While hawkeyed Secret Service agents scanned the school auditorium in Nashua, N.H. a few weeks back, foster brothers Lewis Barton and Curtis Lawson grew jumpy. Vice-President George Bush was about to present them with the 1982 National Inventors Award (which they would share with Dr. Robert Jarvik, the creator of Barney Clark’s artificial heart). As press photographers clamored for just one more shot, Curtis approached a reporter. “Is my nose red?” he asked. “Lewis was pinching it last night.”
Fourteen-year-old boys have always teased their 10-year-old brothers, but no one else is likely to pester either one of this precocious pair. With 10 patents currently pending in Washington on their two inventions, they are soon to become the youngest patent holders in American history. Both of their inventions are expected to be marketed commercially: They have received $5,000 worth of orders for their automatic swimming pool skimmer, and a “large fast-food chain” has approached them about their spill-proof car tray.
A high school freshman in Nashua, Lewis just got an A—in an engineering course he takes at nearby Daniel Webster College. Curtis is a fifth grader, and both boys’ work exemplifies the proverb about necessity being the mother of invention. As Curtis explains, “We started with the tray because our mom travels a lot, and she has to eat while she’s traveling. She was always spilling stuff and coming home for a quick change, and we’d have to clean the car out in a hurry. That was an awful job, so Lewis and I invented the car tray and cup holder.’ The automatic pool skimmer (a movable fountain that forces debris to one area, where it can be easily removed) came about because the boys hated cleaning the family pool manually.
Their mother, reed-thin, tough-talking Mary Lawson, 40, nurtures their creativity through discipline. “Our mother always sets aside two hours a day she calls creative time,” says Lewis. A devout Roman Catholic, Mary married and separated at 17 (the union was annulled). She adopted both Curtis and a daughter, Ashley May, at birth and has had custody of Lewis for the past 15 months. Mom makes ends meet as general manager and president of two separate fish-farming companies and as a free-lance management consultant.
The award-winning brothers may soon have competition. Six-year-old Ashley May has developed a rotating plant tray to maximize solar energy. Now she is busy learning to write her name—presumably so she can sign her own patent application.