Television’s Million-Dollar Jackpot for Inventors (May, 1950)

Sounds a bit like a proto-kickstarter:

“Farmer then frankly announced that the inventors needed funds and that he believed their invention was really an important one—just the thing for barber shops, bowling alleys, hotels and cigar stores. He asked the audience to raise $5000 for a percentage of the business. His words were hardly on the air when the station’s phones started jingling up cash for the Van Doren boys. Eight of these callers wanted to put up the entire sum—thus offering a total of $40,000 to get the gadget on the market.”

Some variation of invention TV idea has been tried a number of times. There was a similar show in Chicago around the same time, one on the BBC a few years later, a terrible show called American Inventor a few years ago, and a current show called Stars of Science filmed in Qatar that was recently featured in Wired.

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Television’s Million-Dollar Jackpot for Inventors

Best break many unknown inventors ever had is an inspiring Minneapolis TV show where gadgets star and gadgeteers win fame—and funds for their ideas.

By Alfred Eris

TWO brothers, Fred and George Van Doren, labored long and ardently to build a better shoeshine machine. At last, just when it looked as if all their inventive efforts would pay off, they found themselves completely stymied. Like so many other inventors, they had run out of funds —right on the brink of success.

Then the despairing veterans heard about a novel television program conducted by Weston Farmer on Minneapolis station WTCN-TV. Nervously they told Farmer about their snafued project. After he had a good look at the machine, he was enthusiastic and agreed to put it on his show immediately.

The next Monday evening thousands of TV fains saw Farmer drop a nickel in the slot of the shoeshiner. They watched in fascination as the machine automatically sprayed one shoe with a patented formula of liquid Carnauba wax, then brushed it thoroughly in 60 seconds with three fast-spinning brushes.

Farmer then frankly announced that the inventors needed funds and that he believed their invention was really an important one—just the thing for barber shops, bowling alleys, hotels and cigar stores. He asked the audience to raise $5000 for a percentage of the business. His words were hardly on the air when the station’s phones started jingling up cash for the Van Doren boys. Eight of these callers wanted to put up the entire sum—thus offering a total of $40,000 to get the gadget on the market. A few days after the telecast, the two happy inventors were zooming off in a flying start on the high road to fortune.

This is just another example of the many inventors who have found the Minneapolis TV a shortcut to success in the invention field. Aptly enough, this million-dollar bonanza for the inventor is called Idea Jackpot. Sponsored from its start a year ago by Baker’s, a local department store, the show is easily the top television program beamed in Minnesota. Each week viewers not only see a closeup parade of new gadgets but get a fascinating insight into the how and why of invention troubles, from design difficulties to financing and marketing.

Initially Farmer’s TV show told the audience about manufacturers who wanted Minnesota’s inventors to tackle their problems. For instance, one industrialist offered $10,000 for the invention of a refrigerating device based on magnetic currents. A Canadian had $500 earmarked for anybody who could smooth out a wrinkle or two in the manufacture of household items. Another manufacturer offered $5000 for an auto-polish formula which any motorist could use to restore that brilliant assembly-line luster to his car—a formula that would bear the same sort of relation to the Detroit factory’s car finish that the Toni home wave does to the beauty parlor’s permanent.

However, during the war Farmer had worked as a naval architect on the American version of a British PT boat. And as a successful inventor himself, he developed Build-O, a construction kit for kids, and Thirsty Kerchief, the new hair scarf made of two layers of porous cotton cloth impregnated with silica gel and used by the ladies as a fancy turban for drying the hair. Based on years of such practical inventive experience, Farmer worked up his original Idea Jackpot show. Max Karl, WTCN-TV’s production manager, lost no time offering this inventors’ program to Minnesotans as a regular Monday-night feature.

A few weeks after the program got under way, Kaz Kaminski came to the station to see Farmer. Kaminski had an idea for a Wam-A-Fire alarm, a neat gimmick using a special alloy. This metal, highly sensitive to temperature changes, set off a gong whenever fire broke out in the vicinity. The whole mechanism was very simple and could operate on ordinary flashlight batteries. But he was a very harassed inventor indeed. Kaz had his reasons for looking worried, too. He had some deals pending which would fall through unless he could get into production very soon. But he found that the tools and dies he needed to make his gadget would cost $8000! The problem intrigued Farmer. Convinced that Kaminski had a money-maker, he sat down with Kaminski’s engineer and helped redesign the pilot tools so that the cost was cut to only $724.

Then Farmer urged Kaminski to ship his fire alarm across the state line—from Wisconsin to Minnesota. This served to protect the trade mark in interstate commerce by allowing an early and reliable dating that satisfied the patent office on the trade marks registry.

