31: The Tragic Genius of Brent Lee Farley

What happens when invention meets obsession

One day in 2009, I got an email that just said, “Please GOOGLE Brent Lee Farley you may see something you like. THANK YOU ...Brent.”

So I Googled him. I found a couple of articles about a man who invented impractical items like pants with a sled attached to the butt so you don’t have carry your sled uphill. I was intrigued.

It was not unusual for me to get emails like Brent’s. After doing shoots with 25 inventors and counting, word about my Inventor Portraits project had gotten out in the inventor community and I heard from a lot of small-time inventors looking for exposure. Brent’s inventions sounded fun, and I added him to my list. I told him I would reach out the next time I was in his area.

I used to travel a lot for work, and before every trip I consulted my list of inventors to see who was in driving distance of my destination so I could piggy-back an inventor shoot while I was in town. So about a year later, when I was headed to Baltimore, I scheduled a shoot with Brent.

This is Brent

Brent turned out to be a gruff but friendly middle-aged man with a bit of an aging rock star quality and a passing resemblance to Richard Belzer. He wore sunglasses indoors, transparent enough that you could still see a mischievous look in his eyes. He was the sort of person who asked with a grin if you wanted to go into his basement to see the sex chair he made. And he was the sort of person to whom the answer was a definite no.

Brent’s walls were covered with his own artwork: abstract geometric paintings and sculptures with sharp corners and curvy swirls that he said represented the unevenness of life. Among the few exceptions were a poster of Johnny Cash flipping the bird and a glamour portrait of his mother.

Brent’s Ideas

Brent was a creative thinker. He was a professional stagehand who dreamed of inventing a product that would be so successful he could “live life and not work life.” He had tons of ideas for products, some practical and some just novelty items. When he got an idea, he wrote it down in a notebook, and he had filled dozens of notebooks with drawings and explanatory notes.

The notebooks were covered with inspirational quotes he clipped out of magazines. He scrawled on some of them “KEEP OUT” or “DO NOT OPEN.” Along with his ideas, they contained stories from his life with details about all the people he met, and were handwritten in small print from top to bottom on both sides of the pages. Every time he started a new notebook, he left the first five pages blank, reserved for future ideas.

He picked some of his ideas for further development, making more refined drawings that he put in folders, a process he called “making due note.” Here are some of the ideas that reached that stage:

Thunder Bubble: the bathtub toy that makes thousands of bubbles.

The Inflatable Shower Curtain: in a variety of styles including “Statue of Liberty.”

The Expandable Garbage Can: because sometimes you need your garbage can to be just a little bit taller.

A Blow Dryer Extension: it wraps around your arm and puts a blow-drying hairbrush in the palm of your hand.

The Designer Disguisable Crib: it’s a crib, a changing station, and a toy all in one!

There were designs for an infinite nail file, a weighted spoon for people with hand tremors, a tool belt you could just drop nails into and it would channel them into a side pocket, a backpack that keeps you dry in rain, a shoulder sling for power tools, a car seat for pets, fortified dirt balls for plants, and so on.

Several of his inventions made it to the prototype stage, like:

The Four-in-One Wrench: it’s four wrenches in one, with flip-out screwdrivers.

An Oversized Dog Leash: “If you’re driving down a road and you see me walking my little teeny dog with this great big chain, I’ve really pretty much had my fun with you. What is that leash doing with that little teeny dog?”

Don’t Break My Heart: “It’s a novelty gift.”

Squirt Gun Shoes: Brent attached pumps to the soles of his shoes so that as long as he’s walking, his squirt gun has enough pressure to keep shooting. No hand-pumping necessary.

Brent gave his inventions catchy names like the Hideaway Hair Brush, the Shoulder Holder, the Flip Rocket, the Zig-Zag Windshield Wiper, the Napper, and the Leave-A-Trail System (a security device that sprays criminals with silly string so that as it dries and falls off of them, it leaves a trail for law enforcement to follow).

He reminded me in many ways of Rand Peltzer, the inventive dad from Gremlins who named his barely-working inventions the Bathroom Buddy, the Electric Hammer, the Ultimate Fly Swatter, and the Mega Juicer. Or Data from The Goonies whose inventions included Slick Shoes, Bully Blinders, Pincers of Power, and the Buckle Gripper.

And all of them, I suppose, were inspired by inventors like Ron Popeil, who made a fortune selling the Pocket Fisherman, the Chop-O-Matic, and the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler.

But Brent’s level of success was considerably closer to Peltzer than Popeil.

“A Lifetime of Failure”

Brent saw occasional glimmers of encouragement. He was featured in newspapers and on national TV. There was enough interest in a few of his inventions that investors paid for him to get patents. But nothing ever came of them. His investors went out of business and gave him ownership of the patents, but they expired without further development.

As Brent saw it, marketing was his downfall. He said, “I've learned from my experiences that I couldn't sell you cigarettes if you were a lifetime smoker with a new set of lungs at half price.”

I saw the problem a little differently. Maybe he wasn’t a good marketer, and sure, Brent’s personality could be a bit off-putting at times, but I think the larger problem was that Brent was unable to tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea. To him, every idea was worth pursuing. Any idea might be the one that catches on and makes him rich. If someone could get rich selling Pet Rocks, why couldn’t he get rich with Sled Pants? And so he pursued every idea as far as he could.

