The snake of fashion continues to swallow its own tail. Witness the recent revival of ground-effect lighting. Fresh interest in this spectral underglow, which rose to popularity in the import tuner scene of the Nineties, can be traced to the rising collectibility of that era’s cars.
This story originally appeared in Volume 10 of Road & Track.
This would delight the man who claimed a patent on this lighting source, an inventor known as Andrew Wilson. Though Wilson was far more famous for his 2004 move to legally change his name to They.
“‘They do this,’ or ‘They’re to blame for that.’ Who is this ‘they’ everyone talks about?” he said in an Associated Press report. “Somebody had to take responsibility.”
The absurd renaming story received national coverage, amplifying They’s claim that he held 14 patents, including for ground-effect lighting. Even Wikipedia credits him. But, as often happens, flimflammery vanquished fact.
“I have no knowledge of any prior application or issued patent to They on the auto ground-effect lighting, and I don’t believe he ever had one,” says Benjamin Adler, PhD, an expert Houston patent lawyer They worked within recent years. “Nor did he lead me to believe he did.”
We would have liked the chance to interview They to clarify the historical record. Unfortunately, he died last year.
They’s inventiveness did yield patents, though we only found three: two for a removable light- bar cover for first-responder vehicles and one for Shades, plastic sunglasses with integrated visors. These glasses were also mentioned in the AP story, allegedly providing a windfall. “That launched Shades into the light, and I had orders start coming in from everywhere,” They told writer Reid Creager for a 2016 Inventors Digest article.
It’s unclear whether this assessment is true. “Shades was neat,” says Donald R. Schoonover, PhD, a veteran Kansas City patent attorney who worked with They in the early Nineties. “But I don’t know how many he sold. He kind of jumped from one thing to the next.” (His co-inventor on the light guard, Nevin Jenkins, refers to They as both “a really bright, smart man” and “a BS artist.”)
Peripateticism encompassed other aspects of They’s life. “He had the most amazing day-job his-tory,” says his widow, Nancy Saint-Paul, an attorney in Galveston, Texas. She recounts his stints as fire chief, fountaineer, long-haul truck driver, car salesman, jewelry maker, art installer, and port lecturer on cruise ships, which required “dancing with lonely ladies in his tuxedo.”
As for his inventions, many of They’s ideas revolved around safety: clothing with break away sleeves to protect assembly-line workers’ limbs, thrusters to help seaplanes land smoothly, a pressurized vapor-saturated flame-suppression apparatus for firefighting. Even the underglow concept was conceived to create a warning silhouette in traffic or inclement weather.
But They penned scores of other oddball concepts. Our favorite was one predicated on renewable energy. “He was going to somehow make a battery out of electric eels, by keeping the cells alive or something?” Schoonover says. “He wanted me to do a patent, but one day he stuck his hand in the aquarium and the eels shocked him.”
His meanderings also apparently included a tendency to amble past invoices. “He had a problem of not paying me,” Schoonover says. “I finally told him I couldn’t represent him anymore.” Saint-Paul attributes this to They’s ADHD and PTSD, which“made it nearly impossible for him to tend to day-to-day obligations.”
They and Saint-Paul met three years ago. Just weeks after a chance encounter at Home Depot, the two married. They added a woodworking and mechanic shop to Saint-Paul’s home, a laboratory that yielded a plethora of inventions. “WhenNancy called me to tell me of his passing, I’d heard from the patent office the day before that one of his applications had been approved,” says Adler.“Since that time, I’ve gotten two other notices. So the patent office is recognizing the inventiveness of his ideas.”
Everyone we spoke with described They as ingenious, charming, and charismatic. As for the underglow, we know only that he claimed to have created a novel version in the Eighties, one that used 12-volt fluorescent bulbs, which were less fragile than the neon tubes used previously. “He told me that he had the patents, but there was some Chinese manufacturers who got around those patents and robbed him,” Saint-Paul says.
Whether or not They registered the concept, he definitely built and got use from it. “Every vehicle he owned had ground effects,” Saint-Paul says. “I still have his BMW i3 with subtle white lights. And our golf cart, with hilarious multicolored lights.”
His inventiveness even extended to his death.“He joked about a full Viking funeral with a burning boat,” Saint-Paul says. “His funniest idea, though, was to wheel a barbecue grill into the hospital and tell the providers that he wanted to save on the cremation costs.”