The Inventive Life of Maurice Kanbar

First published for the Exploratorium.

In Maurice Kanbar’s 2001 book, Secrets from an Inventor’s Notebook, he offers ten techniques for “fostering creativity and enhancing your inventive life.” Number one could be a page from the Exploratorium notebook: “Observe the world around you and be curious about what you see.” Number ten even mentions the museum by name: “Go to places like the Exploratorium…where the imagination and ingenuity of others…may spark your own.”

That’s high praise from a highly respected inventor, businessman, and philanthropist. Born in 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, Kanbar started inventing early and has yet to stop. With 36 patents to his name, producer credits for films like Hoodwinked, a film school (at NYU) named after him, and a recent major gift to the Exploratorium (making possible the soon-to-be-built Kanbar Theater), it’s hard to know where to start when speaking of the man’s accomplishments and generosity.

A good place to begin might be in Kanbar’s nine-story home and office in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. The sweeping water views from the top floor are almost dizzying, but the man who lives and works here is personable and down-to-earth. On an oversized coffee table lie scattered a sampling of his inventions, old and new, and as Kanbar tells of their genesis, we see a man with a seemingly insatiable appetite for creative problem solving.

His first invention, the D-Fuzz-It Sweater Comb, is here in its original packaging, which Kanbar designed himself because he didn’t have the $2,000 a graphic designer wanted to do the job. Introduced in the 1960s, the de-pilling gadget is still a strong seller, perhaps because a friend convinced Kanbar not to go with Balls Off! – his first idea for a name.

Also on the coffee table are a box of Tangos, a game based on the ancient Chinese tangram puzzle but adapted for two players, along with a new product, set to debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York: a brightly colored motorized building set that looks like a box Legos collided with a game of Mousetrap.

It’s no surprise that this inventor is a strong believer in tinkering and hands-on science education. He’d like to see a science survey course in colleges that would teach even liberal arts majors how everyday things work—from a light bulb to an internal combustion engine.

Kanbar loves working out the details as much as he loves the initial spark of an idea. He’s always enjoyed research. In high school he got a doctor’s note that got him out of gym class. They sent him to the school library instead. “They thought it was a punishment,” said Kanbar, “but I was in heaven.”

Beyond sweater combs and toys, Kanbar has to his credit many medical inventions. A simple 4-lensed diagnostic tool that identifies four common visual impairments; surprisingly chic John Lennon-style black framed specs are available in all four prescriptions. The plastic glasses cost only 75 cents to produce, and they’re virtually indestructible—Kanbar stands on them to prove his point. In places like rural India and Nepal, where many people have no access to medical or vision care, these glasses can transform lives. Kanbar is also involved with doctors who teach locals how to do simple cataract surgery, which can return sight to people who thought they’d never see again.

Kanbar is also proud of the needle guard he developed, which has saved countless hospital worker from needle sticks. If those needles have been used on patients with HIV or Hepatitis C, for instance, the worker may contract the disease. “When I was growing up,” says Kanbar, I often heard the saying, ‘Save one life, save the world.’”

Kanbar is serious about his medical innovations, but he always maintains his sense of whimsy, along with his attention to marketing. He shows us a swizzle stick that advertises his Blue Angel Vodka (he also developed Skyy Vodka) that doubles as a vision enhancer. Perforated plastic lenses allow only direct light rays within a narrow angular path to strike the cornea, improving vision and allowing the imbiber to read his bar tab.

Trust Maurice Kanbar to make a swizzle stick that could double as an Exploratorium exhibit.