Brent’s obsession with inventing the next big thing became a serious problem. He told me, “I can’t stop. I’m possessed by it … and it’s really interfered with my life. Greatly.”

Brent had been married. I don’t know if his obsession with invention played a role in the separation, but it seemed he was hinting that it had. There were also photos around his house of a boy who appeared to be ten years old, who I assumed to be his son who must have been living with his ex-wife.

Brent said, “It's sad when you come and you shoot me here and you see what basically represents effort. A lot of effort. And then if you really look at it closely, it's a lifetime of failure. I've gotten close, been on TV, been on the news … and I'm still sitting here. So really, for me, it's a sad story.”

The Aftermath

I took all the material from my shoot with Brent, and I made a video as part of my Inventor Portraits series. It takes a deeper look at his inventions and notebooks, and shows another of Brent’s obsessions I didn’t even write about here: the idea that forest fires could be stopped with walls of fireproof fabric. He had a patent on that.

I continued to hear from Brent over the years. His emails were like his notebooks, walls of text from top to bottom. He didn’t use line breaks.

Sometimes he just vented that he needed someone to help with marketing, asking if I could mention that somewhere on my website. Sometimes he wanted to share new ideas with me, like these from an email in 2012:

Believe it or not I'm still getting new ideas even though I really don't look for them, a new straw that opens up and you can clean the entire inside properly- reusable------ a stretcher design for carrying wounded soldiers easier------ a device that will go on police cars with a telescoping STOP stick device so now the officers can just pull up beside him and or behind the bad guy and flatten tires and will-- much much safer and will save lives.

In 2013 he sent me a “screenplay” (really a script treatment) he had written about Elvis Presley. Instead of dying on the toilet as he did in real life, Elvis falls off the toilet and realizes he needs to turn his life around. He rehabilitates himself, gets back in shape, ages gracefully, and eventually retires, living out his remaining years at Graceland.

All of us Elvis Presley lovers would have preferred seeing his life play this way. I truly hope and pray this conceptual screen play makes its way to Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley personally. I truly feel that they are deciding power in resurrecting the story of Elvis and I think it would be a misfortune if they are not given the opportunity to read this making their own decisions.

In 2014 he forwarded me a wall of text that he had just emailed to the Carter Center at Emory University, apparently under the impression that it would reach Jimmy Carter. It was a concept for a perpetual energy machine, complete with illustrations.

Hello Mr. Pres. Carter today on the news here in Baltimore they indicated that you are one of the most accessible presidents ever, that's why I am attempting this communication. I ask you  sir to please take a good look at the drawing. I believe this concept will work. Mr. Carter please  imagine [long explanation of his invention]. Now we are not depending upon  windmills  or   solar power. Mr. Carter I am asking for your help to prove or disproved this concept… [it goes on for a while]

Brent’s emails were always polite. In many of them he thanked me for the day I spent with him and for the video I made. He could come across a bit needy, but since I heard from him only a few times a year at most, it wasn’t overbearing. I was always nice, and tried to give him honest feedback when asked for it.

There were times when I considered revisiting Brent and diving even deeper into his story. I thought there might even be a longer documentary to make about someone who was so creative but flawed, a tale both inspiring and cautionary. Plus, I’d become a better filmmaker since my visit in 2010, and thought I could do a better job. But I wasn’t really keen on the idea of Brent becoming a bigger part of my life.

After getting an email from Brent in 2015, I didn’t hear from him at all for three years. Then in February of 2018, we had this uncharacteristically tense exchange:

I worried about Brent a little bit, but did not follow up with him again. I hoped he was okay.

Brent Farley, 1950 - 2019

As I’ve been recently reposting all my old inventor portraits in chronological order, I saw that Brent’s story was coming up. So like I did twelve years ago, I Googled “Brent Lee Farley” to see if there was anything new to report. And that’s when I saw his death notice.

Brent died in early 2019. The notice was posted online by the funeral home, but I found no obituary, remembrance, or any indication of his cause of death.

I did find a real estate listing for his home, which was sold in mid-2020. The walls had been painted, the floor was redone, new fixtures had been put in. There was no sign there had ever been a sex chair in the basement.

And of course his artwork was gone. His journals were gone. What happened to it all? Are they in storage somewhere? Did they get thrown away? Did they go to his son? What does a person even do with that burden?

I don’t know what role I played in Brent’s mind. I don’t know if he thought of me as a friend, or someone he could use to get attention, or someone who used him. I wonder what he wanted to ask me in 2018 that made him so upset when I didn’t get back to him fast enough. Knowing that he wrote about all the people he met, perhaps the answer is in one of his journals.

I contacted the funeral home to see if they would tell me how he died. They wouldn’t tell me, but they gave me his ex-wife’s phone number. So I assume I could get some of my questions answered with an awkward phone call. I just haven’t built up the nerve, not knowing how she feels about Brent and his lifetime pursuit. I don’t want to bring up bad memories or stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong.

And I’m afraid of the rabbit hole I might go down if it turns out that his journals are available if I’d like to see them.

And that’s it for another newsletter. Some of you know that on my old blog I used to post lots of ideas for silly or impractical inventions that I had no intention of really making, like a desk that's an ant farm, fiber optic street lights, the toddler TARDIS, and t-shirts for hairy chested men. In a lot of ways, Brent and I thought alike, and I sometimes saw a thin line between someone like me and someone like Brent. The difference was that I knew not to pursue every idea I had.

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See you next week!