Manuel Londreira sits on a café and eavesdrops on the conversation going on at the table next to his. Two men talk about the physically disabled nephew of one of them, which has trouble moving the computer mouse. He has already destroyed eight of them, and he feels frustrated for not being able to control the small object. “As I was listening to them, I was processing the solution to that problem in my mind, and I immediately found it.” Manuel rises from the table and announces to the men at his side: “I have a solution.”
It was 2005 and Manuel Londreira had never touched a computer. So the next step would be going to a computer store and taking home some damaged mice to understand how they work. “I gathered all the mice and created a prototype.” The image Manuel Londreira had in his mind on that day at the café turned into a device without the dexterity and fine mobility of a normal mouse, but with a set of buttons that could make the cursor move, stabilize and open a document or application. The first device was improved and tested with students of the Cerciaz, a rehabilitation center for physically disabled children in Oliveira de Azeméis. The invention was well received by its users and it even exceeded the creator’s own expectations: “The psychologist at Cerciaz told me that not only the mouse helped in using the computer but it also worked as physiotherapy, stimulating quadriplegic children.”
He took the product to the largest international exhibition of inventions, in Geneva, and won a silver medal. Until then, he had computer training at breakneck speed. ”In half an hour, I learned how to start and shutdown a computer, to unlock it with Ctrl+Alt+Del and how to insert a CD. I was unaware of a computer’s potential. I had seen them, but never touched one before.”
Manuel Londreira is 51 and has only the fourth grade completed. He’s the third of six children of a married couple of São João da Madeira, a northern city with few financial resources. That’s why he didn’t pursue his studies. From an early age, he started helping his father, a shoemaker, straightening the nails that were spoiled during the footwear repairs. By then, he was already building gravity racers, but was far from realizing his inner special aptitude for inventing things. He didn’t even realize it later, at 17, when he went to work in a shoe factory and would spend his days thinking how to modify the machine he was working with. He never thought that it could earn him any money, or that all that information rattling his head, day and night, could become a profession.
Medals, plagiarisms and televisions
“I have an average of thirty ideas in my head, solutions for problems in this country, solutions for companies, for small problems at home. For me, everything’s a challenge”, Manuel Londreira says, sitting at a desk in the place occupied by the company he presides, N3i – Center for Inventors, Researchers and Investors, located in São João da Madeira. In the only shelf on those thirty square meters are the medals won at the international inventors exhibitions, prototypes of some of his most famous inventions and books. Among them is “A Vacina Mecânica”, by Aniceto Pires, which narrates the difficulties that inventors face in getting recognition for their work, but mainly in getting paid for their creation, since plagiarism is recurrent, leading some to live with few or no resources at all.
Manuel Londreira is one of those misfortunate, and so one of the letters on his desk is a notice from court about a process in which Manuel Londreira accuses 27 companies of plagiarizing him. “It’s easier to plagiarize than to share the profits with the inventors”, he explains. But he will not give up, no matter how big and powerful his opponents may be. The reason of plagiarism: the anti-carjacking system which earned him his first gold medal at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva.
The idea came to him as it always does. Almost out of nowhere. It was in 1996. “I was working at a security company in Oliveira de Azeméis when my nephew’s car was stolen. Although he reported the theft to the police, he had lots of problems because after a while the car started getting used in robberies. So I thought: it would be fantastic if I could connect the car alarm to my cell phone. I could be at home resting and if anything happened to the car I would receive the information on the phone.” He had that idea stuck in his head for a long time. He went to Phillips to present his solution, but they didn’t have the necessary means; he then appealed to the University of Aveiro, and nothing happened. Until he decided to register the patent. And that was it, since he had no money to invest.
Years went by, until Manuel Londreira met a journalist from the Comércio do Porto newspaper who overheard him talking to another person about one of his ideas. He approached him and asked if he could do a story about the anti-carjacking system. Manuel Londreira was so amazed that the first question he asked was, “How much do I have to pay you?” The story created a little buzz after coming out but no more than that. The next step would be bringing the invention to the Geneva exhibition.
He spent several nights awake in the room he has reserved, in his home in São João da Madeira, to test his inventions. He assembled his whole system in a toy car he had bought. The car was connected to a cell phone giving orders and receiving information. It could open and close the doors, block the ignition and activate a panic button.
Manuel Londreira had to save up everything he could to get on a plane and stay three days in Switzerland, eating sandwiches all day. In his baggage, he took the car. ”When I got there I thought, where did I get myself into? There were 45 countries represented, more than a thousand inventions and me with a little car inside a suitcase, with some batteries. It was like arriving in a Fiat 127 and seeing only Ferraris. I thought, how am I going to win this race?” But he did. “I only speak Portuguese, so a person came to tell me I had won a gold medal, and I couldn’t believe it, I hadn’t even realized it.”
Manuel thought he would come back to Portugal and, like an Olympic medalist, he would be received with a standing ovation at the airport, ready to reap the rewards of his invention. Well, maybe not quite, but almost… He thought that, at least, the distinction would bear fruit, i.e., grant him money for his work. “I was again talked about in the news, I made some contacts, but the things is, everyone ignores these type of awards. They only care about football. I have nothing against the sport, but if [Cristiano] Ronaldo plays with his legs, I play with my head.”
