"Coolness is not a thing but an absence of hotness," explains Ted Strauss, the San Anselmo, Cal.-based inventor of the Personal Cooling System, a gadget seen in Sharper Image catalogues since 1998, and CoolWave, now making its test market debut in California Wal-Marts.
To obtain this absence -- to receive the benefits of air conditioning without being confined indoors -- a person wears one of Strauss' mobile cooling apparatuses. These inventions don't prevent sunburn, but they do make the wearer able to endure extreme heat for longer periods of time. How do they accomplish this? The answer lies in the human body's own highly effective technology: sweat.
Strauss defines his first gadget as an "automatic sweat device," and his second one follows the same principle, which is that as water evaporates off our skin it takes heat along with it into the air. That's why our bodies produce sweat -- so it can evaporate from our skin, thus removing heat and leaving us cooler. The Personal Cooling System goes around the neck, where it can rest on the large arteries to cool the blood. Strauss was inspired to choose this location for his device when he noticed that when people are hot, they tend to press a cold beer can to their neck.
His other inspiration was that he really disliked hot summers. "I was always living in some place that didn't have air conditioning, and I thought there's gotta be a better way to do this," he says. "When something really bothers me, then I do something about it."
Following this beer can-against-the-neck image, Strauss fashioned an aluminum plate to draw heat from the body into a water-dampened sponge. A battery-operated fan then blows across the now warm water into the air. By contrast, CoolWave straps around the back like a fanny pack, where it brings cooled water to the wearer's skin and then a motorized fan blows air across the dampened skin, evaporating the water.
This concept is almost purely theoretical in famously humid New Orleans, where water evaporation, like snow, is something schoolchildren read about in textbooks but rarely witness. Nonetheless, Strauss' inventions are starting to show up here, the ultimate test market. Someone was photographed at Jazz Fest wearing a Personal Cooling System. And a "menopause sufferer" in Louisiana wrote a letter of thanks to Sharper Image.
The son of a rocket scientist, Strauss grew up in New Jersey, the land of Thomas Edison. He spent his childhood messing around in his father's office and tinkering with the cool stuff he found there. "I loved building things that would explode or fall down," he says.
As he grew older, his curiosity and penchant for tinkering led to what he figures may be hundreds of inventions. He allows he has the same flaws of many inventors -- he lacks patience and rarely sees things through to completion. Inventors' minds function with perpetual curiosity which, while it is the source of creativity, can also lead to distractions. Strauss' own career path is littered with unfinished, and yet viable, projects.
"My Personal Cooling System is an amazing home run for an inventor," says Strauss, who estimates that Sharper Image sells more than 100,000 of the gadgets a year. "Only a very few ideas get all the way to market and are successful. I was blessed. Who knows why?"
Strauss gives some credit to his work as a spiritual seeker, which has also been marked by curiosity. Although Strauss grew up in an agnostic Jewish family, his spiritual quest began when he read The Autobiography of a Yogi in his mid-teens. When it came time for college, he went to Maharishi International University in Iowa, where he studied transcendental meditation along with science and art. He also invented stuff, such as a plant mobile, and then organized his frat house at Maharishi University to manufacture them.
Strauss later studied transcendental meditation more intensively with the Maharishi himself. But after 23 years of meditating, Strauss experienced an epiphany: meditation isn't enough, and it is impossible for anyone to transcend earthly experience or the pain of being human. Rather than feeling crushed by this realization, Strauss interpreted it as an invitation to seek a new spiritual practice. Strauss is now a teacher in a movement called "Waking Down," which he describes extensively on his Web site, www.tedstrauss.com. There is no enlightenment, says Strauss, except "waking down" into one's true divine human nature -- which includes the everyday physical life -- and releasing the expectation of escape into the transcendental realm. This spiritual path demands a willingness to be uncomfortable.
It might seem ironic that Strauss' life as an inventor is dedicated to solving the problems that cause discomfort (like baking in August weather) while his spiritual life is organized around the assertion that there is no way of getting out of suffering. "Neither this invention nor any invention will solve the existential dilemma of being divinely human, or change the core experience of what it feels like to be alive, which is discomfort," he says.
In the meantime, thanks to Strauss, we can at least stay cool.
"I was always living in some place that didn't have air conditioning, and I thought there's gotta be a better way." -- Ted Strauss, inventor of the Personal Cooling System and CoolWave