In Search of the Better Mousetrap

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

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

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