In 1899, President McKinley was advised to close the U.S. Patent Office because, according to the commissioner of patents, Charles Duell, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Nearly five million patents have been issued since.
Who hasn't had an idea for an invention? My own inspirations have included a device to hold grocery bags upright in the trunk of my car for the trip home from the store and a gizmo that automatically warms the interior of my car before I get into it on a chilly night. Like most of the populace, I don't act on my great ideas.
Some people actually do follow through, however, and create prototypes of their inventions, if only to meet their particular needs. That's what my dad did with his parking ball. Daddy attached a Styrofoam ball to a string and hung it from the rafters in his garage to indicate how far forward Mama should pull her car in. She knows to stop when the ball touches the windshield.
A friend of mine attached a tray to a walker for an elderly neighbor so she could carry things from room to room. He also designed a hand tiller when he couldn't find one to meet his needs at local garden shops. He centered an eight-inch spade between two rotating clod busters to dig through hard dirt in small planted areas.
Always believing that few of us ever go to the trouble and expense of developing and patenting our ideas, I was surprised to find that approximately in hundred patents are issued in the United States per week for both new products and improvements on old ones.
What does it take to become an inventor? According to Joanne Hayes-Rines, publisher of Inventors' Digest in Boston and president of United Inventors Association in New York, the main ingredients in the personal makeup of a successful inventor are persistence and the ability to be realistic. She claims never to tire of hearing what she calls "all-American dream stories of people who worked hard, maxed out their credit cards, the lights were about to be turned off, and they get the big order."
Who are the modern-day pioneers of gadgets, gizmos, and thingamajigs? Erase from your mind the stodgy, old scientists you read about in fifth grade. Forget about Hollywood's depiction of the harried, narrowly focused scientist who has no life outside his stuffy laboratory. Today's inventors are men and women of all ages and walks of life who share the courage and sense of commitment to follow through with their ideas despite obstacles and risks. Inventors are often nontraditional in their thinking. Where others see a problem, they see a potential solution.
SOME INVENTORS WEAR SKIRTS
Edna Quimby of Portland, Oregon, invented the mirror her grandmother always wanted. According to Quimby, her grandmother, who had long, white hair, used to say, "I wish they'd develop a mirror so you could see the back of your head." A grandmother herself now, Quimby has developed and is marketing the Fantastic Mirror* through her company Wisteria Products. The mirror can be mounted anywhere to be used in styling the back of one's hair, or over the stove, for example, to allow wheelchair-bound individuals to see into pots.
According to Quimby, the invention process has been difficult. She says that while she was developing a prototype, local manufacturers wouldn't take her idea seriously and kept trying to get her to compromise on the quality of the finished product. And marketing, says Quimby, has been a nightmare. As she explains it, The glass ceiling is real. Men don't think this product is necessary. They think women don't want it, and they're the ones making most of the decisions about what women will buy."
When she took her product to Nordstrom's, the manager there told her that they hadn't had a call for such a mirror. Quimby wonders, "Did they have a call for the pet rock?"
Owner and operator of a neighborhood grocery store for years, Quimby says, "I've always been one to figure out shortcuts." However, this is her first attempt to make a product available to the public. Estimating that she has spent close to $50,000 producing and marketing the Fantastic Mirror* and that most of her thousand-plus sales have been through word of mouth, Quimby looks at this project as an achievement. Echoing Hayes-Rines, she advises other budding inventors of any age to "be persistent." She adds, 'q3elieve in your product, make some good connections, learn how to take rejection, and don't believe what everyone tells you."
Hayes-Rines likes to tell the classic story of the first copy machine, which illustrates Quimby's caution about naysayers. "When the inventor of the Xerox process went to IBM in the 1950s, they told him that maybe he could sell five thousand machines, but why would anybody want them? They had carbon paper."
Tamara Sortman is a young mother living with her family in Sacramento. She also teaches workshops in the extremely popular hobby of scrapbooking: the process of preserving photos and other memorabilia attractively and creatively in albums.
