Salcha homesteader, inventor dies

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A Salcha homesteader known for his businesses and his inventions died Thursday.

Joe Balch, 80, throughout his life was never at a loss for something new to try, from a small potato chip factory he operated in the Richardson Highway community 33 miles south of Fairbanks to one of his many inventions.

After serving in the Marines in World War II, Balch and his brother Pete drove to Alaska on motorcycles, attracted by the frontier lifestyle. Joe Balch settled in Salcha in 1946 and homesteaded a parcel of land where he raised hay and potatoes.

He opened the Salcha Store in 1954.

His more than 300 inventions included a gun-type toothbrush with self-squirting toothpaste and the Viking helmet, which he claimed improved posture.

Balch held 13 patents and was probably best known for the Thermotube, also called the Balch Tube. The device stabilizes ground temperature through natural convection. The tubes are used for construction support piling and pipelines, and they help stabilize railroad embankments and power poles.

He held other patents for a portable greenhouse, an air compressor small enough to fit in a glove compartment and a device to prevent fuel spills.

His most recent invention was the multigenerational time capsule burial system, tubes that hold the ashes of a cremated body in one part and memorabilia in the other. The first burial using the tube was held earlier this month for Pete Balch, who died two years ago.

''He had an imagination that knew no limits,'' said friend Howard Rixie. ''His biggest task was being able to harness that creativity. He could create something out of nothing.''

Balch is survived by his wife of 56 years, Marie, three children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

''He was a friendly person. He was jolly and liked to tease,'' Marie Balch said. ''You always wondered what he would say next. He enjoyed life.''

In a 1995 interview, Balch refused to call himself an inventor.

''All I'm doing is creative engineering,'' he said. ''I'm a layperson with a creative lust. My interest is that my inventions be dedicated to making a better quality of life.''

By 2001, he had undergone heart surgery and he used a wheelchair to get around.

''The only part of my brain that still works is the creative part,'' he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''I could invent something every day if I wanted to.''

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