Invention Clinic – How To Be an Inventor (Jan, 1950)
Invention Clinic – How To Be an Inventor
BY JOSEPH H. KRAUS.
Big Money from Little Ideas
Few inventors appreciate the hardships that have gone into making even the simplest invention a success. The big-money payoff on small inventions—such as the paper clip, the safety pin, the crimp-style bottlecap, the “nonslip” hairpin, the incandescent light bulb, the three-element vacuum tube, the box camera with the roll film and dozens of other little items—convince many inventors that manufacturers will beat a broad path to their door with heavy cash to buy up the rights to every new gimmick patented.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand you can wave and suddenly turn your invention into a big bank account. Nor is there any assurance that your first patent will make you a millionaire. On the other hand, chances are you’ll make a lot more money out of a little gadget than you will from a really important invention. Even science – fiction writers who had a look at the first working model that started vast modern industries like the automobile business, aviation, radio, movies and television never realized the amazing money value of those crude contraptions. Nearly everybody was sure that the first horseless buggy was just another crackpot mechanic’s crazy machine.
You’ve probably heard of the hundreds of unsuccessful experiments before Thomas A. Edison developed the first practical filament for an incandescent lamp. But can you name 10 of Edison’s other 1000-odd patents? Of course, his many failures are forgotten, because a few of his persistent experiments eventually did pan out brilliantly. For instance, do you know of the thousands of dollars he wasted in a vain attempt to invent a device for separating magnetic iron from sand?
Many years ago when I was enjoying a picnic lunch at a Long Island beach, a knife fell into the sand. Upon picking up the knife, I found a lot of tiny black particles clinging to the blade. The black stuff was not sticky, however. Later, a check at the lab with a compass showed that the blade had become magnetized. The particles therefore were of some magnetic material. Further investigation revealed that they were iron. While apparently plentiful, there was not enough for “pay dirt,” though. There was too much sand mixed in with the iron particles. Additional research disclosed that Edison had discovered the same thing long before—much to his financial sorrow.
Yet the reverse might have been true. He might have worked out a unit for extracting the iron from the sand. His patented invention then would have found its way to the growing pile which never get to the manufacturing stage, much less make a profit.
But such things usually are not part of a success story. The years of effort and near-starvation that Gillette endured to get recognition for his safety razor are soft-pedaled. You rarely hear about Edison’s impractical chalk telephone or those 1000 patents of his that never got to first base. And there are few people who remember the late Nikola Tesla or any of the great mass of inventions credited to his genius.
Try and Try Again
The batting average of the truly great inventors, then, is no better than that of any intelligent person. A record of many years shows that the readers of Mechanix Illustrated turn out just as high a percentage of value as did the inventive genius of yesterday.
You can always bat better in the invention game if you use a little more oldtime perser verance and dogged determination to overcome every obstacle. That old motto “try and try again” is still the payoff line for the would-be inventor. If the great inventive geniuses of the past could only make two per cent of their ideas pay any dividends, you shouldn’t be too discouraged if your first attempts flop. Even total failure can teach you a lot.
Americans Go for Gadgets
Today’s inventor has a much better chance than yesterday’s wizard. First, there are more fields to conquer. Second, every new field of endeavor opens up a new source for inventive ideas. Just as a twig on a sapling eventually may become a branch with more twigs than the original tree, so a single new thought may give birth to a broad-branching industry. Third, America is gadget conscious. You can sell any good small gadget if it does something useful, helps a process, serves as an ornament or as an aid to the home owner in his house, garden, car or garage, or carries out some little chore quicker or easier for Joe or Jane Doe.
Marketing Your invention
Hundreds of manufacturers are anxious to buy the rights to inventions which they think are marketable. But the problem is two-fold. It’s getting increasingly difficult to arrange a meeting between the manufacturer seeking a salable item and the inventor trying to locate that producer. There simply is no general clearing house to which either inventor or manufacturer can go. Of course, a few organizations have been set up for this purpose. But not one of them is big enough to do a complete job.
A good place for contacts is an inventors’ exhibition such as the international show held in New York last year. Though such exhibitions are helpful, many more links in the contact chain are needed to anchor the inventor properly in the manufacturer’s market. Best bet here would be a permanent exhibition area. This would require a great deal of money to keep it going, though. Financing such a project would be the big problem. Once started, an invention mart should add considerably to our national wealth and greatly stimulate our industrial growth.
Until such a mart materializes, the inventor must follow a much more roundabout road to success. Before attempting to sell your idea, you should make every effort to protect your invention. You may find it more practical to manufacture and distribute the product yourself. Your article should be readily salable— some new gimmick or toy, or at least a reasonably priced item with wide appeal. Not only is there a bigger demand for such relatively simple articles but their manufacture is relatively cheap—a most important point in marketing any new product.
Your First Move
Let us assume that Joe Doe has designed a nonelectrical fire extinguisher that not only sprays the extinguishing fluid over the flames but rings an alarm at the same time. We might have picked a drink mixer, paper-napkin dispenser, coffee measurer, dog leash or exposure meter as an example. But whatever the invention, it should stand on its own legs, so to speak, and never be a mechanism that would require a major change in manufacturing a complicated product like an auto or plane. To take advantage of your invention’s supposedly superior qualities, I selected the fire extinguisher because of the number of factors which enter its construction.