Sortman has developed and trademarked a couple new products in the course of her work. She designed a series of seventeen border rulers to be used as guides in creating borders and artwork on scrapbook pages, as well as a frame that enables folks to include fragile, old photographs in their scrapbooks without having to apply adhesive to the photograph itself.
Unlike most inventors, Sortman had a buyer for her products even before she developed them. Her Rule-It-Up* and Frame-It-Up* products are being manufactured and marketed through Cut-It-Up*, a local wholesale company that caters to scrapbookers.
A few years ago in Manteca, California, former journalist Ann Christensen developed an educational toy for adventurous children. The Castaway was a watertight tube designed to be tossed into the ocean with the child's message. Christensen included a map of ocean currents to help children determine where to launch them, and she offered a launching service for those children who didn't live near an ocean. Many a Castaway capsule has traveled the currents to be eventually retrieved in far-off lands. The cost of marketing versus the profits painted a bleak picture for the Castaway, however, and Christensen eventually made a business decision to drop it.
"That was the hardest thing I ever had to do. It felt like I was cutting my child loose before it was really ready to be let go. I was very attached to the project. I conceived it and did the layout and the production work as well as the assembly and the marketing. But when you put in x amount of hours on a project and can't even make minimum wage, you can't keep holding onto it."
This wasn't Christensen's first invention, nor her last. In 1989, she and her husband, John, produced a windless wind chime. "It's an indoor wind chime, and it simulates the wind electronically," explains Ann. Although they licensed this product to Orchid Isle in San Diego, the design and marketing team is still highly involved with it. "We work closely with the manufacturer, which is something we advise inventors to do," says Ann, who with John cofounded a local inventors group. "The life of a U.S. patent is seventeen years, but the life of a product is usually much shorter than that, and you need to continue freshening it up. If you want to continue getting that check, you have to keep supplying additional engineering expertise and new designs so the product stays fresh."
John recently retired from a career in electromechanical and electronic design, first with the U.S. Navy and then with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Through their company, Christensen Designs, he has developed and the couple are now marketing a line of near-infrared video probes and a remote-control device that are currently being used to identify the burrow habitats of endangered species. Their products are also being looked at by law-enforcement agencies and U.S. customs personnel.
What does it take to be an inventor? According to Ann Christensen, "Independence of thought. You just don't look at things in a customary way--there's a tendency to rotate that thought around and look at it from a different perspective, because therein usually lies the discovery process."
Forty-year-old Stacey Crowe]] is an independent thinker. For several years, she sold park and playground equipment in Massachusetts, but it seemed inevitable that she would someday become an inventor. "I've always enjoyed tinkering in the basement," says Crowell. "It's my hobby. My father was very creative, and as a child I spent a lot of time with him at his workbench."
She came up with her first invention one day when contemplating a trip to the beach. She explains, "I planned ahead and modified a wheeled luggage cart to mobilize our beach gear. Cooler, chairs, beach bag, boogie beard, and books were secured by bungie cords on what would become my first prototype."
Her device got so much attention that day at the beach that Crowell went home and built a real prototype of the Beach 'n' Sport Caddie*.
Most entrepreneurial inventors agree that fledgling products need to be market-tested before they're marketed for real. Crowell tested her product in mall parking lots by showing pictures of it and asking questions such as, "How would you use this?" and "How much would you pay?" "I got a pretty good idea of who my target market was," she says.
To have more time to promote her product, Crowell quit her sales job and took a job with more flexible hours as a waitress. "It's difficult to be a one-person show wearing so many different hats and doing everything from advertising and marketing to being manufacturing supervisor and assembler," says Crowell. "There are not enough hours in the day."
