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No. 1460:

Today, the odd Japanese art of Chindogu. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I spent some time this long weekend hanging out in Houston's Galleria Mall. I watched gold medalist Tara Lipinski practicing her routines on the big rink -- without one fall, without an ungraceful move. Later I wandered through the Sharper Image store looking at all the high-tech gadgetry -- wondering which item I might actually use. Before I got there, I'd bought a book on Chindogu. And here the fun begins.

Talk about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance! Chindogu is part Zen, part Rube Goldberg, and part Sharper Image. The word literally means a quirky tool. It refers to a class of so-called unuseless inventions. Here's a weight you can strap to your telephone receiver. It lets you exercise as you talk. There's a rubber cover to put over the face of the fish you're chopping up. That way you won't have to look at its eyes.

The practice of Chindogu has ten guiding principles. It can't be intended for real use, but it must be meant for everyday life. It must actually exist. Its purpose cannot be humor, propaganda, or vulgarity, nor can it serve any religious or ethnic prejudice. One device allows a cat to step on an actuator for a fan that cools its food. Funny? Not really. Propagandistic or vulgar? Certainly not. And cats do live with people of any religion or race.

The remaining three guiding principles are the most interesting. One is that Chindogu must reveal the spirit of anarchy. It must challenge, and I quote, the suffocating historical dominance of conservative utility. Chindogu must represent freedom from true purpose. The fun of it is that, while it has apparent utility, it is, in the end, useless.

The tee-shirt with the grid printed on the back is such a contrivance. The point is to be able to tell a friend, Scratch my back at the coordinates H-3. Doesn't that make perfect sense?

A Chindogu can never be sold. That, I suppose, is what sets these gadgets apart from those at Sharper Image. The items at Sharper Image are necessarily tainted with all kinds of plausible usefulness. You could never say that about the Chindogu butter-stick. It's something like a Chapstick but filled with butter for easy spreading on bread.

The last principle is that Chindogu cannot be patented. True Chindogu is a gift to the world. In the spirit of internationalism, the book adds the phrase, Mi Chindogu es tu Chindogu.

That means anyone might use a sign equipped with suction cups that'll grip tile. The sign, printed in English and Japanese, says Ladies. Are you a woman facing a long line for the ladies room? Fine. Then go to the men's room, attach your sign, and use it.

Now that you know about Chindogu, go out and invent. What can you think up that makes perfect sense but which no one would ever use? Sounds like a groovy thing to do. I have a couple of ideas, but remember: they won't count until I've actually built them.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Kawakami K., 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chingdogu. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.


A 19th-century flying machine. Can it be called Chingdogu-like?
Yes, if it was actually built. Yes, if it was completely impractical.
No, if it didn't provide some minimal semblance of flight