This is a photograph of a remarkable human being, an inventor, named Forrest Bird. He’s in his late 80’s, still working 12 hour days, still inventing, and still flying his 21 planes. Chances are, you never heard of him. Neither had I until I watched a CBS 60 Minutes segment. But odds are good that you know someone whose life he saved. Bird invented the respirator — the device that keeps people breathing when they cannot themselves. His BabyBird respirator has saved numerous babies’ lives, including the lives of two of his neighbors in Idaho, now strapping young men.

Forrest Bird

Forrest Bird

What is Bird’s story? As with all inventor stories: he identified a need, and satisfied it, using his skills, inventiveness, creativity and determination.

Here is what the 60 Minutes segment revealed about his respirator, that helps lungs breath, based on his knowledge of aviation:

“In the lung are rudimentary air foils. It’s like a million airplane wings all down through the lungs. In and out, all the way through, that facilitate your normal, spontaneous breathing. So it was just applying all this,” Bird explains. “Taking it from aviation.” It sounds simple enough, a concept even school kids can grasp. But in reality, the human lung works with mind-numbing complexity. For his own education, the military sent Bird to medical school. And though his studies took him to the outer limits of science, his next respirator was still definitely low tech.

For example, he used strawberry shortcake tins to construct one of his early machines. “And what I did was, I put a diaphragm in here so that when you did that, it would drop the pressure and this magnet would grab it and hold it off,” he explains. Back then, there weren’t many options for people with respiratory problems. The worst cases required iron lungs, which were big, primitive, expensive and confining. So Bird kept on trying to develop a small, affordable device that could automatically help people breathe. His breakthrough came in the late 1950s with the “Bird Mark 7” respirator, a device so effective the Air Force made a training film about it, with Hollywood music and all. “We were able to assist your respiration. We could control it,” Bird explains.

Bird’s respirator kept his first wife, who suffered from advanced emphysema (lung disease), alive for many years.  Ultimately she died of the disease, when her lungs were simply destroyed. 

Bird makes his respirators in Idaho, in the complex in which he has his home and lab. They are used all over the world.

Is it safe for someone his age to fly? Of course, Bird says.

Matter of fact, he says, in some air emergencies, like pulling out of a dive without blacking out, it’s the old guy you want at the controls. “We have arterial sclerosis. Now, our young fellow, at 25, will black out faster than we will because our arteries are harder and they’re less expansive. So we maintain our blood pressure better.”

What can innovators learn from Forrest Bird?

*   Build prototypes. Use what you have. They can be crude — but they are essential. Paper business plans are just not enough.
*   Use what you know. Bird understood aviation, air foils, aerodynamics, and transferred this knowledge from airplane wings to lungs. Find knowledge in “X” and transfer to “Y”, when no-one else has thought of doing it or has seen the connection.
*   Keep innovating. Bird is still coming up with inventions and improvements. Creativity is not the sole province of the very young. Older people may have harder arteries, and poorer memories, but they have the wisdom of age and ages.  
*   Accept huge challenges. When Bird invented his respirator, many people, including children, were doomed to huge Iron Lungs — breathing machines that were expensive, confining and very non-portable. Most people just accepted the fact that those constraints were a necessary part of survival, especially for children who had polio. Bird did not.  His first model was patched together, and was operated by a door knob — push on it, and air streams into your lungs.  
*  Make it yourself, if you can. You don’t have to assume automatically that you can only make your device in China.  There are huge advantages to making it right next to your development lab. If it’s in Idaho, you can have your home next to your plant, right next to amazing mountains and a sparkling clear lake (where you land your seaplane), like Forrest Bird.