The ratio of women to men inventors in this article is approximately 40:60. We don't hear much about women who invent, yet America's history is rich with stories of them, and some of their inventions were serious devices. Hedy Lamarr, the beautiful Hollywood actress, for example, came up with an idea for antijamming technology, a technique first used by the military and now also implemented in Internet transmission and cellular phones.
Venice, California, resident Susan Casey has always been fascinated by inventors and inventions, and last year she compiled a book for young people featuring women inventors in history: Women Invent! (Chicago Press Review, 1997).
Most people don't know, for example, that it was a woman who invented the life preserver. According to Casey's book, in 1873 Hannah Mountain, concerned with water safety, patented the first flotation device for use in case of a boating accident. Annie Chilton was also motivated by a concern. In 1891 she designed a detacher and brake to prevent accidents with a runaway horse and buggy. In 1868 Mary Evard was issued a patent for a stove, and Mary Anderson invented a windshield wiper for streetcars in 1903.
INVENTIONS OF NECESSITY
Some people are purposefully looking for an idea they can turn into a business. Dan Tribastone of Falls Church, Virginia, is a case in point. An operating room nurse with a business background, he was working in a hospital while keeping his eyes and ears open for a business opportunity. His opportunity came through an unfortunate accident.
According to Tribastone, "I was circulating during an orthopedic case. In order to stay one step ahead of the irrigation process, I piled up several bags of irrigation fluid by an open bucket which was collecting contaminated fluid. Then I was relieved for a break." When Tribastone returned, he discovered that one of the bags had fallen into the bucket and splashed fluid into the relief nurse's eyes.
"I felt horrible," says Tribastone, and he set out in search of a better way to handle the irrigation process during surgery. He scoured the market looking for a larger container that would eliminate the dangerous and time-consuming task of changing canisters during a procedure. There was nothing.
When most people would probably give up, Tribastone took things a step further. He pored over stacks of catalogs and ordered dozens of ready-made containers, which he took to his basement to alter. Finally he developed what he thought was a working product. According to Tribastone, "I took my first prototype of the OmniJug* to work and the nurses loved it. They begged me to make more." Soon the hospital was paying him for the jugs.
He took that money and bought an ad in a trade magazine to see if the need for his product were universal. "I was bombarded with calls requesting samples," says Tribastone.
For nearly a year, Tribastone worked practically around the clock. "I'd come home from work and make forty to fifty jugs, pack them, ship them, and get to bed by 12:30 only to be up by 5 A.M. to go back to work."
His efforts and the dark circles under his eyes were not going unnoticed. A surgeon at the hospital pulled him aside one day to ask if he were ill. Tribastone told the surgeon about his side business. The surgeon offered to introduce him to a friend who was looking for a business investment. And Waterstone Medical was established.
According to Tribastone, now president of Waterstone Medical, "The hardest part of turning your invention into a business is finding out how to put the whole thing together. An idea isn't enough. You need people to help you put a sales force together, people with expertise in handling contractual things, there's the issue of the engineers..."
According to Tribastone, the main trait necessary to becoming a successful inventor is perseverance. "A lot of folks have good ideas, but not very many people do anything about it," he says. "You have to be thick-skinned and bull-headed, because you're not going to hear what you want to hear all the time." Tribastone also believes that you have to have a goal. For this former nurse, inventing brought freedom. He explains, "The OmniJug* is the tool I'm using now to have the freedom to do what I want to do. If I wanted to be a soccer coach, I'd be able to do that. If I got tired of doing that, I could open up a cappuccino stand."
Like Tribastone's patent, many new patents are for improvements on old inventions, meaning that the opportunity still exists for someone to build a better mousetrap. And Marion Center, Pennsylvania, resident Ronald Stewart has done just that.
Fifty-three-year-old Stewart, a former teacher of sociology at York College, got involved in inventing seven years ago afar a friend's dog ate rat poison. This concerned him, and he set out to find a safer bait station to use on his own property. Unable to find one, he began experimenting and came up with the idea for The Keep*, a tamperproof bait station that small children and pets can't get into. After years of intense effort to develop and market his product, Stewart offers the following advice to other would-be inventors: "Have a very understanding wife, don't expect immediate reward, and don't expect to make a fortune."
