features

The endless imagination of Steven M. Johnson

With a deft artist’s touch and wry humor, a Yale alum has anticipated technological innovations in his cartoons.

Lenore Skenazy ’81 is the founder of Free-Range Kids.

Inventor/artist/author/humorist/futurist Steven M. Johnson ’60 ended up getting his BA from Berkeley, but he spent his first two years at Yale with the class of 1960. During that time he took his only art class ever—with Professor Josef Albers—and English with an inspiring young teacher named Harold Bloom. The two enjoyed an email correspondence about fifty years later.

Johnson lives outside of Sacramento with Beatrice, his wife of 54 years. He has worked as a city planner, cartoonist, prognosticator at Honda, and author of several books, including Patent Depending. Although, in fact, he never did patent any inventions, he predicted quite a few that came to fruition. These include a 1991 video camera helmet—later echoed in the GoPro—and, in 1992, glasses that doubled as computer screens with a dangling microphone attached. About twenty years later Silicon Valley had the same idea: “Google Glass.” Johnson is also the genius behind the Y-Mobile, a Y-shaped car created to honor Yale.

Somehow, that one has yet to roll off the assembly line.

Q&A

Lenore Skenazy: I read that you started inventing when you were freelancing for the Sierra Club magazine?

Steven M. Johnson:
In 1974, the editor asked me to think up future recreational vehicles that would kind of ruin the environment. He wanted 16. I came up with 109.

LS: Wow!

SMJ:
I discovered I was a latent inventor. I was 36.

LS: In your TED Talk, you talk about mixing and matching to get fresh ideas. One mashup of yours I love is the Bike Train.

SMJ:
The Pedaltrain?

LS: The train with stationary bikes instead of seats. People riding them get exercise and power the engine.

SMJ:
The humor part is the most important part for me—it’ll override everything else. If it’s funny and works badly—

LS: That’s your sweet spot?

SMJ:
Yes. There’s one called a Bike Vest. It’s so hugely impractical! It’s heavy, it’s awkward . . .

LS: It’s a bike you wear, and, indeed, its time has yet to come. Similarly, the airbag suit you wear in a car. And the Trojan Duck—a huge duck decoy containing hunters. Why don’t those exist?

SMJ:
Culture in general favors success and forward motion, so in some ways it leaves out ideas that don’t make money.

LS: Are you making bank on these great ideas?

SMJ: There’s a part of me missing. The entrepreneurial, money-making part.

LS: Don’t you think you could get some venture capital at least for your Open Fly Alarm?

SMJ:
But having an alarm go off could call attention to the fact that your fly is open.

LS: Back to the drawing board.  

Read more about Johnson at his website, patentdepending.com.

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