I've known Garrett Brown for a number of years, first as half of an award-winning advertising duo, who, along with partner Anne Winn, churned out some of the funniest radio commercials ever created, including a slew of legendary ads for Molson, American Express and the U.S. Army. Click here to hear what I'm talking about.
It was only after a few meetings that someone later said to me “Garrett? You know Garrett Brown? The guy who invented the Steadicam?” I couldn’t believe it. So I asked — and saw the Oscar, the Emmys and even more awards — and started to learn that Brown was much more than a just funny ad guy.
Inventing is in Brown's blood. His father was a chemist at DuPont, where he invented “hot melt," the glue that binds paperback books. Before “hot melt,” paperbacks used to fall apart.
But Brown started out life as a folk singer. Along the way he sold VWs and wrote short stories. Then he made those killer commercials.
Seeing a problem, and solving it
But he always fancied himself a filmmaker. Brown spent a great deal of time in Philadelphia libraries reading — a stack of books 30 feet high, by his account — about the movie business. Too bad they were all written in the 1940s, although they did provide a lot of history.
Brown started out by creating special effects for clients like "Sesame Street." But he felt restricted by the sheer bulk of his equipment. If he wanted his huge film camera to move and capture an effect, he had to put the camera on a dolly — then on tracks — and have someone push him and the camera. Cumbersome to say the least. He wondered why he couldn’t find a way to attach the camera to his body and walk along with the action.
First Brown tried to mount a camera on his body. Then he figured out how to balance the camera so that it was easily movable. Then he used some of the heaviest camera parts — like the battery — as counterweights. Slowly but surely, with some failures along the way, the Steadicam camera stabilizer was born. I’m oversimplifying this a great deal, but you get the idea. Brown saw the problem and figured out a simple, elegant way to solve it.
Making a mark in Hollywood
Needless to say, the Steadicam has been a big hit in the movie industry — it won Brown an Oscar — and in television. Even though Brown actually teaches people how to use the device, he’s still in great demand in Hollywood as a Steadicam operator. He has 70 movie credits, including the "Rocky" series, "The Shining," "Taps," "Reds," "Philadelphia," "Star Wars — Return of the Jedi" and "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
The Steadicam is now almost 30 years old. During that time, Brown has amassed 50 patents worldwide for camera devices, including the Steadicam JR for camcorders; the Skycam, which flies on wires over sporting events; The Divecam (an Emmy for that one); the SuperFlyCam for airplanes; and the Mobycam, an underwater camera that follows swimmers at the Olympics.
Brown also has been working on other stuff to fill voids in the universe that he’s found — like an unbelievably easy way to make large, high-powered binoculars easy to use (it involves a piece of masking tape and allows you to balance the binoculars on two fingers), and a tiny pair of reading glasses that you can’t forget because they fit in your wallet.
The one device that he’s been perfecting for years is the human-powered walking machine. Years before the Segway was a gleam in anyone’s eye, Garrett was working on a human-powered walking machine that weighs less than 10 pounds, can fold up in seconds, climb and descend curbs, and most importantly, look cool. The prototype looks like wheels you attach to your shoes; it's still a work in progress.
Some easy rules to follow
Garrett has a lot to say to people who want to be inventors – he’s even considering a book on the subject. You can read some of his ideas here. He also provided me with some simple advice to pass along to future inventors:
- Figure out something that doesn’t yet exist.
- If you want it then probably someone else wants it.
- Don’t try to make money or get rich – do something you want for yourself.
- Persistence is the key.
- Make sketches, drawings, models.
- You may have to spend a little money – but do so where it really counts. Don’t overspend.
- Keep it a secret (until you can secure patent rights)
“Sometimes you’re the first to find something," he said. "What a wonderful feeling!”