In the month after the September 11 attacks, an obscure office in the still-smoldering Pentagon issued a plea for help: Please, America, send us your ideas for combating terrorism. The request prompted derision from late-night TV comics, while newspapers in Poland and Germany marveled how the world's most powerful military force had been reduced to advertising for advice on how to fight its enemies.
No matter. America's techno-wizards responded with a massive outpouring of ideas. Normally, the Pentagon's Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), which trolls for new technologies to help the military, gets about 900 proposals a year. But the October appeal garnered 12,500 brainstorms in just two months, "some of them literally from guys working alone in their garages," says John K. Reingruber, an official in the Pentagon's office of Special Operations & Low-Intensity Conflict. Most of the plans try to satisfy an extensive agency wish list ranging from ground-penetrating radar to detect hostile groups hidden in caves to a hair sample test to determine if a suspect has recently handled nerve gas. "There have been some very good submissions on that one," says top TSWG official Jeffrey David.