Secretaries and a janitor crowd around John Hunter in the leafy courtyard of a Carmel Ranch office building. They squeal and whine "I wanna try it! I wanna try it!" like crazed kids and paw at a large, purple raygun-type thing Hunter holds close to his chest.
"Now watch again," he says, aiming the gun at a ficus tree far across the courtyard.
He pulls the trigger and with a muffled pop a bright orange vertical ring zips out of the gun and flies some 70 feet straight across the courtyard and disappears into the tree's glossy leaves.
"Ooooh!" everyone cries.
A secretary snatches the gun from Hunter's hands. "My turn!"
"Hee! Hee!" Hunter says. He seems very pleased with his toy, the Vortex Tornado, which envious children can see advertised daily on Nickleodeon.
It is strange that Hunter, a 44-year-old physicist who once headed multimillion-dollar projects at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, should be goofing around a Carmel Ranch office building with the Vortex Tornado. But the story behind the toy is even odder.
Hunter is a vital, clear-eyed fellow who, although in recovery from a prolonged divorce, laughs a lot about his life. Two years ago he was the subject of an eight-page Smithsonian article entitled "Shooting Right for the Stars." At Lawrence Livermore, Hunter created the world's largest gun -- a hydrogen-fueled, $2.8 million contraption more than 400 feet long that spat out 18-inch projectiles at 6800 miles per hour. The idea behind the project was to perfect a supergun that could blast satellites and spacecraft into orbit for a fraction of what it costs to launch these things with conventional propulsion methods. Hunter had tinkered with the notion of creating an electromagnetic space launcher when he started working at Lawrence Livermore in 1985, but the energy costs for such a device were prohibitive. By 1992, however, a small version of Hunter's hydrogen-powered gun was wowing the editors of Popular Mechanics magazine. By 1995, Hunter's dream of building a $100 million gun capable of firing satellites into orbit seemed like something that could become real.
And then his personal life went haywire and needed "some serious damage control" and for a lot of complex reasons that Hunter would prefer not to discuss, his work on the supergun came to a halt. He moved to San Diego and gradually turned his energies to hiring himself out as a jack-of-all-trades/physicist consultant. Toward the end of his work on the supergun project, however, Hunter ran into Abe Flatau, a retired aerodynamicist who'd developed weapons for the Department of Defense. Hunter describes Flatau as a "genius," and during their discussion of Hunter's big gun, Flatau mentioned something about "ring airfoils." It seems that toward the end of the Vietnam War, soldiers were having difficulty getting their grenades down through the country's triple-canopy jungles. The grenades couldn't puncture all that greenery. Flatau developed a ring-shaped grenade that shredded nicely through dense foliage. But there was a problem with the fuse. The era's fuse technology wasn't up to Flatau's invention and his grenade never, so to speak, got off the ground.
Hunter admired Flatau's creativity. He suggested the two of them use their knowledge in aerodynamics to come up with a toy, a football that a regular guy could throw a hundred yards. In late 1996, Hunter enlisted Chet Vanek, a chemist friend who'd been laid-off by Lockheed, to help create the football. From what Hunter says, he, Flatau, and Vanek were the sort of brainy guys who didn't fit in, even in rigorously scientific settings. "We all have our own way of doing things and we don't work well within systems. Probably because of that, we were able to work well together," Hunter says.
While developing the football, the three men needed a launching device to test it. Hunter traveled to Vanek's home in Sunnyvale, California, where the two men rigged up a rudimentary launcher using a drill, rubber bands, and a blow torch. During its initial test, the device almost ignited Vanek's cat and set his home on fire. When the smoke cleared, Hunter realized that the launcher itself was "pretty neat." Using Flatau's failed grenade for inspiration, Hunter adapted the device to fire ring-shaped projectiles.
"The beauty of the ring airfoil," Hunter explains, "is that it flies so far. Its aerodynamics are such that a ring flies more than three times as far as a ball-shaped projectile of similar weight fired with the same amount of force. It flies really far and we figured, 'Hey, kids would love this!' "
Vanek set to work on building a prototype of the launcher. Hunter busied himself with filing a Provisional Patent Application with the U.S. Patent Office -- a $75 procedure that was crucial, Hunter claims, to his project's success.
"I think the first class they give to guys in business school is 'How to Take Advantage of Engineers,' " Hunter explains. "While working as a consultant, I had businesses run off with two gizmos I designed, and at least one of them made a lot of money. Most inventors are babes in the woods in that sort of situation. A lot of really bright guys spend $30,000 to get their gizmos patented. It's a very difficult, complicated process. The Provisional Patent Application, which is a relatively new procedure, allows you to register your idea and take it out and try to sell it for a year. You've got one year's protection. But it's easy and it's cheap and it's how we were able to sell the launcher to OddzOn, which is a division of Hasbro.
"Less than a year after I nearly set Vanek's cat and house on fire, we were able to walk into OddzOn with the prototype. Altogether we'd spent about $1500 in materials, and it took all three of us only about 1000 hours to create from start to finish.
"But I knew our limitations and so I took my friend, Tim O'Reily, the mystery writer who's got a book on the New York Times' best-seller list, to negotiate the deal. Usually someone who invents a toy gets, at most, a $30,000 advance, and royalties of between 2 and 5 percent for each toy sold. We walked away with a much, much better deal than that. And Tim closed the deal for us with OddzOn in less than an hour over the phone after he went home to Ireland."
In April the Vortex Tornado went on sale nationally at Toys R Us, Kmart, and Wal Mart. Last month OddzOn started advertising it on Nickelodeon. Hunter is so happy with his success that he's thinking of inventing more toys.
"Before, when I was a physicist, it was kind of hard to explain to my four kids exactly what it was that I did. They were always a little confused. Now they know that I've helped design a toy, which is something they can understand, and they think I'm the greatest guy in the world."