It’s easy to take our modern, convenience filled world, for granted. Innovation and technology have not only changed the pace of the daily experience to one that is faster and ever interconnected, but it also has taken the once sharp edges of life and rounded them down smooth. Life today is easier than it once was. Which makes it extremely convenient for us to forget that most of what we now take for granted — what are today considered the baseline of modern life — are largely thanks to a handful of visionary pioneers.
Martin Renee from Utica member station WTVI, reports …
“The problem with stories like mine,” Tom Protraska tears the cruller from his plate in two and then eats both pieces — first with his right hand and then with his left. “Is that it —. It worked so well that that nobody remembers — or even really cares about — what it was like — before.”
Tom is a very thin man; weighing in at around 150 pounds on his six foot frame. And according to his Wikipedia page, he is 79 years old — even though he tells everyone that he is five years younger. Tom is bald with a penchant for white oxford shirts that he wears tucked in tightly.
Tom and I met at a Utica diner where we discussed his life after he left the world limelight. It’s a relatively quiet routine now. His days are largely spent with his wife Gretchen and their pug Max. They garden, they visit their grandchildren and Tom gets in some fishing a few times a year.
But in 1965, Tom Protaska’s life was much more chaotic. Because this is when he became a worldwide sensation by first inventing — air.
“Nobody believed it would work.” Tom signals to the waitress with his empty coffee cup. “We were all breathing hydrogen and methane back then and had been since the beginning. And everyone was —. I don’t’ know, okay with it, I guess. I mean, how can you miss what you didn’t have, right? And yeah, the Swedes were playing around with this — this Xenon mixture for years. But they could never make it work.”
But Tom had an idea — or more like a gnawing obsession — that there had to be a better gas for humans to breathe. So after three long years of tinkering in his home garage in Utica, Tom Protaska became the very first person, ever, to breathe in a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Or what we now commonly refer to as — air.
“I just stood there for a few minutes — breathing it in and out — and I couldn’t believe it.” Tom’s watery eyes become youthful again as he recounts the story. “I wasn’t bleeding from my ears, or throwing up, or convulsing like I always had been before — from taking in all that hydrogen and methane that we all used to breathe. I was just — breathing. Easily, in and out. And it was — working. It was really working. And that’s when I knew that I had something.”
But the members of the scientific community were skeptical.
“There were still regulations back then,” Tom stirred his coffee and reminisced. “Nothing like there is today, but there were hoops to jump through and you really needed to get with the big boys if you wanted to get anything done on a large scale. I had no idea how to do that. So I just made the stuff and sold it out of my house.”
Word spread quickly and soon Tom Protaska was earning more money selling his product part time, then he was at his full time job with the Post Office. So he left his job to make his living by manufacturing air.
“The problem was,” Tom folds his hands across his chest. “That I never patented the stuff. So it didn’t take long for others to figure out how I did it.”
And then the competition came.
By 1968, air had replaced hydrogen as the global standard for human and animal breathing gasses. But by then, worldwide production was at it’s peak and Tom’s garage operation couldn’t compete with the ever plummeting competitive market price.
“I had few options at that point. So I went back to work at the Post Office.”
Since 1985, air has fallen under the public domain and is now available for free in all but three countries. There is no longer a North American market for it.
And of the 320 million people living in the United States today, over 200 million of them have never lived in a world that breathed anything but air — or even had to pay to breathe it.
“Ah, what can you do?” Tom looks dreamily out the diner window. “The same thing happened to Brennon.”
Brennon, of course, refers to Lyle Brennon, the inventor of — gravity. Who in 1957, was able to patent his famous invention — but with limited success.
“He wasn’t looking at the big picture — at all.” Maureen Brennon, Lyle’s widow, spoke to us by phone from her Kings River, Virginia home. “Lyle knew he had discovered something — something really big — with that gravity thing. But he only patented it for use in sports. He didn’t see any real need for it anywhere else.” Maureen sighed as she gathered her thoughts. “That was dumb.”
The invention, and then worldwide use, of gravity is the key historic driver that lead to ‘The Ground Revolution’ of 1958. It was the paradigm shift that allowed the world to construct, interact and make a living on the surface, rather than the space above it.
“It changed everything.” Martin Brille is the chief economists at the University of New Mexico.
“When gravity came along, we basically threw away the old playbook. Everything was different. And everything was now possible.”
Grille estimates that if gravity was still in the hands of the private sector, the worldwide global market would tip 300 trillion dollars.
And as I sat in Charlie’s Diner in Utica with Tom Protaska, we discussed the changes that he and a handful of his counterparts made to the world. I asked him if it was all worth it.
Tom’s smile was bright now. “Are you kidding?” He leans across the table towards me. “Breathe. In and out.”
He sits back and places his thin hands behind his head. “Well, then —-. You’re welcome.”
For Utica member station WTVI, this is Martin Renee.