His Own Devices

Written by Michael Slenske Category: People Issue: April 2013
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Valley inventor Jack McNamara quietly perfects medical gizmos in his two-story barn

If necessity truly is the mother of invention, then Jack McNamara is one of her most prolific baby-daddies.

For 19 years, the mechanic and serial tinkerer has quietly operated a medical-equipment invention business out of a two-story red barn in west Phoenix. Located on an acre with its own chicken coop, greenhouse, and windmill, the barn – built over two days in 1989 by 18 framers – has a fully-stocked saloon upstairs where Charlie Rich is always on the jukebox. The downstairs lab is filled with tool chests, hard-worn workbenches and the odd motorcycle or hot rod. And while McNamara’s handmade furniture is exquisite, it’s his ingenious medical devices that have kept Red Barn Enterprises going for nearly two decades.

Creepster Crawler

While many advances in the medical industry are the result of well-funded research efforts, McNamara operates in the vein of classic garage inventors like late Apple CEO Steve Jobs and aerospace engineer Burt Rutan.

“I don’t dream up this stuff. I finish someone else’s idea and put it into something that’s tangible,” says the bullish 69-year-old. Though his maiden invention was a wall-mounted door stopper for his hotel manager parents, McNamara’s first foray into medical inventions came in 1988. As the owner of a durable medical goods business, he was approached by a physical therapist whose uncle had made a crude motion table to initiate “vestibular” stimulation – triggering sensors in the inner ears to improve balance and language development. “They ran the thing with an evaporative cooler motor that went 100 miles per hour,” he remembers. “You could have put your hand in there and lost a finger.”

The device didn’t capture McNamara’s imagination until six months later, when he visited a therapy center for children with sensory integration issues and saw a raft of kids migrate to the table like paparazzi. He modified the unit with a speed control so it “ran slow and couldn’t hurt you,” he says. Red Barn has since sold nearly 1,000 units.

Motion Crib

When another therapist came to him two decades later asking for a smaller version of the table for infants, McNamara conceived one with a hospital style bassinet and a sound element that mimics blood rushing inside a mother’s womb. In clinical trials, neonatal specialists at four Valley hospitals lauded the device as a useful product for soothing children with sensory integration issues. “We have a baby [here] that has been living in it,” wrote Banner Thunderbird Medical Center neonatal nurse Jeanine White in an assessment survey. “It has been working so wonderfully. I hope we didn’t overuse the bed.”

McNamara notes that this type of soothing – common in the wake of the ’80s and ’90s crack epidemic – is still largely done by teams of volunteers in rocking chairs known as “baby cuddlers.” McNamara hopes to market the table
in the coming year.

Pelvic Harness

McNamara likes telling the story of the LoveHandles, a moveable chair originally built for late state politico Howard Adams, confined to a wheelchair after a 1964 diving accident. “The president of Ireland invited him to come spend a week with him, but he couldn’t fly for 16 hours sitting up,” says McNamara, whose invention allowed Adams to easily leave his airplane seat. “I made him one that reclined, and he used it all the time.”

Red Barn is still very much a mom and pop op, with wife Hope running the books, and most of the revenue going to keep the lights on and some cash in the pockets of a few part-time assembly workers.

“There should be more people working in their garages or their barns,” McNamara says. “It’s the American way.”

LoveHandles

 

 

Red Barn Couture:
Jack McNamara’s most noteworthy inventions. redbarn-enter.com

Motion Crib
This mechanized “baby cuddler” calms infants afflicted with everything from colic to drug addiction.
Status: Pre-market

LoveHandles
Made from a light, durable composite, this harness-mounted device allows the user to move a disabled companion.
Status: Available on website

Creepster Crawler
Provides independent locomotion to children with spina bifida, cerebral palsy and other developmental issues.
Status: Available on website

Pelvic Harness
These wheelchair seat-mounted neoprene straps prevent patients from slipping in their chairs and choking on chest harnesses.
Status: Patent pending