In the end, state officials were asked to take it on faith that the little machine in front of them -- looking for all the world like a chrome-plated tennis ball can -- was really an engine that runs on water.
That's the controversial claim of its inventor, Yoshiro Nakamatsu, known as "Dr. NakaMats" and "The Thomas Edison of Japan" for his more than 2,300 patents, an Old World gentleman and media-savvy entrepreneur in town yesterday to line up development funding for the engine.
And it was the duty of J. Randall Evans, Maryland's secretary of economic and employment development, to be there on "Dr. NakaMats Day" -- as declared by Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- and listen politely as the eccentric inventor disclosed virtually nothing about his "solution for mankind."
"In my mind, seeing is believing, and I'd like to see it work," said Mr. Evans, who added that the state's only interest is to encourage the development of new technologies in Maryland. "But whenever you can meet a legend like him, it's worth a half-hour of my time."
The "legend" is a 62-year-old father of three from Tokyo whose resume lists similar honors in Tucson, Ariz., Los Angeles and New Orleans. He's appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman," lectured at universities and written 10 books.
Starting with his first invention at 5 years old, Dr. NakaMats eventually built a company that has brought the world such products as a household hand pump popular in Japan, an easier-to-use golf putter, Yummy Nutri Brain Food and the Cerebrex Chair, which supposedly stimulates brain waves and improves health.
But the man who sleeps only a few hours at night and holds his breath as long as possible underwater in his pool to "get oxygen to the brain" finds his greatest credibility as the self-proclaimed "father of the floppy [computer] disk" and leaser of 14 patents to IBM.
The computer giant says it has held the "basic patent" for the floppy disk since 1972, although spokesman Brian Doyle admits that, "We are aware of him and have licensed patents from him. That's all I can say."
Dr. NakaMats' claim to 2,360 patents -- Thomas Edison had 1,093 -- is equally difficult to verify. Oscar Mastin, a spokesman for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said an informal search "found no great number of U.S. patents" for the inventor. "They must be Japanese patents."
And his new invention, the Enerex water engine, is perhaps his most controversial. Dr. NakaMats' visit to Maryland was sponsored by New Age activists Robert and Zoh Hieronimus, who were intrigued by the non-polluting power source and the inventor's gentle philosophy.
"I have no interest in making money," he told state officials and reporters yesterday at the World Trade Center. "My purpose of invention is to make benefits for mankind."
The Enerex engine could be adapted to existing automobiles or become the power plant for a $10,000 electric car, he said.
But he was not about to tip his hand about the inner workings of the invention that took him 19 years to create. Other than unsubstantiated performance claims, he revealed only that the engine runs at normal temperatures and atmospheric pressure, on any type of water except distilled.
Mr. Hieronimus insists that "Dr. NakaMats has discovered something about water that most scientists don't know of. Water is more than H2O."
The inventor claims a power output three times greater than engines fueled by gasoline.
And his mystery technology will apparently remain a secret, since Dr. NakaMats -- uncharacteristically for Japan's highly visible Edison -- has decided not to seek a patent for the process.
"That might make it hard for him to get financial backing," Mr. Evans said. "But this guy has an amazing track record. I wouldn't place bets."