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By SHEREEN ALI. Published December 10, 2014 in T&T Guardian.


Commercially made inflatable men, also called fly guys and air dancers. They're all over the place these days, but their invention was from the brain of Peter Minshall, and others later commercialized the idea.

Who knew Minshall invented...

Inflatable men?


Artist & mas man Peter Minshall.

"Can you imag­ine how I feel when a friend is dri­ving our fac­to­ry in Ch­aguara­mas...and I see a sort of diminu­tive ver­sion of a Tall Boy danc­ing up a storm by a gas sta­tion...And I'm sud­den­ly aware that they are danc­ing up...all over the plan­et. A part of me can't help but feel de­light."

- Mas designer Peter Minshall.

By SHEREEN ALI. Published December 10, 2014 in T&T Guardian.

At this year's Di­vali Na­gar in Ch­agua­nas, they were there–in­flat­ed air pup­pets, pro­pelled by jets of air, danc­ing in front of the fire­works shops. You can see them every­where these days, pop­ping up in gas sta­tions and par­ties, at malls, fes­ti­vals, and pub­lic events, the tall boys of ad­ver­tis­ing. In Amer­i­ca, they've be­come ubiq­ui­tous since the 2000s. Says ra­dio pro­duc­er Ro­man Mars: "Their wacky faces hov­er over us, and then fall down to meet us, and then rise up again. Their bod­ies flop. They flail. They are men. Men made of tubes. Tubes full of air."

They're joy­ous and wacky, or un­be­liev­ably tacky, de­pend­ing on your tastes.

Mars not­ed in his ra­dio pod­cast Episode 143: In­flat­able men (post­ed De­cem­ber 2, 2014) that in the States, where in­flat­able men ap­pear in vir­tu­al­ly "every used car lot in Amer­i­ca," sev­er­al cities have ac­tu­al­ly now banned the tube guys as dis­tract­ing vi­su­al clut­ter.

But Mars then went on to ed­u­cate lis­ten­ers about the fas­ci­nat­ing ori­gins of the tube guy. The orig­i­nal de­sign con­cept, he said, was in­vent­ed by our very own artist/mas­man Pe­ter Min­shall, at the 1996 At­lanta Olympic Games.

The air pup­pet de­sign was sub­se­quent­ly patent­ed by one of the col­lab­o­ra­tors in the de­sign process, a Los An­ge­les-based Is­raeli artist named Doron Gaz­it, who, af­ter the Olympic Games, got his patent ap­proved in 2001 and start­ed mak­ing mon­ey from it. It soon be­came a huge­ly suc­cess­ful medi­um for ad­ver­tis­ing.

Ra­dio host Mars ex­plained in his De­cem­ber 2 pod­cast:

"This be­came a point of ten­sion be­tween Gaz­it and Min­shall; Min­shall had been un­aware of Gaz­it's in­ten­tion to patent and mon­e­tise the in­flat­able fig­ure.

"Gaz­it, for his part, says that he ap­plied for a patent be­cause he put a lot of re­search and de­vel­op­ment in­to mak­ing the 'fly guy' (as Gaz­it calls them), and he was al­ready start­ing to see oth­er peo­ple rip off his ef­forts."

The de­sign idea may be 29 years old; but its mi­gra­tion from art to busi­ness has proved prof­itable: Gaz­it still li­cens­es its use through his com­pa­ny Air Di­men­sion­al De­signs. Among the com­pa­nies us­ing them is one which makes mod­ern-day scare­crows called Air Rangers, ex­treme­ly suc­cess­ful in scar­ing birds away from crops.

Pe­ter Min­shall re­called how the idea first came to him in a tele­phone in­ter­view with the T&T Guardian last week.

He said at the At­lanta Olympics, the de­sign team mem­bers were ex­per­i­ment­ing with ideas for the open­ing cer­e­monies. Min­shall thought one idea could be to use in­flat­able tubes ab­stract­ly, as a form of mo­bile screen, on­to which im­ages could be pro­ject­ed. But this ex­per­i­ment did not work.

The sight of all the ver­ti­cal tubes, how­ev­er, trig­gered oth­er as­so­ci­a­tions. While sit­ting in the bleach­ers of the At­lanta Sta­di­um, he be­gan to sketch:

"I sketched two of the in­flat­able tubes and joined them at the waist, go­ing in­to one tube which is the tor­so; di­vid­ed them again at the top with the arms and a bit of a head...I saw two legs, two arms; I thought: My God, with a wind source, we could cre­ate a huge, in­cred­i­ble, un­du­lat­ing danc­ing fig­ure."

He en­vis­aged a sta­di­um filled with these tall, sway­ing fig­ures.

He made some work­ing draw­ings and re­alised he need­ed tech­ni­cal help. So the de­sign of­fice con­tact­ed Doron Gaz­it to ask for as­sis­tance, as Gaz­it had ex­pe­ri­ence in build­ing some of his own ex­per­i­men­tal wind-tube cre­ations.

