The zipper is one of those hardy inventions, as elemental and eternal as the fork or the eraser. Patented in 1917 as the "separable fastener," it hasn't changed much in 88 years. And then, one chilly night in a tent in the Sierra mountains, while camping with his dad, Justin Marty had to go to the bathroom.
What he wished he had was a sleeping bag that could be instantly morphed into something with legs, so he could walk outside the tent but still stay toasty warm.
Marty, now 26, has been inventing since he was a kid — at 8 he rigged a string to the switch in his bedroom so he could turn off the light without getting out of bed — so he went to work trying to turn his discomfort into a product.
The aha! moment came a year and a half later, when he suddenly realized that the solution lay in the zipper itself. He hurried off to the store, bought a small wooden milk bottle, some screws and a key ring, and invented the prehistoric prototype of what eventually would be the Quad Zipper — a device he predicts will revolutionize the apparel industry.
In the meantime, the quad zipper has catapulted Marty and his friend Josh Pace onto a reality TV show called "Made in the USA," sort of American Idol meets Thomas Edison.
On last night's premier, Marty and Pace successfully made it past the auditions — rising above the newfangled back-scratchers, the adjustable bras and 41 other contraptions — to the finals, one of just six inventor teams to make the cut.
The judges include University of Utah graduate Nolan Bushnell, creator of Chuck E. Cheese and the video game Pong, who, as the bad-cop judge, dismisses some of the contestants with an exasperated "I just don't get it."
The Quad Zipper is actually two zippers configured so that the teeth of one can be realigned to hook up with the teeth of the other. In that way the new zipper can open up or close off sections of cloth. "It's about compartmental transformation," Marty explains. While the standard zipper gets you into a sleeping bag or jacket, the Quad Zipper can turn that sleeping bag into a suit, and the jacket into a blanket.
"Let's say you're standing at your kid's soccer game," Marty demonstrates, slipping on a jacket that has been fashioned with a Quad Zipper. Pretty soon your arms are cold, but instead of just trying to pull them up through the sleeves so you can hug your body to keep warm, you just move the Quad Zipper on the sleeves to disengage them, turning the jacket into one continuous piece of fabric. Take off the jacket and it could become a backpack.
In the same way, skirts can be transformed into pants, gloves into mittens.
In the weeks to come, the Salt Lake team will be pitted against the inventors of a convertible stiletto-heeled shoe; a gripper for carrying sheetrock; a hydration apparatus that can be stored in football shoulder pads; an "instant waterfall"; and an "instant" hair extender.
The six teams will eventually be narrowed by judges to three teams; the winners will be chosen, by popular vote, on Oct. 19.
"Our goal with this technology is to have the big manufacturers license the technology," says Marty, who is both an inventor and a local musician. "We've been in talks with the big labels and they're very interested.
On "Made in the USA," though, the Quad Zipper's very strength — the fact that it is more a technology than an end-product — may end up being its weakness, says Pace, who is a screenwriter and entrepreneur. He and Marty have no actual something someone can sell at this point, which may be a problem since the prize for winning the show is a one-year sales contract with the Home Shopping Network.
The first show will be aired five more times between now and next week. The second installment airs on USA Network at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 21, when Marty and Pace will compete with the other finalists by proving their inventiveness, collaboration and marketing skills.