The motorized mutation in Morton Heilig's driveway whacks away at the morning air with a steady thumping. Heilig tinkers at one of its three wheels. By the time he finally mounts his Motocruiser, the sun has risen hot and bright off the horizon. Puttering into the street on his skateboard-motor scooter, Heilig performs a series of figure eights, nines and 10's. Kids keep popping up and asking him if they can try it out. He loves the attention.
Buzzing around the Los Angeles suburbs in his pith helmet, Heilig looks as if he has taken the wrong fork on some path out of darkest Africa. He's lean and wiry with thin, arching brows and a tuft of white beard. He's very active, he says, somewhat redundantly perhaps for a 65-year-old man who rides around on a motorized skateboard. "I don't just invent," he says. "I reinvent."
Heilig's creations are cataloged in 53 notebooks. "I don't even remember half of them myself," he says. He rummages a little in his garage, sorting out the neater stuff. He brings out a full-bodied bike that a rider pedals with legs and arms; roller skates with hand brakes and rearview mirrors; a land sailboard for the windsurfer who lacks surf; and a dizzying array of Streetcruisers, Supercruisers, Motocruisers and Minicruisers that fold up for easy storage the way George Jetson's spaceship folded down into a briefcase.
The Cruiser line came about by accident: Heilig was upended while test-driving one of his sons' skateboards. "I felt like I had stepped on a banana peel," he recalls. "I thought, There has to be a better way." So Heilig took the skateboard back to the drawing board and tricked it up with brakes, air-filled tires and handlebars. "The problem with conventional skateboards is that the rider has nothing to hold on to," he explains. "If I reinvented the surfboard, I'd put a handle on that, too."
Heilig has redesigned tennis, football, volleyball.... "Baseball, too," he says. "I've turned it into a good game." Heilig's version of the national pastime draws heavily on indoor soccer. "It's nonstop action," he says. "Home runs and pitching make today's game boring." You can't hit the ball out of the park in Heiligball or strike a batter out. That's mostly because there are no strikes. Or opposing pitchers. The team at bat supplies its own pitcher. "Make that pitchers," corrects Heilig. "Two of them pitch simultaneously to two batters. And don't forget the five outfielders." You need a scorecard to tell the players and a court stenographer to keep score in Heiligball.
A filmmaker whose work has been screened at the Cannes Film Festival, Heilig got his start making documentaries while in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship in 1947. He has shot and produced films that range from a documentary on Class D baseball to what he calls a "philosophical allegory about the origin of man." While living in Manhattan, he dreamed up and patented the Telesphere Mask, a 3-D peripheral-vision TV set that fits on your head. But he is perhaps best remembered—when remembered at all—for the Sensorama Simulator, a 1960s forerunner of virtual reality, the hot computer technology of the '90s. The simulator looked like a monstrous hair dryer and operated on the principle of a peep show. Perched on a vibrating bucket seat, you watched 3-D films of a beckoning belly dancer while the machine spewed thick scents of jasmine and hibiscus. Alas, the simulator never stimulated much interest from backers. "Sensorama may have been too revolutionary for its time," Heilig concedes.
His vision is too radical even for the world of make-believe. The theme-park design arm of Walt Disney, in fact, fired Heilig as a consultant in 1979 after he critiqued the Epcot Center. "People dismiss me as a crank," he says. "I've been called a screwball, a crackpot...."
"A mad scientist," son Jeff adds helpfully. "Most inventors will take a square pad of paper and give it round edges. My father takes that pad and says it should look like a pen. It's unacceptable because nobody gets it."
You won't find any of Heilig's gizmos at your local mall. Supercruiser Inc. has no marketing budget or sales staff. Morton and Jeff sometimes hawk the contraptions at weekend swap meets. The designs retail from $99 to $900. "We're fundamentally underfinanced," Heilig says.
He thinks investors should invest in inventions instead of, say, mutual funds. "People with money have no vision," he laments. "They just put money in what's hot." That said, Heilig pulls a Quadscoot, a four-wheeled motorized number, out of his crowded garage, hunkers down and heads for the open road at 22 mph. The sun's going down when he calls it a day. "To be honest," he says, "if I were the average rich guy, I'd do the same thing."
PETER READ MILLER
Heilig maneuvers a Supercruiser through suburban Los Angeles.