Inventor of the Smile Machine bares teeth in Olympic face-off


When Baltimore artist Dick Turner invented his Smile Machine two years ago, he never dreamed it would be swept up in a Winter Olympics media blitz -- and that he wouldn't get an ounce of credit.

Mr. Turner's contraption, which is worn over the head to keep a smile in place, consists of "sustaining rods," a "joy strap," and a "calibration buckle" that allows the user to adjust the "level of happiness desired."

It was originally made to symbolize his "30 Points of Ideaism," a philosophy that encourages "exploration of the symbolic content of our ideas and our everyday behaviors." The smile, he says, is the simplist example of an everyday gesture that can have many symbolic meanings.

Unbeknown to Mr. Turner, the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee decided smile machines were the perfect way to make light of Norwegians' reputation as a dour people and ordered 100,000 of them for Olympic workers and town residents to wear when the games begin Feb. 12. News reports put the cost at $120,000.

Trouble is, the machines didn't come from their inventor, who makes and sells them on a small scale in the city. They came from a Norweigan promotions firm, and in all the publicity the campaign generated, Mr. Turner's name never came up.

Mr. Turner has no idea where the Norweigan PR firm got the idea for a smile machine. One thing is certain, however. The machine the Olympic committee ordered looks identical to his, which received modest publicity in Europe because his sister, an artist living in Spain, promoted it through TV, magazines and a performance art piece.

The whole affair smacks of a "bargain-basement John le Carre story," says Mr. Turner, an artist, composer and filmmaker who works at a Baltimore sound equipment store.

Mr. Turner received calls from friends who either heard about the smile campaign on a National Public Radio report or read about it in Sports Illustrated, Newsweek or Life magazine.

Absurd ambitions

"I immediately questioned how to turn this into a situation with as much absurdity as humanly possible," Mr. Turner says.

Norwegian critics apparently found the notion absurd without his help. The Life story said they found the campaign to be "wasteful or stupid or both."

Mr. Turner has no patent on the Smile Machine. "I figure that wasn't my goal," he says. "My goal was to do an art project. I was satisfied with that."

He says he merely wanted the machine's symbolic significance to be taken seriously and to perhaps have the "30 Points" translated into Norwegian.

Still, he mailed a Smile Machine, press notices and a stern letter to the Norwegian Embassy, asking for a "public acknowledgment of my claims to originality to this intellectual property."

For a while, Mr. Turner heard nothing. Meanwhile, the letter was forwarded to Norway's ministry of foreign affairs, which in turn sent it to the Lillehammer committee. Along the way, the letter was leaked to a Norwegian reporter, who called Mr. Turner and wrote a piece for a widely read Norwegian newspaper.

Olympic-size joke

Ultimately, Tore Tanum, press counselor at the Norwegian embassy in Washington, called Mr. Turner and acknowledged that the Smile Machine was his idea but said nothing further could be done about it.

The gadget was originally presented by the Olympic Committee "more or less as a joke," Mr. Tanum says. "But the whole media situation around the Olympic Games is such that anything can be used as news."

Coincidentally, Mr. Tanum has just received a letter from the Lillehammer committee that says the smile boeyle -- in English, smiling hoop -- probably won't be used in conjunction with the Winter Games after all.

"The general reaction was we don't need any gadget to receive our visitors during the Olympics," Mr. Tanum says. "They don't need any help to smile."

Mr. Turner's role in the smile machine mystery was not mentioned in the letter, Mr. Tanum says. But clearly, the embassy and the Lillehammer committee are concerned about his financial stake in the invention, he says.

Locally, the smile gadget is selling at Louie's Book Store and Cafe at $12.95 a pop.

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