U engineering graduate and inventor, Ross Mann, will be speaking about his passion for designing coin-operated machines during the annual Meet an Inventor Night Thursday, April 23.

Think of Ross Mann as the ultimate Santa’s elf. He likes to design and construct fun.

Mann, a product development engineer for his son’s Bountiful company, MannMade Engineering, invented the first “kinetic art gumball” machine in the 1980s, a gumball machine that delivered candy through a series of Rube Goldberg-like mechanical contraptions. Now he’s bringing to market a new system of LED garden lights that emit different colors and can be controlled through a smartphone.

“I just feel like that when it comes to the value of entertainment, people are more important than things,” said Mann, who lives in Fruit Heights. “If we can put a smile on someone’s face, then we have done something of real value.”

The University of Utah electrical engineering graduate and lifetime inventor will be speaking at this year’s Meet an Inventor Night, an annual event held by the U’s College of Engineering in which local high school students are invited to learn about the vast possibilities available through an engineering career. University researchers and alumni also will be talking about what it takes to bring an idea to market. Meet an Inventor Night will be held Thursday, April 23 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the University of Utah’s Warnock Engineering Building, 72 S. Central Campus Drive, Salt Lake City. Students can register for the free event at www.coe.utah.edu/k12_events.

Mann said his interest in engineering was sparked by the world’s first microprocessors.

“I saw microprocessors and they hit me hard when I realized they could control anything,” he said. “I developed a burning passion, and I started experimenting with them. I started hooking up motors and sensors and creating fun things.”

He also was inspired by another U graduate, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, who created the coin-operated Pong video game.

“I needed to find something that would market itself,” Mann said about why he became interested in creating coin-operated machines. “I heard of Nolan Bushnell and his coin-operated stuff. I felt if you put it in the store it would sell itself.”

In 1987, Mann created his first gumball machine, “Oscar’s Wild Ride,” which he said spawned the “kinetic art gumball” craze. After its release, 13 competing businesses cropped up in the next 3½ years, he said. Mann also designed an amusement game involving a ball that rolled through an obstacle course, though that game never made it into arcades.

Today, Mann helps his son by creating ideas for products, mostly involving devices such as smartphones networked together to provide a service. His GlowLytes is a system of garden lights on posts that are networked to a controller. The controller is then operated via a smartphone or tablet. The posts are equipped with solar-powered RGB LED lights that can emit up to 16 million shades of colors.

“They can blink. They can be turned on automatically at night. And if it’s game day, for example, they can glow red and white if the U is playing,” Mann said. He expects the product to become available this fall.