David Lent, a twenty-five-year veteran news and documentary cameraman in Bethesda, Maryland, has invented several items related to his work. Although David and his wife, Susan, recently sold their product line to two companies with, as David says, "a lot more marketing clout," he has no regrets. "The products business taught us a lot, and it was fun, but because it was relatively small potatoes, it never produced the income commensurate with the energy we put into it."
The Lents' products were unique. The oldest and most popular item was the SteadyBag, a beanbag used by professional shooters in place of a tripod. "The idea of the beanbag occurred to me when a guy in a wheelchair came to me and said, "I want to be a shooter," explains David. "He couldn't get himself close enough to a tripod to shoot, so I thought of the beanbag."
His first SteadyBags were hand-sewn out of denim by a neighbor and filled with beans. He subsequently discovered a synthetic filler that was 30 percent lighter than beans.
All inventors face roadblocks and hurdlges in their pursuit of success. David was no exception. One of his manufacturing problems, however, became a product feature. As he explains it, "The SteadyBag needed to be sewn and filled. We had never been able to find a sewing operation that would also fill and close the bags, so I designed them with Velcro and a zipper."
The problem turned into a benefit because, according to Susan, "The SteadyBag weighs seven pounds. We wanted to ship to the customer at that weight, not get it from our manufacturer at that weight." It's a better product because the SteadyBag now has a double closure that prevents spilling, customers can adjust the filling to their own specifications, and they can empty the Steadybag when traveling and fill it with beans or rice when they reach their destination.
David never considered his products finished. He relied on colleagues to field-test them, and he took their recommendations seriously. "That was one advantage of being small," he says. "We had frequent production runs, so we could make changes as soon as we discovered they were needed."
He encourages others with good ideas, but cautions: "If you're not filling a need, you're just spinning your wheels."
INVENTIONS BY DESIGN AND BY CHANCE
Don Costar of Reno, Nevada, came up with his idea for the Klam Rake one day when he was trying to clean up around some garden shrubs. Finding nothing in his garage that worked efficiently, he decided to create something and developed a small hand-raking device that also picks up debris. At 71, Costar, although it was not his desire, ended up handling the marketing of his product. "I've proven an inventor can do it all himself, from idea to market. Luck plays an important part, but it's been said that if you don't give up and work hard, luck tends to be part of it." And he says that old cliches such as "1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration" come from the experiences of folks like him who are, as he says, "too stubborn to quit and too ignorant to know in advance how much work will be involved."
This was not Costar's first invention. Over the years, he has also invented an underwater gold-dredging glove, a table-leg leveler, and a denture brush for arthritics. Costar describes how things have changed since he received his first patent in 1962. "The entire cost then--including drawings, attorney fees, and patent office fees--was $400. Today the cost to an independent inventor is $4,210 just for the patent fees alone."
Costar recommends that an inventor be prepared to produce more than just the idea. "He should think about many aspects of inventing, and that means doing his own patent search to become more familiar with the technology in his field, studying his invention through prototyping to make sure he can be competitively priced in the market, and making sure that his product will be efficiently packaged for shipping." He also suggests an inventor take advantage of services available to inventors such as small business development centers, service corps of retired executives (SCORE), and other professionals. And he advises membership in an inventors organization. "This will reveal many enlightening facts about marketing scams and rip-offs, as well as legitimate opportunities," says Costar.
Referring to marketing as "the other 99 percent of inventing," one of Costar's best marketing opportunities came through a stint on QVC home shopping network, where, he says, "I sold almost nine hundred garden tools in five minutes."