Naturally Joe Doe thinks that his design is good. He thinks it could be sold for a reasonable price—say $2.50 each (this price should be five or more times the manufacturing cost.) That’s cheap enough so that the average home manager can afford to “want” the article.
First, Joe shows the idea to some trusted friends and faithfully records their comments. Then he studies mail-order catalogues and advertisements and visits the general merchandise stores, auto and home owner’s supply shops. He finds, of course, that home-style extinguishers are already on the market at prices from a dollar up. But Joe feels his article is better and worth extra cost. It’s fully automatic but can be operated by hand, too. Also, his firefighting gadget may be refilled easily, shows when refilling is necessary and, in case of fire, gives a loud alarm.
A patent search reveals that the item may be protected. So Joe is hopeful of striking it rich. Perhaps he must justify to his wife or himself the cost of the patent and the attorney’s fees. That money would buy a new fur-coat or paint the house. But, if Joe is successful, he will bundle up his wife in ermine and buy a new home where a handyman does all the unpleasant work around the house.
Not to deprive his good woman of any little luxury, Joe paints the house himself (that saves him about $200) and cuts out cigarets and the extra highball (that’ll soon give him another $100). Even though Joe sticks to his no-smoke, no-drink pledge for only one day, he raises enough good will with his wife to launch the project. So Joe gets his way and finally has a patent pending.
Make a Model
The wording of Joe’s patent will be technical. For a prospective purchaser, the mechanical drawings and the numerical designations may be hard to follow. Furthermore, copies of patents run into money.
Usually the person who sifts the new ideas in any organization is too busy to bother with details of examination and imagination.
“Show me the article and I’ll tell you if I can use it,” he says.
So our Joe will need a model. Whether he makes it himself or has it made, his model should be a well-finished product. Maybe he can cut a few corners. For the alarm, a bicycle bell or the parts from a discarded alarm clock may take the place of the real thing. The thermostat may come from an electric iron. An empty hair-tonic bottle can serve as the container for the extinguishing fluid. A local electroplater may finish off the metal with a shiny surface or Joe can paint it himself.
From a short distance the article should look like a manufactured product. But Joe has no qualms about design. It doesn’t have to be super streamlined. It’s not going to take off into the wild blue yonder. Furthermore, each manufacturer will have his own thoughts on how the finished item will look.
Joe then takes his model to a neighborhood photographer and has several photos made to show the exterior, the interior and, perhaps, the extinguisher dousing a small fire. If an amateur takes the pictures, they should be enlarged to 5×7 inch size.
Promoting the Product
Joe Doe, inventor, is now ready for his first announcement. He may not like to use his own name. So, he coins a new concern, The Fire-snuffer Company. Joe makes himself president of the firm, his son secretary and his wife, aptly enough, treasurer. For a few dollars Joe can get a permit to “do business under an assumed name” and register the proposed new business name with his state department.
Now Joe must prepare the text for the circular promoting his new article. But this is no time for super-colossal Hollywood phrases. Finally he writes a brief, simple presentation of the facts to fit a single, letter-sized sheet of paper. Under a heading “Automatic Alarm And Extinguisher Snuffs Out Fires As Soon As They Start” are a few short five-word phrases. Illustrations, name and address complete the circular.
Joe then writes a short letter for photo offset to say that the invention is for sale on a cash or royalty basis. The same printing process may be used for turning out the circular at the local printshop. Now Joe gets a good supply of letterheads and envelopes—and he’s in business. Since 10,000 letters and circulars cost only slightly more than 1000, both Joe and you will do better if you get the larger number and throw away any you can’t use.
Lookinq for Prospects
That letter need not be a perfect example of sales technique. There’s no point in trying to high-pressure possible clients. They will know at a glance if they are the least bit interested—and fancy words won’t change their opinion if the product itself has no merit.
With his promotion material all set, Joe goes to a large town and selects from the telephone and business directories the names of companies that might be interested in his extinguisher. He also lists the names of sales agents, and those who are seeking inventions as brokers. He pays particular attention to the classified columns and invention ads in Mechanix Illustrated, other science publications and trade papers listing hardware supplies.
The circulars go out to the manufacturers that Joe has found in his big-city search. After this, Joe may have a long wait for an answer.
What should Mr. Doe do now? He’s already sunk about $500 into this venture, what with his expenses for patenting his invention, making a working model, promoting the idea and so on. He may subtract some of these costs from his income tax but that will depend a lot on how Joe Doe has set up his business. Joe and you had better check with the internal-revenue man on just how much, if any, of these costs may be deducted.
But there are still other ways to capitalize on that invention. And we haven’t yet told you what to do if there’s a favorable reaction to the presentation.
Next month we’ll follow up on Joe Doe’s inventive effort and tell you how to decide whether your invention is worth risking more money—and what to do if you do turn up a prospect for your product.