John Pellegrino, 2001 Copper Black winner

Most people wish they could get better gas mileage and a smoother ride in their cars. John Pellegrino did more than wish — he invented a way to do just that. His design for a Continuously Variable Transmission has won Pellegrino the Copper Black Award for Creative Achievement given by the Mensa Education & Research Foundation (MERF).

Mensa is the international high IQ society and MERF is its affiliate that recognizes human intelligence and research on intelligence through scholarships and awards. The Copper Black Award, named for the late Mensa member whose bequest established the prize, recognizes outstanding creative achievement by a member of American Mensa.

As Pellegrino explains it, "When you get in your car, between the engine and the wheels is the transmission. If it's manual, you shift. If it's automatic, the car shifts for you. Either way, you're actually shifting gears, so you don't get a smooth transition."

He decided to try to design a transmission that would shift smoothly in a continuous manner. Continuous variable transmissions had already been built, but were effective only on very small cars. Some elements were made of rubber and wore out quickly, and the cars were too small to be practical.

"I thought I would make everything out of metal," Pellegrino said, "the whole combination of gears, levers and cams." The system he developed can be put into a large car. In fact, he said, "there doesn't seem to be any limit to the size vehicle this system can handle." Most impressive, it improves gas mileage by 15 percent.

Pellegrino's invention was featured in Motion Control magazine in 1995, and he received many expressions of interest from around the world. Although several companies were eager to explore the manufacture of the system, they asked for a working model first, and the inventor didn't have the time or financial resources to build one.

"I tried to get venture capital, but for something as ordinary as a gear box and a transmission, there was nothing available," he said. "I was encouraged by a federal government agency run by the Commerce Department and the Big Three automakers, who were trying to design a car that would get 80 miles per gallon, but they did not come through with financial support."

Pellegrino shares a birthday with Galileo. "He had the same problems I do," he chuckled. "His designs drew attention but no financial support."

A resident of Morris Township, New Jersey, Pellegrino was working for a high tech telecommunications company that has since gone under. "I'm one of those crazy guys who has an irreverent attitude, someone who says, if people say it can't be done I want to do it. Every day at lunch, while I was eating my sandwich I would doodle," he said, recalling how he got started on his design. "There are three things that have eluded humanity: a time machine, an anti-gravity device, and a continuously variable transmission. Which one could I do?"

For Pellegrino, the transmission seemed the doable one, and he set to work. Now, still hoping for the break that would allow his design to become a standard feature on automobiles everywhere, he has gone on to work on something else people say can't be done: cold fusion.