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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.