Gilbert Raynor

Gilbert Raynor of Danby – by his own admission — the world’s greatest inventor. It’s an admission that suggests a pause might be in order, touch of scrutiny applied.

We’re not talking about a fellow who claims that he has come up with some mighty innovative ideas in his lifetime. We’re not even talking about someone who suggests that he’s years ahead of his time. We’re describing, and quoting, Gil Raynor, a 64-year-old retired Air Force officer, who lives with his wife on a 16-acre mini-farm in what is locally known as Danby Four Corners. He states, with neither diffidence nor bluster, that he is the world’s greatest inventor. Or at least, and this is the only concession offered, the world’s greatest “unrecognized” inventor. “I haven’t really been discovered yet,” he says. “But it’s true.”

Now when a person describes himself that unflinchingly, a few assumptions come to mind. in fact, they become almost inescapable. Either Gil Raynor is an extreme eccentric, or he’s an immoderate egocentric, or he’s one heck of a talented tinkerer. The people in Danby who know Raynor — and that includes a pretty healthy percentage of the population because they’ve elected him town auditor, town moderator and a member of the school board — would quickly dismiss the first two assumptions. Eccentric, he’s not. He comes up with some unusual ideas, his neighbors will say, and he has an amazingly wide range of knowledge, but he’s certainly not daft. Nor is he egocentric. in fact, the demeanor of this striking gentleman (he looks like what central casting would come up with for a retired Air Force officer) tends to veer in the opposite direction.

So what’s left?

“Gil Raynor is almost impossible to describe,” says his neighbor Betty White. “He’s just a super person but the amazing thing is that he’s willing to drop anything he’s doing to help out anyone else. And he always seems to come up with the right solutions. He’s just incredible.”

That kind of praise is almost standard from the folks in Danby, and these aren’t people who are easily impressed. Danby is Vermont being unpretentious. It’s a solid, no-nonsense place, and when the Raynors moved there nine years ago, after he retired from the service, they fit in perfectly.

“I’ve always had an interest in mechanics,” Raynor says, drawing on his bent-stem pipe. “In the Air Force, I was a maintenance officer and we had a problem with one of our planes — the C-133 transport. The propellers weren’t working right, and my job was to solve that problem.” He pauses, and when he resumes, the inflection is closer to bemusement than self congratulation. “Apparently I was successful. Those planes stayed in service for ten more years.”

In Danby, there are no planes that need fixing but there are plenty of other things that do. “Lots of farmers around here have problems with their machines and stuff, and they come to me for advice. Someone needs help repairing a cylinder on a back hoe or someone else has some logging equipment that isn’t working the way it should. And I can help out with that. I really love working with machines, and finding solutions to problems.”

But is that how he makes his living?

“Oh no,” he says, almost startled. “I can’t charge people for that kind of work. They try to pay me, but I won’t let them. I’m having too much fun to take money for it. And I’m learning at the same time. I’m getting what you might call a ‘diversified education.’ ”

The way Raynor does make a living is by manufacturing an elevated chair for tennis umpires. He assembles the chairs with steel, spruce and white pine in the sheep barn he has converted into a workshop, and ships them all over the country. “It keeps me busy,” he allows. “And I don’t think there’s anyone else in the United States who makes this kind of chair.”

Raynor’s real passion, however, and his reason for proclaiming himself the world’s greatest inventor, is energy. Specifically, preserving energy.

“I’ve invented all sorts of things in my life, but the real significant one is still in the design and drawing stage,” he says. “You’ve heard of the internal combustion engine? Well, it’s fine, as far as it goes. But it wastes over 80 percent of the energy it uses — out of the exhaust system, the cooling system, and just simple friction.” Raynor’s engine, which he calls an external combustion engine, wastes almost no gasoline. Or at least that’s what he claims, and he’s a difficult guy to disbelieve.

“My engine reuses the energy instead of wasting it in the atmosphere. And we need something like that. Oil is going to run out sooner or later. There’s no doubt about that,” he says. “My invention will just help make that happen later.”

At the moment, Raynor is looking for private funding to put together a prototype of his engine. He also has plans for a windmill that would be more efficient than any similar generator of energy. There are also less ambitious items — a tennis racket holder, an overhead door design, lots of things.

“That’s the problem with me,” he says. “I look at things and think to myself, jeez, I can do that a better way.’ ”

And he usually can. With no problem. Gilbert Raynor of Danby may just be exactly what he claims to be. The world’s greatest.