Beautiful Junk

At my kids’ school, parents are trained from pre-K onward to send in any “beautiful junk” they amass at home: egg cartons, shoe boxes, packing peanuts, etc. It is all recycled by the kids into artwork, some of it pretty splendid.

Here’s a neat look at the “beautiful junk” being amassed by Intellectual Ventures, the invention company near Seattle we wrote about in SuperFreakonomics. I.V. has a collection of scientists who are trying to solve a variety of the world’s problems. We wrote about their efforts to thwart hurricanes and to stop global warming through geoengineering (take a look at this brief video of the “stratoshield” idea that we write about).

Here’s how the I.V. blog describes the beautiful junk in its 23,000-square-foot warehouse, which is adjacent to one of its invention labs:

As Edison taught, “If you want to have a good invention, have a lot of them.”

So we started to buy junk. When I say “junk,” I don’t really mean “junk” … I mean scanning electron microscopes, computer-controlled lathes, fume hoods, big scary lasers, centrifuges, cryo-freezers, CAT scans, mass spectrometers, water jet cutters … really cool junk. So much that we couldn’t possibly fit it all into our lab (though we tried for a while), so we got a warehouse — and then shortly thereafter, a bigger warehouse (taking 27 fully loaded 55-foot trailers to complete the move). A 23,000-square-toot warehouse with 20-foot tall racks, filled with our junk.

And it turns out, buying and storing all of this junk is a fantastically efficient and cost effective way to run an invention lab! At this point, I normally get a few raised eyebrows, so don’t feel bad if yours are arched as well. The key is, we buy all of this stuff used at auction. The web is great for this; we regularly watch sites like DoveBid and eBay. We literally pay pennies on the dollar to buy the stuff. We’ve learned to be very good bargain shoppers for used instruments (the present economy, while producing unfortunate employment statistics, is yielding fantastic bargain shopping opportunities). Storage is cheap once you have scale. …

The net result is that we end up with an enormously broad resource that is hard to appreciate until you use it. When we launch a new project here at IVL, the first step is usually to go to the warehouse and pull out the instruments that are needed. Generally researchers get to pick which glovebox, or centrifuge, or oscilloscope, or spectrometer they can best use. They can pull precision stages or camera systems from a variety of devices which we bought for parts. They can combine two instruments to make something new and cool and clever.

Turning the chaos of ideas into tomorrow’s technologies is what we do here; it shouldn’t be a surprise that we should have to turn a little instrumentation chaos to our advantage at the same time. After all, Edison also said, “Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something!”

You should also take a look at the I.V. blog post called “Shooting Mosquitoes With Frickin’ Lasers.” This invention may not end up being the best anti-malarial solution ever invented, but it is certainly the most interesting.

Garrett Pendergast

During 27 years in the (stripper) oil business I found that the only way to stay alive in hard times was visiting junkyards. Why pay $2-300 for a 2"stainless steel valve when you could recycle one form a candy factory for $20.


Despite politicians doing their level best to drag this country down to third world status, IV's "out of the box" thinking is what made, and continues to make, America the greatest country in the world. Kudos to Nathan and his team for keeping the flame of independent, creative thinking burning bright. If Nathan scores a second large fortune my hat is off to him because everyone benefits from the work IV is doing.

Joel Upchurch

It is amazing what happens when people who actually had creative ideas run the company. Having a lot of different equipment on hand conserves their most important resource: time. Being able to pull the equipment you need off the shelf when you want to try an idea, versus searching through catalogs and writing purchase orders can save you days for each iteration of your experiments.

The trouble is when a company is run by people who have never had a creative idea in their lives and think engineers can do their jobs with nothing but a phone and a computer on their desk.

Eric M. Jones

My father was an R&D guy for Westinghouse during WWII.
Development was hamperered by the inefficiencies of procuring prototype materials and test equipment, but every lab seemed to have a secret stash of junk in closets.

My father suggested and implemented aglomerating all the junk and had it laid out exactly like a supermarket--complete with produce scales, shopping carts and checkout registers with shopping bags, and of course restocking clerks.

Now Ebay and the internet is the giant junkyard. Even better.


I always enjoyed the show, "Junk Yard Wars."

The inspiration for this show was the movie "Apollo 13". There's a scene where the CO2 scrubbers on the command module are being exhausted, but the LEM scrubbers are fine. The problem is that one set is square and the other is round.

The engineers are put into a room with all of the spare "parts" the astronauts have, and they're told to make any kind of design that allows the LEM scrubbers to work.

The solution involves socks, spare baggies, etc.

The producer liked the concept and used a junk yard as the source of spare parts.


If you are having junk car in your garage and want to sale it of then visit

Mark Kemp

Speaking of "beautiful junk": Stephen, I'm here to make sure you'll never be able to leave your rock & roll past behind. I had the great opportunity on Friday to do something I've wanted to do for two decades: act as a DJ on a radio station and play one of the finest lost garage-rock nuggets -- "Cosmopolitan Lovesick Blues" -- that no one's ever heard of. (I was asked to appear on DD Thornton's Deaconlight web radio station and talk about southern music and my book, Dixie Lullaby).
For readers who are now totally in the dark: Stephen was a member of the great 1980s garage-punk-country band the Right Profile, which was based in North Carolina. It was one of those groups that, due to bad breaks and tough luck with a record company, never made it to the big time, but should have. So when you're reading Stephen's wisdom about freaky nomics, picture a younger Stephen J. Dubner, scrawny with Elvis sideburns, wearing black Beatle boots and jumping up and down behind a keyboard while whining out some of the finest garage rock the South has ever known. If I could spin "Cosmopolitan Lovesick Blues" here for you to listen to, I would. Alas, I can't. So you'll have to search out this bit of "beautiful junk" and some garage sale near Woodstock.
Thank you for allowing me to bum-rush this conversation. And now back to your regularly scheduled thread.


science minded

How does the saying go--One person's Junk is another's treasures." Who said that?

Jim R

Did Edison actually say that? I can't find a source for the quote from google. But it sounds much like the theme quote in this weeks NY Times Sunday puzzle. Linus Pauling: "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."

If we work out any solution from a junk, it does not remain a junk, it becomes an invention, a discovery. I think we can recycle anything if we know how and what to make out of it.