In Search of the Better Mousetrap

If necessity is the mother of invention, here are the fathers.

August 1976By Comments

Every schoolchild has heard of Alexander Graham Bell, of Thomas Alva Edison, of Samuel F. B. Morse. Chances are that no one outside his immediate family has heard of James Turner of Dallas. But Turner, like a handful of other Texans, is among the heirs of a disappearing American tradition: the lone inventor, working in a makeshift laboratory with little more than an idea and conviction to sustain him.

Turner was driving along a Southern California freeway in 1969 when he passed what he remembers as “the most impressive pile of used tires I had ever seen.” Millions of people had seen that 70-foot mound of discarded rubber before Turner and had thought nothing more about it. But Turner was different; he was obsessed with the thought that there had to be a way to recycle all of those tires. He sold his chain of hamburger stands and for the next six years, though he had no scientific training, he pursued the elusive secret.

The problem, he soon learned, was that old rubber cannot simply be melted down and remolded into something useful. Rubber products are manufactured through catalytic reaction, and what Turner had to find was the right catalyst.

“I just started throwing stuff in, hit or miss,” he recalls. Chemists came to his laboratory and told him he was wasting his time, but he persevered until at last something seemed to work. He finally designed his first practical product—a flexible pipe for carrying water—connected it to a faucet and with great anticipation turned on the pressure. Disaster! The entire pipe was one slow leak; it looked like it was sweating water. Six years of his life wasted.

“I was starting to get real discouraged,” Turner says, “when a friend of mine who happened to be an agronomist came by. He took one look and said, ‘My God, you’ve invented the perfect thing for trickle irrigation.’ I didn’t even know what he was talking about.”

He soon found out. His leaky pipe will be used in trickle, or drip, irrigation, a recently developed process that limits the amount of water lost in evaporation. Weed Eaters, Inc., of Houston is currently developing Turner’s discovery and will market it as well. The catalyst itself remains a closely guarded secret; all he’ll say is that, like the tires themselves, the mystery ingredient is a readily available waste product. Soon the pipe will be followed by commercial introduction of other recycled rubber products—flower pots, doormats, railroad ties, fence posts that won’t rot, and shingles.

James Turner saw something extraordinary in the commonplace. That ability is the trademark of the inventive mind. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville thought it was part of the American character; he wrote in 1835 that all Americans were gifted with “a clear, free, original, and inventive power of mind.” But the sad reality is that for every James Turner there are thousands of failures. In fact, judging by the results of a post-World War II experiment, the odds against success are roughly 20,000 to 1. That experiment began in 1947, when Tom Slick, a San Antonio oilman, invested $800,000 in the inventive ingenuity of the American public. Slick was certain that thousands of potential Thomas Edisons were laboring over epoch-making inventions, only to be frustrated because they lacked legal and technical resources. He backed up his conviction with his money and created an inventor’s paradise, the Institute for Inventive Research (IIR).

Slick wanted IIR to solicit inventions and turn them over to a sister institution, the Southwest Center for Research, for professional analysis. If the idea proved feasible, IIR would handle legal and manufacturing details in return for a shareof the profits. Slick wanted IIR open to all ideas, and in a 1949 Reader’s Digest article he compared this open-door policy to wildcatting for oil wells. “A few successes,” he wrote, “will more than make up for all our failures, just the way dad’s gushers always carried the cost of his dry holes—and then some.”

When tested under the most favorable circumstances, the reservoir of American ingenuity was found to be dry. Only 107 of more than 100,000 ideas received by IIR even warranted a second look. Investigation found that most of these had already been patented, some as far back as the nineteenth century. Only five ideas were commercialized, and none of those were what anyone would call revolutionary. By 1953 just the cost of corresponding with 100,000 would-be inventors forced the closing of IIR.

Slick’s brainchild was foredoomed by the vast expansion of both scientific knowledge and the postwar economy that took inventing out of the basement workshop and put it in multimillion-dollar research and development laboratories run by giant corporations and major universities. The labs brought together teams of highly trained researchers to fill the frequently esoteric needs of technology. They are professional problem solvers, and they account for the vast majority of new inventions. Indeed, in 1972 scientists from only ten large corporations accounted for over 10 percent of the 70,000 patents issued.

The success and efficiency of the men in white lab coats make them unlikely heirs to the tradition of quirky genius epitomized by Walt Disney’s cartoon character Gyro Gearloose.  No electric bulb suddenly illuminates the darkness for them; instead they rely on computers to give them answers. The man who knows more Texas inventors than anyone else, San Antonio attorney Donald Comuzzi, chairman of the Texas Bar patent section, looks on technicians with skepticism. “I don’t consider these corporate types to be inventors,” he says. ”They are assigned a specific problem and they solve it, and they work on something only when the corporation or the university or the government tells them to. If you take ten of them and lock them in different rooms, eight or nine are going to come out with the same answer.”

Still, a few Texans keep alive the tradition of eccentric imaginers like Whitcomb Judson, who dared to dream of the zipper in a world that knew only buttons. A man in Brazoria has invented an improved paper clip; a man in Fort Worth has produced an extendable toilet tissue holder; and a Copperas Cove woman has produced a breast pillow for full-figured women who want to sleep on their stomachs. A San Antonio man has spent twenty yearstrying to perfect a swimming machine; another inventor is close to perfecting a high-pressure fizz toilet that would conserve water; and still another has a patent pending on a peekaboo bikini that lets the wearer show more. A woman from the same city has plans for a cat toilet that flushes. And for the compulsive smoker trying to break the habit, a Dallas inventor has come up with a cigarette case that administers an electric shock whenever it is opened.

