Mad Skills

John Bowler ’85 helps inventors take their creations to the next level on Mad Scientists.

By Doug McInnis

John Bowler ’85 was building custom cabinets in Saratoga, New York, until one fall day in 2010, when his cell phone rang on the way to the local home improvement store. It was Silent Crow Arts, a film production company headed by Matt Bennett ’86, one of Bowler’s friends from Ithaca. On the line was one of Bennett’s producers, Mark Fortgang ’85, another old friend from Ithaca.

Fortgang said the company was developing a new show for the National Geographic Channel. It dealt with the quirky world of garage inventors, and was aptly named Mad Scientists.

“I can’t wait to see it,” Bowler told him. But Fortgang wasn’t looking for an endorsement. “Do you want to host it?” he asked. “Yes,” said Bowler, who received a B.F.A. in drama from IC. “I’m on my way to get Sheetrock. I hate hanging Sheetrock.”

The show’s original host had backed out, and Bennett needed a replacement fast. Bowler was everything Mad Scientists needed: he knew how to act in front of a camera, he was conversant with tools and gadgets of all sorts, and he had a live-wire persona, a must for television.

The show’s format was simple. The producers lined up home inventors who had concocted improbable machines. Then Bowler challenged them to take their machines one improbable step further.

He asked one inventor to retrofit a four-wheel drive vehicle made to navigate boulders so that it could do wheelies as well.

Another inventor transformed his jet engine into an all-purpose yard tool, complete with a jet-powered leaf blower, a flame thrower for melting driveway ice, and a gadget that would water lawns in nothing flat.

The result was spectacular television. On one show, Bowler convinced members of a rural Georgia police department to cordon off a street in order to test drive a minivan souped up with a helicopter engine. “We’re about to break every law in town in front of the police department,” Bowler told his TV audience. The minivan roared off, hitting 117 miles per hour in a quarter of a mile. Two long black tracks of burned rubber were left behind as evidence.

Bowler’s inventor corps included just one pro: a rocket scientist who devised water-powered jet skis. The others were amateurs with an inventive streak. One was an electrician. A heavy-equipment operator created the rock crawler.

At least one device may find a market. “The military wasn’t allowed to say that they were interested in the rock crawler,” says Bowler. “But I think they were. That thing could go anywhere.”

Twelve episodes of Mad Scientists aired in fall 2011 and are now out on DVD. Bowler is hoping for a second season to keep his dream alive. “I always hoped that the day would come when I would get that call asking, ‘Are you still ready?’”

Watch clips from the show.