Local inventor Terry Finigan fuses science, magic with smart wind chimes


Terry Finigan with his innovative new "Night Dancer" audio-visual wind chimes. Though they look conventional by day, at night they come alive with surreal sound and color. Submitted photo

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Local inventor, history buff, cartoonist, raconteur and wheelie artist Terry Finigan is hard at work in his Arcata production laboratory these days, creating copies of his new gizmo and selling them as fast as he can get them out the door.

Like many brilliant inventions, Finigan’s new "Night Dancer" contraption is composed of familiar things – photovoltaic cells, LED lights and wind chimes – put together in a whole new way.

A figure from the chimes' patent document. Via U.S. Patent Office

So new that Finigan gained a patent for it in 2018. His brainchild, granted patent no. US10062365B2, is a “variable mode electronic wind chime with changeable color lights,” according to the patent document. 

While Amazon already carries LED-augmented chimes, “currently available wind chimes that include lighting features only focus on lighting connected to a circuit that becomes completed as a clapper connects with a chime,” states the patent description. 

But Finigan’s chimes render old school electro-chimes rinky-dink and obsolescent at best, and promise to open up a new, American-made era in sustainably powered wind chime technology. A key, yet-to-be-implemented feature involves the ability to choose between light or sound by actually muting the chimes (or lights) at will.

But even in their initial iteration, the smart chimes are winning fans all over the country. While the patent description is sciencey and technoid by necessity, it doesn't convey their powerful nocturnal magic.

At night, with a gentle breeze, Finigan’s chimes come alive with gentle, calming tones accompanied by splashes of colored light that slowly fade.

Each pipe's silvery surface shimmers with its own color, and glints with reflected light from the other pipes as well, creating an ever-changing display. Any rain or dewdrops bejewel the sparkling chimes with elegantly scattered points of light.

When a pipe sounds from the wind-driven kiss of the clapper, it projects a moving pool of color on anything beneath it, for an enchanting fusion of melody and vision. Vegetation and its dancing shadows become especially entrancing in the meandering play of light.

“They’re beautiful and sound great,” Finigan said.

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The idea for the techno-chimes came to Finigan, whose brain gears are always turning, when he was visiting an ice cream parlor on the Russian River. “I saw the clapper hit the chime randomly, and make a connection, like a circuit being completed,” he recalls. 

A set of Night Dancer chimes in the wild. Minky Mink photo

He put together a rough prototype as proof of concept, but being in the midst of successfully battling cancer, boxed it up for later development. “I had chemo-brain and was at a deficit for brain power,” he said

Years later, cancer-free, the retired Finigan returned to Arcata, where he came across the box containing the prototype, became re-inspired and decided to take his invention to the next level. 

“I thought, ‘I’m gonna make that thing work’,” he said. So back to the drawing board – his tool shed – he went. 

On seeing him fiddling with the contraption, sister-in-law Lisa Finigan pointed to it and said, "You're going on Shark Tank!"

Seeking to refine the chimes’ electronics, Finigan found a receptive collaborator at Eureka's Redwood Electronics, in technician Isaac Lowe. The skilled electrical engineer created a custom circuit board to manage the solar-electric side of the gadget, making it more reliable and lending it dazzling new powers to confound and amaze.

The circuit allows the user to “tune” the chimes’ brilliance to their physical setting and preferences. A screwdriver is included with each set to handle that task.

“You can adjust the brightness,” Finigan said. “It looks really great at night.”

The Night Dancer looks great by day, too. Precision-cut aluminum pipes form the soundmakers, which hang from a carved redwood platform. The platform is topped by a small solar panel, which feeds a rechargeable battery located in a weatherproof enclosure underneath. This powers each tube's LED lights, but the chimes' brain knows not to waste energy on powering lights during daytime, and activates them only after nightfall.

The clapper and dangling, diamond-shaped wind catch are also fashioned from the salvaged redwood, which Finigan sources from a friend's sawmill on Boyd Road. He then carves and finishes the pieces using a CNC machine in his Alliance Road shop, dubbed “the Smartaterium.” That’s where he also slices the pipes, adds a "slantdicular" notch and turns his bubbling brainwaves and raw materials into real-world hardware.

The Night Dancer chimes are color-customizable. Patriotically-minded customers can get them with red, white and blue lights, or Arcata High School Tiger orange, as some buyers have done. One customer this week wanted his in all green, and it was so configured.

Some units are even autographed on request by Finigan, who humbly notes that “it’s kind of like getting a light bulb signed by Thomas Edison.”

Lest you scoff, Finigan says that the patent attorney he consulted told him, “That’s the first improvement on wind chimes since they were invented.”

While it’s only a matter of time before some cheap, probably Chinese knockoff turns up on the market, Finigan is amassing a record of sales that will help him defend his patent. He cautions that the handmade units aren't super-refined, and may have some rough edges – this making no two exactly alike.

Fresh Night Dancer units being readied for shipment at the Smartaterium. Photo by Terry Finigan

Night Dancers are available at Charlotte Gray Home & Garden in Fortuna, or via the shop’s website. According to proprietor Misty Fears, members of the nostalgic Arcata, Back in the Day Facebook page get a $50 discount. 

As for the name, suggested by Lowe, Finigan feels that it captures the essence of the device, which generates a dancing play of light at night. But he says it's only an interim moniker, and is open to other ideas.

“A lot of names have been taken,” he laments. But that’s OK, since the unique device inspires plenty of others – some so bad they’re good. 

Finigan’s Facebook friends recently brainstormed new name notions ranging from interesting to improbable to imbecilic. Among them were “Midnight miracle chimes,” “Rejuvenation night chimes,” the steampunky “Professor Finigan’s Bi-Photonic Tone Engine" and a couple of Finigan’s own coinages, “the Illumatron” and the “Windigo.”

Speaking of rejuvenation, Finigan has so far resisted marketing his chimes as possessing healing or detoxification properties, a proven tactic which juices sales of many a dubious device. He also hasn’t claimed that the chimes stave off 5G mind control rays, but is tempted. “That is terrific!” he said of the suggestion. (Fact check: they don't... at least so far.)

Regardless, the Night Dancers are selling well on their own genuine powers to delight and bedazzle with a shapeshifting show of light and sound. Satisfied customers ("wind chime enthusiasts," as the patent description calls them) have taken pictures, but the chimes’ magic is hard to capture in still photos. 

"I'm so in love with this thing," confirmed a customer in Las Vegas. "Pictures don't do it justice."

Fortunately, there is video:

The chimes are gaining fame by word of mouth, and on Kit Stebbins' “Fashion Friday“ Instagram page. 

An incorrigible tinkerer, Finigan has some other “whacko” ideas in the works, but they’re “super double-secret” for now.

Meanwhile, he’s as busy as can be fabricating superchimes at the Smartaterium. When not building new units, Finigan does R&D on Night Dancer 2.0, which will include the game-changing sound-mute, light-only (and vice versa) feature.

Sales are brisk despite the pandemic, with customers buying Night Dancers as wedding gifts, birthday presents and in bulk for commercial decor. A local casino just placed an order for 10 units. 

Tuesday morning, Finigan shipped the last six assembled Night Dancers he had in inventory, forcing him to pull a unit from Charlotte Gray Home & Garden's stock "in case Joe Biden wants one." (He notes with pride that the president's mother, Catherine Eugenia "Jean" Biden, had the maiden name of Finnegan.)

Finigan expects demand to ramp up even further with warming weather, when people will want to refresh their patios for outdoor entertaining.

“Springtime is coming,” he said. "You'll see them everywhere. It's going to take over the world!"


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