Modern-Day Inventors

By Fry, Pataricia L. | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Modern-Day Inventors

Fry, Pataricia L., The World and I

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.


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. …

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