Sawstop Inventor Still Struggling to Save Fingers

If you ever thought you had a great technical idea and wondered how easy it would be to get it accepted by industry, then you need to hear the story of Stephen Gass.

Gass, a former patent attorney with a PhD in physics, may finally be on the verge of changing the power tool industry. Then again, this isn't the first time he has believed that.

"It seems like, at long last, things may be breaking loose and moving towards the implementation of this technology," Gass told me recently. "It's more likely than not, but it's not a done deal."

To understand Gass's technological odyssey, though, you need to go back to the inception of his idea. Twelve years ago he conjured up a way of keeping table saws from cutting off the fingers of woodworkers. Using a capacitive technique to sense a drop in voltage whenever the blade teeth contacted salty wet tissue, Gass's saws "recognized" potentially dangerous situations. Within a few thousandths of a second, they could engage a spring-brake, stop a blade dead in its tracks, and save a digit or two. On his company's Website you can watch a video demonstration of this (on a hot dog).

Gass, of course, believed in 1999 that he had come up with a significant idea. According to statistics from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, approximately 30,000 people per year were being injured by table saws, with about 10 percent of those accidents involving amputation. Gass saw his idea as a way to deal with that loss of fingers.

Still, not everyone agreed. Power tool manufacturers, quite understandably, saw the concept as a manufacturing nightmare. They balked at the possibility of having to invest frightening amounts of capital to retool existing production lines. Moreover, lawyers viewed it as an enormous product liability problem. What if it didn't work and someone lost a finger? Worse, what if it did work? Would it mean the manufacturers would be now legally liable for all other saws that didn't use the new technology?

Legal experts were clear on one point when it came to table saws. The unwritten rule says, "Use it at your own risk." Because adult users understood the propensity for sharp edges to cut, the saw makers were legally protected. For them, the brutal status quo made a lot of sense.

During the initial seven years after Gass invented the technology, power tool manufacturers butted heads with him. They claimed his idea didn't work. They complained it was too expensive. They argued that his licensing fees were exorbitant. They said his technology would create a monopoly.

Then, in 2006, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) shocked the industry by recommending the government begin a "rulemaking process" requiring that future saws incorporate an active injury mitigation system. We wrote about this five years ago when Gass thought he'd been vindicated.

But it turned out to be just another bump on a very rocky road. A week after the Commission voted in Gass's favor, the chairman, whose vote had been critical, retired. And the battle resumed.

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