Jerry Hatchett of Tupelo, Mississippi, also had a flurry of success. He licensed his product, the Easy Braid, to a company that sold a hundred thousand of them during a brief marketing campaign that included several appearances on QVC. The company dropped its beauty lines, however, and Hatchett and his wife, Susan, are currently manufacturing and marketing the Easy Braid themselves.
As is often the case with good ideas, the Easy Braid started with a simple conversation. Hatchett and his sister-in-law, Debra, were discussing hair when she expressed a need for a device to help women French-braid their hair. Hatchett invented a gadget to fill that need.
In an article in the January/February 1997 issue of Inventors' Digest, Hatchett says, "When I invented this product, I thought I had truly found a way to get rich quickly and easily. But I have worked harder on this project than on any business venture, and this has been the most exciting and satisfying work that I have ever done." He cautions novice inventors, however, to "prepare yourself for the long road ahead and to abandon silly notions of huge checks in your mailbox as a result of just having an idea."
Despite Hatchett's advice and the predictions of the early commissioner of patents, Hayes-Rines feels that opportunities for inventors are better today than they ever have been. She explains, "There are new marketing opportunities, new communication opportunities to link with other people, and opportunities in the fact that corporations are downsizing.
"It's a whole new generation," says Hayes-Rines. "We are not our grandfathers. We know we're not going to work for forty years and get a gold watch. People are taking a look at the world and saying, `Wait a minute. I'd better take some responsibility for myself. I like my job, but I have this idea for a new product.' Very often they develop their product on the side while they're working full-time. They have a cushion, and they have something else in case the job falls apart. That's turning a negative into a positive, and that's the world we live in today."
Allen Dittmer Jr., of Wilmington, North Carolina, set out to become an inventor. "I've always been interested in inventing, and I got the Inventors' Digest to find out the proper steps," says Dittmer. One day while thumbing through a list of "needed inventions," he found an entry suggesting that someone should find a way to improve upon the paper clip.
After evaluating the traditional paper clip, Dittmer concluded that it could not be improved upon. It occurred to him, however, that the paper-pushing world could benefit from a clip with features that the existing paper clip didn't have, so he went back to the drawing board. Eventually he developed the CornerClip, a device that slides over one corner of a stack of papers with a hinged arm that, when clicked into position, holds the stack securely without bending or creasing the pages. About the process, Dittmer says, "The easiest part was the idea. The hardest part was refining the product to where it looks good and operates well." He licensed his CornerClip to OfficePro, a company in Forest Hills, New York, that is currently manufacturing and marketing the product to Office Max, among others.
"Developing something that nobody else has ever developed before is exciting," says Dittmer, "especially when you know that only a small percentage of new products make it to market."
Who are modern-day inventors? According to Tribastone, "Men and women who don't think like the norm." Dittmer concurs and adds, "The difference between someone with an idea and someone who follows through with that idea is the difference between a dreamer and an inventor. The easy part is coming up with the ideas. The hard part is doing something about it. You've got to believe in your product, and you've got to believe in yourself."
Hayes-Rines bursts many a bubble when she says, "There really are no overnight success stories. They just made it in the news overnight."
MAGAZINE: Inventors' Digest, 310 Franklin St., Ste. 24, Boston, MA 02110, 617-367-4540.
BOOKS: Susan Casey, Women Invent! (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1997). Informational and entertaining book on women inventors plus an extensive resource guide for budding inventors of all ages, including many opportunities for young inventors.
David Pressman, Patent It Yourself(Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 1992), 510-549-1976.
INVENTORS GROUPS: Nevada Inventors Association, Don Costar, 702-322-9636, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Inventors Association, POB 23447, Rochester, NY 14692, 716-359-9310.
PATENT OFFICE: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 14th Street and Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20250, 800-786-9199, www.uspto.gov/.www.ftp.uspto.gov.
Patricia L. Fry is a frequent contributor to THE WORLD & L Her latest book is Creative Grandparenting Across the Miles: Ideas for Sharing Love, Faith and Family Traditions (Liguori Publications, 1997).…