PITTSBURGH – As she walked into the manufacturing warehouse to check up on her invention, Michelle Baldridge entered a place that resembled more of a wonderland from various worlds than a sterile lab where robotic arms might assemble pieces of new technology in secret.
The colorful, multi-themed factory is Inventionland, an immersive work environment located northeast of Pittsburgh, started to help inventors.
As Baldridge walked toward her creation, each corner of the warehouse resembled stories plucked out of different children’s adventures: a tidy little cottage from a storybook set in the woods, a castle with a bridge entrance lined with armored knights, a giant robotic face with flashing eyes and blocky teeth – and above it all, a conveyor belt carried boxes of various inventions manufactured over the years.
Despite all the colorful and bright sets, Baldridge fixed her eyes on only one item, her greatest fantasy yet: a yellow wagon holding a stack of logs and a couple bags of soil.
The cart may seem ordinary, but Baldridge owns the patent for the first self-propelled wagon with a platform that raises and lowers objects.
"If my dreams could come to reality, every household would have my wagon," said Baldridge, who, works full time for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District besides being a new inventor.
The wagon may not fend off dragons, robots, or big bad wolves, but it is designed to carry up to 350 pounds of material with a motorized lift platform, making it easier to unload large vehicles. A motor propels the wagon forward, easing the strain of pushing heavy hardware. The wheels are large enough to maneuver over rough terrain, but the wagon’s body is small enough to fit through a doorway or gate.
“I originally designed this wagon to assist me with yard materials such as gravel rock, mulch, potting soil, bricks, and the like,” said Baldridge.
It is one of those simple and relatable inventions that one might think already exists. Yet, Baldridge developed the patent for the Petite Gato a few years ago during the pandemic.
“I needed to move 200 pounds of river rock from my garage to the back of my home. So, I began looking for some type of machine to assist, and from there, my idea was born,” she said.
The only option she could find was the traditional wheel barrel or a pull wagon with large wheels, which required a lot of manual labor, bending over and lifting.
“Being a single female homeowner who does most of my own yardwork, I needed all the assistance I could get. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention,” she said.
Although she works full-time for the Corps of Engineers, Baldridge quickly reminds others she is not an engineer. She is a project scheduler, which means she manages money for large, multi-million-dollar projects to ensure operations and construction remain on schedule.
“I’m not an engineer, but I’ve always thought it was important to surround myself with people who are smarter than me,” she said.
As an African American, Baldridge said it is critical for Black youth to pursue an education that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math. She hopes STEM programs can excite youth with experiments that spark their interests. She wants to be a voice for Black boys and girls who might become future engineers or inventors.
“When I look at all the famous African-American inventors and how their inventions have shaped the world, I’m blown away that I could possibly be among these greats,” she said. “I designed a product to make my life easier, which could hopefully help millions.”
Baldridge has worked in the federal government for 35 years, which drives her desire to provide selfless service, she said.
“When you work for any government organization, that is exactly what you give every day: service. Service to your team, organization, and ultimately the Army,” she said. “This is why I love my job and why I love my government career.”
Another motto the Army taught her is, “Work smarter, not harder,” she said, which is precisely what inspired her to invent the Petite Gato.
“I’m old now,” she joked. “So, I’m always looking for ways to avoid bending low. I don’t want to do all that reaching and lifting, you know?”
Beyond her government and Army service, Baldridge said her biggest inspiration was her grandparents, especially her grandfather, Robert Harris. She watched him do plumbing, carpentry, paint, plaster, and hang wallpaper. She loved watching him work on the scaffold.
“He would scold me and tell me to go to the kitchen to help my grandmother, but most times, I’d stay and watch anyway,” she said.
Her boy cousins sometimes tried to shoo her away because she was a girl. She wanted to learn the crafts of working with her hands. In her family’s old-school mindset, she didn’t belong in the boys’ club. Yet she persisted, and to this day, she does her own maintenance as a homeowner. It was, after all, doing labor in her own backyard that led to the big invention of a little wagon.
“If my grandpa could see me now. Grandpa, I’m an inventor!” she said. “I still can’t believe it! I pray I’ve made my ancestors and my family proud.”