sent it through.

[A side note: The inventor told how isolating it was living in a house with four hearing people, when only one could use and understand sign language. But this is his family. He’s been deaf for his entire 20-year life. Are you seriously telling me no one besides his mother could be bothered to learn American Sign Language in all that time? Come on, people!]

EZT4U, an automatic tea maker that fits on existing coffeemakers. The inventors say it allows you to brew a perfect cup of tea every time, whether you’re using black, green or herbal tea leaves. The judges are all over it, but I really can’t believe it’s that difficult to brew a cup of tea. 

Decent idea, but not quite good enough
54-piece cake cutter, a grid you push down onto a sheet cake to make 54 uniform slices. This wouldn’t be a home product, but it would work well for commercial settings, like cafeterias and food service. The judges ultimately passed because it didn’t have mass-market appeal. I could see it working, and I hope the inventor keeps at it — but he spent an insane amount of money getting it developed.

Bad ideas
A potty-training chair that uses lights and music to encourage kids to "make a deposit" and flush. It’s more likely to make kids avoid the potty hair at all osts, and therefore consign them to diapers for life.

An automatic meat cooker, which was basically a toaster-like apparatus for meat. Peter liked his steak, but it took way too long to cook.

Georgeforeman_americaninventor_24_2Electric fingernail tool, a power sander for fingernails. It looks like something I saw in the industrial safety film "Shake Hands with Danger," which is all about the various ways you can lose limbs on a job site. It’s terrifying, and there’s no way anyone would go near it.

Obligatory crazy person
Rose, an "inventor" from Utah who came in with "Love Test." It’s a song. It’s not even a good song. And even if it was a good song, it wouldn’t be an invention. The judges all told her she came to the wrong show. They also should have told her to update her meds. She seemed more pathetically deluded than malevolent, however, and I’m kind of mad at the production folks for putting her on so we could point and laugh. That’s the aspect of reality TV I hate.

The finalists
In Houston, the two heart-warming products that could save or improve lives — the Voice Inside and the Wallbanger — went up against the Wrap Away dispenser, a rack for various kitchen wraps, which is vaguely cool but hardly something anyone really needs.

In Tampa, The three finalists were EZT4U, the automatic tea maker; Reid Building Blocks, the fireproof, floodproof building material; and Easy Mower, the amazingly maneuverable lawnmower.

And what did the judges send through? The kitchen wrap dispenser and the tea maker.

Really? Those were the best, brightest, coolest products? Those were the things the judges could see everyone clamoring to buy? Those qualify as great inventions? Both are my least favorite products from their respective groups. They just seem tired, kind of pointless, and not terribly new or exciting. Either the judges are underestimating the American public, or I’m overestimating a summer TV show.

Did either of the winning products blow you away? Which of the products they showed tonight would you have picked to win?

Posted by:Sarah Jersild