"It was a hu­manoid pic­ture mo­ti­vat­ed by breeze," said Min­shall, who said the in­flat­ed men, which he called Tall Boys, were made ac­cord­ing to his de­sign idea.

The idea was then passed to Gaz­it to pro­duce work­ing pro­to­types. Min­shall said he had no idea that Gaz­it had in­ten­tions to patent it.

It wasn't un­til he had re­turned to Trinidad, some six months lat­er, that he got a call from a fel­low de­sign­er to tell him Gaz­it was start­ing to man­u­fac­ture the idea for prof­it.

"He should have called me up the mo­ment he thought about do­ing that," said Min­shall.

To­day, Min­shall is philo­soph­i­cal about what he sees as this al­most 30-year-old "theft": life goes on, and he said he has long since fo­cused his en­er­gies else­where.

Gaz­it's Fly Guys

Sam Dean has writ­ten his own cre­ation sto­ry of the tube guy. In his Bi­og­ra­phy of An In­flat­able Tube Guy–The Check­ered Past and Lone­ly Fu­ture of Air Pup­pets, he gives an in­ter­est­ing ac­count of the in­tense re­search done by Gaz­it.

While at­tend­ing in­dus­tri­al de­sign school in Jerusalem in the 1970s, Gaz­it had a side job sell­ing bal­loon de­signs (an­i­mals, hats, etc) on the streets, wrote Dean.

When Gaz­it in­tro­duced bal­loons to the Bedouins, he saw their "whim­si­cal, spir­it­ed" qual­i­ty. Then lat­er, while look­ing at the plas­tic-cov­ered green­hous­es on his fa­ther's farm, he got the idea of in­dus­tri­al­ly pro­duc­ing in­flat­able tubes for large-for­mat art. He de­vel­oped 500-foot long float­ing air tubes, which he strung in trees, across desert land­scapes, and in­to the wa­ters of the Dead Sea, wrote Dean.

He lat­er de­vel­oped tech­nol­o­gy to in­flate the tubes, and make them flame-re­tar­dant and UV-pro­tect­ed. He used thin ver­sions for art works, to be in­flat­ed by wind in na­ture; and heavy-du­ty ones, in­flat­ed by blow­ers, for de­sign events, wrote Dean. These tubes were all hor­i­zon­tal floaters.

The Olympic Com­mit­tee knew of Gaz­it from past work he'd done at the 1984 Los An­ge­les games.

Gaz­it said, in the Ro­man Mars ra­dio De­cem­ber 2 pod­cast, that the Min­shall Tall Boys idea was a big en­gi­neer­ing chal­lenge for him, as he had to find a way to make them ver­ti­cal, and he had to find the right mo­tor to give the ap­pro­pri­ate torque.

Even­tu­al­ly the Tall Boys came to life, look­ing much like present-day tube men, ex­cept for two things: the orig­i­nals were bipedal; and they were enor­mous–30 to 60 feet high.

Gaz­it made the idea work, and he's done a lot of work with in­flat­a­bles since those days.

Where they agree

Both Gaz­it and Min­shall agree that the idea was Min­shall's; and that Gaz­it turned the idea in­to re­al­i­ty. Where they dis­agree, the ra­dio pod­cast says, is "whether it was cool for Gaz­it to get a patent on it with­out in­form­ing Min­shall."

Re­gard­less of this decades-old quar­rel over in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty, Min­shall still loves to see the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of his 1996 idea. He said to Ro­man Mars on the De­cem­ber 2 pod­cast: "Can you imag­ine how I feel when a friend is dri­ving our fac­to­ry in Ch­aguara­mas...and I see a sort of diminu­tive ver­sion of a Tall Boy danc­ing up a storm by a gas sta­tion...And I'm sud­den­ly aware that they are danc­ing up...all over the plan­et. A part of me can't help but feel de­light."


About the pro­gramme: Pod­cast–Episode 143: In­flat­able Men: http://99per­centin­vis­i­­flat­able-men/


About 99 per cent In­vis­i­ble: The show is an in­no­v­a­tive ra­dio show-pod­cast about de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture, cre­at­ed by Ro­man Mars. It has a wide reach, with more than 30 mil­lion down­loads, and claims to be one of the most pop­u­lar pod­casts in the world. It be­gan as a col­lab­o­ra­tive project be­tween San Fran­cis­co pub­lic ra­dio sta­tion KALW and the Amer­i­can In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects in San Fran­cis­co. The name is from a quote by Buck­min­ster Fuller, who said, "Nine­ty-nine per cent of who you are is in­vis­i­ble and un­touch­able." Each episode gen­er­al­ly fo­cus­es on a sin­gle top­ic or spe­cif­ic ex­am­ple of de­sign, of­ten in­clud­ing in­ter­views with ar­chi­tects, ex­perts, or peo­ple who have been in­flu­enced by the de­sign. As of 2014, 99% In­vis­i­ble is in its fourth sea­son. (Wikipedia)

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