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October 29, 2002

A public radio commentary

This Halloween I set out some glow-in-the-dark decorations, and they reminded me of a charming story of invention.

In the early 1970s, Becky Schroeder waited in the car as her mother shopped. Becky, a ten-year old, wanted to finish her math home work, but because it was growing dark she couldn't see her paper. She didn't have a flashlight, and didn't want to open the door because the whole car would light up. "I thought," she said later, that "it would be neat to have my paper light up somehow." And with that Becky decided to invent glowing paper.

First, she tried to use fluorescence, but she found that fluorescent things glow only when struck by light - like a black light - so they won't work in the dark. Next she thought of fireflies, but bioluminescence didn't seem to be something she could incorporate easily into a piece of paper. Then she recalled the glow-in-the-dark frisbees in her toy box. She learned that they used phosphorescence. That means they store up the energy from a light, then radiate it as a glow in the dark after the light is switched off.

The next day she went to the hardware store with her father and bought some phosphorescent paint. That night she worked in her darkened bathroom, painting stacks of paper, even screaming at one point "It works! It works!" But she found that it wasn't the paper that needed to glow, it was the clip board. She coated her clip board with glowing paint, so that it gave off just enough light to shine through the paper on top of it. Over the next couple of years - from age ten to twelve - Becky refined her device to use batteries to generate the glow. Then she patented her "glo-sheet", becoming the youngest female inventor in U.S. history.

Written up in the New York Times, the devices sold briskly. Photographers used them in their darkrooms, critics found them perfect for taking notes in dark theaters, and emergency medical technicians used them in ambulances.

NASA even came knocking at her door. They'd been developing something similar, and noted that if she were a former employee the patent would belong to them. Of course, at age twelve she wasn't a former NASA employee.

You might use Becky's story as inspiration for your own inventions, but I'd recommend staying away from glow-in-the-dark stuff. Since Becky, people have invented golf balls that glow, although why you'd golf in the dark is beyond me; one man sells a whole bicycle covered in glowing stuff, and there is glow-in-the-dark toilet paper, invented so you can find it at night. It's been discontinued, though, because after you use it your bottom glows.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises