Inventing From the Heart: The Quiet Aronie

Joel Aronie – Smoke Ring Gun. Photo by Eli Dagostino.

Joel Aronie – Smoke Ring Gun. Photo by Eli Dagostino.

In a family of super-size personalities, Joel is the quiet Aronie.

He prefers to play a supporting role to his wife, Nancy, the gifted writing teacher and longtime NPR commentator who commands attention in any room she walks into; and to his son Josh, equally gifted as a chef who, though also quiet, commands any kitchen he walks into (currently it’s the Home Port in Menemsha). He was also extremely supportive to his late son Dan, who commanded an audience even from a bed in the last years of Dan’s short and colorful life, as he fought a losing battle against multiple sclerosis until his death in 2010.

“I like to dwell in the shadows,” says the soft-spoken senior Aronie, a native of Needham, who has lived in Chilmark with Nancy since the early 1990s. From that shadow, however, he is the stabilizing force who holds the family together.

Joel’s gift is less obvious — until you get him to talking about it. Then he will rattle off a head-spinning stream of references to the myriad ways of producing an electric current, using words like “magnetohydrodynamics” and “thermionics” that go way over the head of someone who majored in English.

“My father, Israel Aronie, who had owned a poultry and egg farm and some buildings in Roxbury, had a terrific workshop in the basement — saws and routers, hand tools, a work bench, and electronic equipment all around — where my brother Alan and I spent many hours,” Joel recalls. “Seems I’ve been making things ever since . . . an elaborate train set, a powered model airplane, a hovercraft. I was always taking things apart and putting them back together. Dad never wanted to throw things out; he taught me to fix anything or I figured it out myself.”

Joel went on to become an inventor and racked up patents for everything from bathroom furnishings to caulking guns, to gadgets that blow smoke rings, to a few more surprises that would tickle Thomas Edison himself.

Joel and Nancy Aronie

Joel and Nancy Aronie

After earning a degree in nuclear engineering from Lowell Technological Institute (now part of University of Massachusetts Lowell) and a master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., Joel landed a job at Pratt and Whitney, the Hartford, Conn., aerospace manufacturer. There he worked on a wide variety of exotic energy system projects and, perhaps most famously, as part of the team that developed the fuel cell for the Apollo moon mission of July 1969.

In 1971 Joel was working with a see-through acrylic plastic more familiarly known as Lucite. One day, he noticed that a white powdery chemical used in a particular stage that converts chemical energy from fuel into electricity (he had to explain this technique several times to that English major who is still not sure he got it right) made the Lucite take on colorful shades.

“I loved how malleable the material was, so I made some little items out of it,” he says. “Nancy loved a little cube and table I made and suggested I make and sell them. It really started as a hobby.”

He expanded to lamps, side tables, sculptured pedestals, and more that sold to gift shops and furniture stores. His brother Alan, also an engineer, happily joined the team. Then a cold call to Bloomingdale’s lamp buyer — “I didn’t even know how to pronounce it is how naïve I was to retail,” Joel admits — turned into a small order that then turned into increasingly bigger orders.

“We were basically working out of our basement, until I got a call from someone at Directional furniture, whose sales force we used,” he explains. “They wanted to see our factory – the factory we didn’t have – so we faked it.” They found and — on an extremely short-term basis — rented an empty warehouse in Hartford, filled it with cardboard boxes and machinery, and got about twenty friends to come in and look like they were employed there. It worked; Directional asked if Joel and company could ship a million dollars’ worth of business in one year.

They were off to the races. Soon there were 125 employees working for Aronie Galleries, billing $4 million a year at its height. They got into the bath and boudoir accessories line — waste baskets, tissue holders, toothbrush holders — long before chains like Bed, Bath and Beyond overtook the malls. Then things changed.


Juggling. Photo by Eli Dagostino

“It’s a very fickle business,” he said, breaking it down. “Taiwan entered the market and undersold us. The price of Lucite went up during the gas crisis of the mid seventies. Our building started leaking. And then the crack cocaine epidemic hit Hartford hard. Too many of my workers became addicts; my work force was decimated.” Soon after, they sold the business.

His next venture started with caulking and mortar guns he invented for renovation and repairs of bridges and other buildings. It quickly grew into a company called Quikpoint in 1992. The Concord-based company sells dozens of building tools and products, some made by the Aronies. “That remains our bread-and-butter business,” says Joel.

Alan had always wanted to invent a toy as a kid. In 2002, that childhood dream became a reality. To the best of the brothers’ collective memories, his was inspired by the famous Camel billboard in Times Square that blew perfect rings five stories high — that or a Buck Rogers gun. The result: the Zero Blaster, a retro ray-gun that shoots rings; non-toxic vapors of the same sort that add smoke to theatrical stage productions. Their “fog juice” contains non-toxic propylene glycol, glycerin, and water, and is FDA approved. Demonstrating the phenomenon called a toroidal vortex, the gun had an educational component, Joel adds. Among those who buy it are physics teachers and science museum shops. Now, through the parent company, Concord-based Zero Toys, the brothers sell a whole line of stuff that sounds fun: “light-up toys, flying toys, new energy toys, FlashFlight disco Frisbees . . .”

Another product, the Dragon Puffer, morphed from the Wizard Stick — whoops, the “incredible Wizard Stick,” as the website trumpets, which produces a plume of vapor-slash-smoke and with which you can “do science experiments, make a volcano . . . the only battery hand-held Special FX machine” (whatever that is) “on the planet,” no less.

Joel and Nancy Aronie

Joel and Nancy Aronie. Photo by Eli Dagostino

The Dragon Puffer was intended as a toy but, lo and behold, itself morphed into a diagnostic tool that companies like the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have ordered to use for testing vent hoods. At home it’s used to audit leaks. Batteries  not included.

For those who know the Aronies well, their newest invention is not a quantum leap from the Zero Blaster. Using the same vapor-making methodology, Joel and Alan have taken two years to develop a state-of-the-art vaporizing pipe they call the Pi Piper. You can imagine what to use it for. It goes on sale this fall.

“Listen, we’re not condoning or condemning smoking marijuana,” Joel says in anticipation of some people’s objections. “People will do what they want anyway. So we’ve made a vaporizer that makes it safer to inhale. With the legalization of medical marijuana dispensaries in several states now, we see an inevitable growth market.”

And if not, so be it, Joel philosophizes. Being ranked among the great inventors of our time was never his ambition.

“I’m not a world-beater,” he says. “We live in a small house, we have simple goals — to continue living well with what we have.”

For Nancy, usually the one with all the words, it comes down to a simple appreciation of the man and how he, ahem, completes her:

“Because he sees the world in all its infinite possibilities, none of them any better or worse than any other, he reminds me to also see more and think bigger. His open-mindedness, his ability to invent brilliant things, also enables him to see my own potential. In that way, he invents me every day.”

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