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8-year-old boy wins accolades for his invention

Monday, September 21, 1998

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

AKRON, Ohio -- As he crossed the stage in a tuxedo and black bow tie, the spotlight illuminated Brandon Whale's sprigs of hair that buoy up from his crown. A ripple of delighted voices in the packed hotel ballroom said, "Ah."

Brandon Whale, 8, of Ross, gets a hug from Wilson Greatbatch, inventor the implantable cardiac pacemaker, Saturday in Akron, Ohio, after Whale's induction into the National Gallery for America's Young Inventors. (Phil Long, Associated Press) 

No one younger or smaller or more pixie faced had ever made it into the National Gallery for America's Young Inventors. Eight-year-old Brandon from Ross was one of just six children throughout the nation who made the cut for this year's induction.

On Saturday afternoon in the Quaker Square Hilton, Brandon was rewarded for "The PaceMate," a kit that improves the method by which pacemaker patients transmit EKGs to hospitals by telephone.

In February, Brandon entered his elastic bracelets and sponge bits soaked in electrolyte to the Invention Convention, a competition among pupils in the North Hills school district. He is a third-grader at Northway Elementary School.

His invention came out of his desire to help his mother, Danette Rocco, who, at 34, got a pacemaker implant three years ago as a backup for a slow heartbeat. Her wrists are tiny, and the standard bracelets didn't fit snugly, so for a good transmission, she had to have Brandon or his brother, Spencer, 5, press the electrode on the bracelet against her wrist. She used water for better conduction.

As part of his invention, Brandon got a jeweler to help him elasticize the transmission bracelet. Learning that an electrolyte is a better conductor than water, Brandon put to use an electrolytic solution that the family had bought to hydrate the boys' pet lizard. He marinated tiny sponge pieces in the solution then placed them between the wrist and the electrode on the bracelet when it was time to transmit EKG data.

Brandon and several other pupils won "outstanding project" ribbons at the school-district convention. Hundreds had entered the competition.

Brandon's PaceMate won an award in the Student Ideas for a Better America competition, and his story took wing. He has told it to national audiences on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and on Nickelodeon and each time he appears at a convention, such as the one Saturday.

"Can you believe how far this has gone?" his mother said earlier in the summer. "It's such a simple invention."

But many inventions and improvements, ones that save lives and make difficult things easy, are quite simple, said Nick Frankovitz, the Gallery's executive director. For instance, a burr that stuck to a guy's wool pants inspired the idea for Velcro. Frankovitz said he advises the student board that votes for the youthful inductees not to be impressed by something just because it is mind-boggling.

Among the inventions rewarded Saturday is a transmitter for trains that signals a receiver in cars and buses when a train is within one-fourth mile of a railroad crossing. Another is a portable traffic light that police officers can post at accident scenes so they can attend to people in need instead of directing traffic. The boy who invented it got the idea when he stopped to administer CPR during a traffic accident.

A seventh child on Saturday was honored for an invention that he turned into a lucrative product. Richie Stachowski from Moraga, Calif., won the Young Entrepreneur Award from the Winner's League Foundation of Columbus.

Richie was 12 when he invented a line of water toys and began marketing them. His company, Short Stack, sells Water Talkies, Scuba Scope and the Bumper Jumper Water Pumper to 19 major retailers.

Now a 13-year-old CEO, Richie said, "Kids often ask me, 'How did you do it?' Well, most people think that the order of life is to go to grade school, go to high school, go to college, get a job, get a car, get a house and maybe even get married." He wrinkled his face into a grimace then smiled. "But why wait?"

Outside the ballroom before the banquet, the mingling of several hundred people seemed to bring everyone eventually to the table Brandon shared with Adam Cohen, a 17-year-old from New York City, who is in high school but also studying at Harvard.

Adam invented a device to improve the production of microchips. He was 5 when he became a gadgeteer, he said, directing a huge, sunny smile at Brandon, "But I didn't get successful at it until I was in high school."

Brandon worked the room getting autographs of the young inventors and as many of the adults who were, that night, to be inducted in the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. One was Trudy Elion, whose leukemia fighting drug 6-mercaptopurine won a shared Nobel Prize for medicine in 1988.

"Mom! Can you get her?" Brandon said in a desperate whisper.

"What honey?"

"Mom, she's an inductee!"

"He wants to meet every inductee," Rocco said.

One woman brought her son up, sort of pushing him toward Brandon, and said, "Evan has been working on an invention, and he hopes someday he'll be able to wear one of those tuxedos."

"Well, they look nice, but they are not that comfortable." See that?" Brandon said as he showed the boy a cuff link. "This jabs into you."

There was no celebrity Brandon wanted to meet more than Wilson Greatbatch, a 1986 inductee into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, which is also in Akron. Greatbatch, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., invented the implantable cardiac pacemaker. "If he hadn't invented the pacemaker, my invention wouldn't have been possible," said Brandon.

Greatbatch, a kindly-faced elder who wore a red bow tie, sat with Brandon's family at the banquet and went to the stage to say a few words and to hug Brandon for his award. "The process he went through, looking around the house for solutions, being curious about how things work, is the same process I use," Greatbatch said earlier. "I think (The PaceMate) is pretty tremendous."

Brandon studied the award medal that a woman placed around his neck. In a reedy voice, he presented the speech he had memorized, thanking the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, his school, his teachers, "and my wonderful family. I will work my hardest to live up to this distinguished honor."

Before the show concluded, Brandon was called back to the stage, where the emcee told him that somebody who couldn't be there had sent a video message. Rosie O'Donnell appeared on a screen. "Hey Brandon," she said, congratulating him and telling him that in setting out to help his mother, he also helped lots of people. "So Brandon, she said, putting her thumbs up, "Rock on!"

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