None of these inventions is likely to change the world. But a few Texans are working on more serious projects, like the modern alchemist in Houston who has found a way to turn garbage into petroleum. John Martin of Brazoria, the inventor of the better paper clip, has 50 notebooks filled with da Vinci-like sketches. And a Dallas man is working on a car he says will run without fuel.

Learning the detail of what an inventor is working on is next to impossible. Secrecy is as essential in this trade as in espionage; until an inventor secures a patent, his device is completely vulnerable and protected only by his discretion. Besides, most inventors have been laughed at so often that they learn to keep their ideas to themselves. Eventually the moment comes when they have to tell someone, and that someone is the U.S. Patent Office. Every Tuesday morning the Houston office of the Department of Commerce holds a free seminar to explain patent procedures. The room is filled with the curious and those of less pure motives, and any inventor who has a question must play a cat-and-mouse game with government officials. One suspicious inventor recently made officials stumble through a game of Twenty Questions, during which they learned only that the invention was smaller than a bread box and was a device to be used with a map while traveling through strange cities. “My mother-in-law took a wrong turn coming through Dallas and ended up two hundred miles out of her way. With my invention, you’ll never miss your exit again,” he said. But before he would say any more, he wanted a patent, a piece of paper costing $65 that when issued give a seventeen-year monopoly on any new and useful “process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.”

Useful. That’s the key word. During its 186-year history, the Patent Office has issued patents for a balloon propelled by vultures and eagles, chastity belts for chickens, a clothespin with six moving parts, a tapeworm trap, and, of course, a better mousetrap. The government is not supposed to approve a patent for a useless device, but that distinction is not always an easy one to make.

Nevertheless, a patent by itself is worthless if the invention cannot be marketed. Just because an idea is good doesn’t mean it will sell. Chester Colson spent years mixing strange chemicals in his home laboratory before perfecting the formula for xerography; twenty firms told him his process was just another copying system in an already cluttered field. Most inventors suffer similar frustrations when they approach existing companies who have invested millions in assembly lines and tools to produce their current line of products. The companies may be committed to progress, but not beyond a regularly scheduled series of innovations. Economists term this approach “planned obsolescence,” and it is the bane of every inventor. A few may attempt to finance their own companies; more often, however, they suffer the same fate as Alexander Graham Bell, who sought the backing of financier J. P. Morgan, not to mention Mark Twain, only to be told by both that the telephone was a novelty without commercial possibilities. As a result, inventors often turn in frustration to patent marketing companies. The Houston Yellow Pages once listed seventeen such organizations. Today only two are still in existence. Many of the others have taken inventors’ money, dreams, and prototypes and left town.

The Raymond Lee Organization is one of the oldest and says it is one of the most honest firms in the business. Its promotional literature promises objective engineering and marketing analyses and implies that the company has a proven record at marketing inventions. One of it pamphlets quotes “prominent national leaders” apparently vouching for the firm’s integrity. Along with Hubert Humphrey and the governor of Maine is the name of former Bandera County Judge Roy Adam. Adams, who now operates a fried-chicken stand, says he contacted the company several years ago when he invented a bait dispenser for fisherman. The company took his invention under consideration and requested a letter of recommendation on county stationery. “I’ve been trying to get them to take me off that brochure now for about five years,” he says. “I wouldn’t say that they did anything criminal, but I’d never give them my money again. I keep getting calls from people all over the country who want to know if the company is all right. I just tell them to save their money. That company can’t do anything for them.”

Invenco, a Dallas-based invention marketing firm, went further than Raymond

Lee. They promised successful marketing within six months and offered a money-back guarantee. Investigators for Texas Attorney General John Hill found that the company was spending far more on salaries and administrative expenses than on trying to market the inventions. The inventor of a disposable cardboard hunting blind, touted by Invenco as one of its big successes, paid the firm $950; after two years he received a royalty check for $39.69. The company said more royalties would come in during the hunting season, but there were so many similar complaints that Hill’s office took the company to court and forced it into receivership. “By the time an inventor got to the company,” says Jackson Wilson, who handled the case for Hill’s office, “all his friends had told him that he had the greatest gadget in the world. The invention companies didn’t even have to sell themselves. All they had to do was reach into people’s wallets and pull out the money.”

Despite the long odds, however, there continue to be occasional success stories. George Ballas of Houston was the proprietor of Dance City, U.S.A. when he drove into a car wash one afternoon. He was going home to do his lawn and was not looking forward to trying to trim around trees, culverts, and lawn lights. As he watched the rollers fit over every contour of his car, the inspiration struck him. When he got home he punched some holes in a tin can, attached half a dozen strands of speaker wire, rigged it up to his edger, and that was the beginning of the Weed Eater. Four months and $6000 later, he perfected his design into a single strand of fishing line spun around by a lightweight electric motor, which has become the basis of a $40-million-a-year business.

For most inventors fame is as elusive as riches. Even if the better paper clip becomes a household object, the name of its inventor will never become a household word. Not one in a million will ever achieve the status of an Edison or a Bell, whose names are perpetuated in the titles of giant corporations. And even fewer will attain the rare status of Sir Thomas Crapper, whose name has been immortalized to describe his invention—the flush toilet. 

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