Dec. 28, 2012 at 7:05 PM ET
Long lines at amusement parks. Traffic stalled at rush hour. Cycling uphill. To most of us, these are just minor problems we face in an otherwise comfortable existence. To Anwar Farooq, they are personal call-outs, challenges that he must answer with his own ingenuity. These days, the math teacher and habitual inventor is wrestling with the age-old problem of the pencil sharpener.
"When I saw my students struggling with the regular pencil sharpener, I honestly knew that there must be an alternate approach, so I started thinking," Farooq, who teaches at Maywood Academy, southeast of Los Angeles, told NBC News.
That's not the first time Farooq "started thinking."
His inventions, spanning 1986 to now, may seem whimsical at first, but on closer inspection are like early ancestors of devices in use today. There's a bike where your pedaling is boosted by an air compressor, for instance. If you replace the air compressor with an electric motor, you get today's battery-powered bikes.
There's the Robocam, a remote-controlled camera platform that's a precursor to telepresence robots and smartphone videoconferencing apps alike.
For those annoying amusement park or movie theater lines, Farooq proposes a chain of connected, moving chairs. You take a load off, enjoy the built-in entertainment system, and before long, it's your turn to get up and enjoy the ride or show. He calls it Waiting Is Fun. It may seem far-fetched ... until Disney goes and installs one in Tomorrowland.
The idea Farooq seems most proud of is the Rapid Commute. Cars traveling from the outskirts of a city drive right onto a high-speed train, as if they were boarding a ferry boat. The train then brings them to a central location downtown, where they disembark. Next month he will be presenting it to the Transportation Research Board, an off-shoot of the non-profit National Research Council, at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
And then there's the Quick N Silent pencil sharpener.
* * *
Pencil sharpeners are, in fact, one of the few classroom technologies that have not experienced a radical redesign in the past century. The most common type of institutional sharpener, the hand-cranked type you can still see mounted to a wall or the teacher's table in classrooms all over the world, was introduced in 1904.
Sure, electric versions have been introduced, but the cylindrical mills rotating in "planetary" fashion within are still dominant — despite the inconsistency of their results.
Nevertheless, when Farooq wrestled with how to modernize the pencil sharpener, he didn't look to some laser that could hone the tip of a pencil with micron-level precision. Instead, he found inspiration in the distant past.
"I remembered that people carried pocket knives and they just used those to sharpen pencils quietly and efficiently."
He set to work on the new machine based on the same principles.
* * *
Farooq was always an inventor at heart, but he told us that, growing up in Pakistan, he never had a chance to exercise his creative capabilities. "Even if I had an idea, we were from the lower middle class, so we didn't have any money to do anything," he told us. "My biggest break is that I came to a country like America — and now I can do those things I desire."
But even after moving to the U.S. in the 1970s, inventing hasn't been exactly easy for Farooq. In fact, following his dreams can at times be something of an expensive habit. "Of course it's a hardship to me and tight financially," he admitted. "My wife says, 'Why don't you take up gambling?'"
At least to him, though, the cost is worth it. "I live for that, that excitement of finding something, of discovering something." He points out that the famed inventor Nicola Tesla died a poor man, but now they're building a Tesla museum. Farooq doesn't expect a museum, but he does hope that his inventions will outlast him.
It may be his latest baby, the pencil sharpener, that lives on. Even in our increasingly digital world, Farooq feels strongly that pencil and paper, as a medium for recording thoughts and images, won't disappear any time soon. "Yes, it is old and unglamorous technology, but it's foolproof and works as advertised."
Its biggest asset is its low cost: "It's cheap enough to be owned by almost anyone in the world," he said.
When he finally figured out how to implement the pocket-knife method of sharpening, Farooq built a mock-up and patented his design.
His prototype doesn't grind, like the rotary sharpeners in classrooms worldwide. Nor does it shave around the edge, like the small twisty single-blade sharpeners that predate the rotary type. Instead, it uses multiple blades to whittle down the edge from all sides at once. True to its name, the blades slice down the end of the pencil, exposing a sharp tip and plenty of lead in a single, silent pass.
Farooq is looking for funding to start manufacturing the device, which he has continually modified over the last few years in his spare time. A crowd-funding attempt at Fundageek, a website for inventors, has not produced much income. But he intends to put a more complete version of the device up for consideration on Indiegogo, a larger platform for collecting funding.
In the meantime, Farooq will keep on inventing. His own modest website lists two things — Personal Safety 360 and GPS Live Cam — that he isn't ready to discuss publicly.
"When I came to this country, I wanted to do something positive, a legacy to leave behind." Whether his inventions find widespread adoption or not, Farooq's insatiable inventor's spirit may continue to inspire the kids in his classroom — as well as those who encounter him through his growing portfolio.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.