Every single television news service showed the inventions of Manuel Londreira. The mouse for the physically disabled on TVI, the anti-carjacking system on SIC, the intelligent door on RTP. The latter invention is the only one linking him to a company, one that produces doors. The door can detect gas leaks, floods, it can be opened through a cell phone, and it has also a panic button (the patent for the anti-carjacking system is also relevant to this product). The anti-carjacking invention also earned him a partnership with a company, but according to the inventor, things went wrong and the partnership ceased to exist, despite the product continuing to be marketed.
The solution to the crisis
November 2010. A voiceover announces on television: “The crisis may soon be over.” Over the image of a younger, fatter and happier Manuel Londreira, you hear: “This man has the solution for the financial problems of the country.” José Gomes Ferreira, economics editor of SIC, reassures: “It’s a great idea, Portugal needs it.”
The idea was simple: all cash registers would be connected to one terminal of Finance, and the purchase receipts would give access to daily prizes in cash, drawn in each municipality in the country. This would encourage consumption, Finance would have the record of all business transactions and therefore would collect more taxes. Londreira had this idea in 2008, SIC reported it in 2010. Manuel Londreira then sent emails to the regional government of the Azores and Madeira, to all municipalities, to the Government, to the parliamentary groups, to the Presidency of the Republic and to the now extinct Civil Governments. All the replies, and there were many, are stored in a file.
The idea was well received, so much that Manuel Londreira says that he once had a meeting with João Durão, general taxes sub-director during the government of José Sócrates, in 2010. “It was on December 13, with visitor card number 13, on room 13”, he recalls. On that day, Manuel was received by João Durão and his team at the Ministry of Finance, in Lisbon. According to the inventor, everyone liked the idea, but he was warned about the fact that the state budget had already been approved and so that would have to wait. But soon after, the government collapsed and the proposition was again suspended.
But Manuel Londreira didn’t give up. Two years later, on December 15, 2012, he was shown on an RTP piece giving a file to the Prime Minister. They shook hands, Londreira told Pedro Passos Coelho the solution to the crisis was inside that file and the head of Government replied, as he entered the car: “Yes sir, I’ll look at it, thank you.”
Obviously, Manuel Londreira didn’t want to believe it when he heard the Government announcing the electronic invoicing system and the car drawings, without ever mentioning his name. “It was disrespectful. He had it in his hands, whether he read it or not, I don’t know… But then he goes on TV saying that Portugal will have an electronic invoicing system, which is a Brazilian idea and so on. Maybe they can’t accept that a guy with only the fourth grade could have such a fantastic idea. Never in my life had I thought the government would need to plagiarize a project”, he vents.
The idea of Manuel Londreira was different from the one being currently developed by the Government. The inventor says his was much better. “When I started thinking about it, I assumed that it was necessary to bring people back on the streets, because due to the crisis they stopped going to the café, eating out, going to the movies. And on the other hand, I wanted to tighten the circle on money, so that everyone would pay their taxes. How would it all work? All commercial establishments would have a terminal connected to the Finance department of their respective municipality, which, in turn, would be connected to a central national terminal. All transactions would be recorded and processed, whether people gave out their fiscal number or not – many don’t because they don’t want anyone to know where they’re spending their money. The receipt would have a barcode and every day a cash value, 500 or 1000 Euro for each municipality, would be randomly assigned. The next day people would go to the café to see if they had the winning receipt. For that, similar machines to those of Euromilhões would be used. And afterwards they could throw away the receipts. Every receipt would be eligible, from one for a bubble gum to one for the purchase of a car.”
For Manuel Londreira, it makes no sense that you need to give your fiscal number for the transaction to be recorded. Also, he doesn’t believe in the car drawing. “If a poor person with lots of debts wins the car, he will have to get rid of the car. There will be vultures waiting for the opportunity, to make a cash offer: ‘do you want twenty thousand in cash right now?’ How will that be good for the economy? It won’t. Who wins? Nobody. Who loses? All the companies and the State”, he explains. For him, everybody could win the prize, not only the Portuguese with a fiscal number. “Any tourist could win it. Imagine a tourist coming to Portugal, drinking a coffee and winning 500 Euro. He has his holidays paid for! It’ll be the first thing he’ll talk about after returning to his country.”
Together with the accountant Vítor Dias, Manuel Londreira estimated that, with the amount in taxes the State would gather with this system, only 9% of that profit would be enough to pay the prizes and 1% would suffice for the implementation of the whole computer system.
Even if the model followed by the Government has some differences, Manuel Londreira won’t comply and he will send a letter to the Ministry of Finance requiring the payment of copyrights due for the idea he had previously submitted. “What am I working for here?”
The inventor has been dispirited. He put aside the little black book where he writes down his ideas, and only his wife and some close friends have prevented him from giving up thinking. He is getting unemployment benefit, which will end in June. And he goes crazy with the number of times he sees his work benefiting everyone but him. “When we have this talent and people ignore us, we feel empty, alone. But there’s also something that touches us, because we get sick if we don’t try to solve problems and find solutions. It’s like a bug that squeezes up in here and says, you must do it, you must resolve it.”
The latest invention of Manuel Londreira lets you clean a washing machine in half an hour so that it looks brand new. How does it work? It’s a secret.