Today, Kaminski’s business is flourishing.

“Westy sure got the goof balls out of my head,” he says. “That first two weeks I shipped sample alarms which have brought me in orders for over 62,000 units. Now we send our alarms all over the world and make up special models for countries like South Africa, which require higher temperature adjustments.”

Many inventors who would shy away from gadget shows are eager and delighted to appear on Idea Jackpot. There’s Dr. H. R. Tregilgas, Harold Stassen’s personal physician, who has a revolutionary invention for building contractors. Here’s how Dr. Tregilgas happened to turn inventor: Almost every zero-cold Minnesota night the doctor was routed out of bed about 2 or 3 a. m. in answer to a patient’s SOS call. Dr. Tregilgas noted a curious consistency in all these cases which involved respiratory ailments. The patient usually lived in a basement apartment, the walls of which had practically no insulation and were invariably damp. Any one living in such an apartment seemed to be an easy prey to sickness.

After analyzing some of the concrete blocks used in the construction of these homes, he came up with his revolutionary idea—why not make a concrete sandwich by inserting a layer of insulating board between the two concrete halves of the block? This would save thousands of dollars by insulating as you build instead of necessitating a makeshift insulation after the house has been built.

A concrete company was highly suspicious of Dr. Tregilgas when he called and asked that these special blocks be made up for him. After all, building construction is one field and surgery is another. Competent surgeons just don’t go around introducing innovations in the construction field. Finally, though, the doctor persuaded the concrete company that he really knew what he was doing.

Used on a number of homes already, these Insol blocks have cut building costs one-third, a terrific saving for home builders and owners. Today you can buy the blocks direct from Dr. Tregilgas or get one of his sandwich-making machines on a royalty franchise.

With personalities ranging from Dr. Tregilgas to humble citizens struggling with new can openers, Idea Jackpot has captured the imagination of everyone in Minneapolis who ever complained, “Why don’t they make a simple little gismo?” But now, after seeing a Farmer program, people are singing a happier song—”Say, maybe I can make it myself!”

Some of the simplest ideas have found manufacturers keen to make the article in a hurry and the public in just as much of a rush to buy it. Ever struggle with a brush a bit too wide for a narrow-necked bottle? Well, E. C. Wilhelm of St. Cloud, Minnesota, came up with a brush jointed at the end so that you can easily slip it inside at an angle for efficient scrubbing. This hot premium item is now in production and will soon be selling by the thousands.

Ever think about the headache of the motorist who finds himself backing into a tight parking space? Well, Jarl Fechner and B. J. Veilleux, both of Minneapolis, worried about that little problem themselves—till they worked out a very simple device to warn the driver just before he scrapes the car behind him. Two Cat’s Whiskers are connected to a buzzer and dashboard switch. These whiskers installed at the rear of the car extend about 18 inches farther back. When they touch anything, they sound a warning to the driver. Simple, isn’t it? Farmer showed the gimmick on his Idea Jackpot and a local manufacturer started making a market survey with a view to producing the Whiskers. At this point, it looks as if a contract will be signed before you read this article.

Hard-to-open jars are always a nuisance. George Rodum of Wayzata, Minnesota, did something about it. Using an aluminum handle and a strap of neoprene, Rodum and his late partner invented Elo, a simple jar wrench that housewives can use on bottles and service-station attendants or mechanics can apply as a tool for opening a hole or pipe.

Rolf Stageberg, of an inventing family, appeared on the very first Idea Jackpot with his Line-Tite, a novel metal gimmick for tightening sagging clotheslines. A while later Stageberg came back on the show with another hit, the Dipsy Doozy, a three-fingered laundry stick for taking down safely that last nylon or fancy undie. Selling at a low price, this gadget had to be mass-produced cheaply and Stageberg had a tough time figuring out a way to make the dowel-fingers inexpensively. Finally a salesman he knew told him that a case-trim machine used in making bullets during the war was up for sale. Stageberg investigated and bought the machine. The bullet maker now is doing very nicely, turning out millions of fingers for mom’s Monday morning wash.

At the moment, Mr. Stageberg is mass-producing a wire-frame baby bather, the invention of Vic Janikowski, a Minneapolis dry-cleaner. When Farmer saw the invention, a canvas-covered wire frame for use in bathtubs and sinks, he promptly dubbed it the Dry Dock.

Another Jackpot hit was Squirly Whirl, brain-child of A. N. Schaffenhausen. Remembering childhood days when he and other kids coasted along the ice on dishpans or garbage-can covers, Schaffenhausen devised his circular metal tub equipped with a brake to stop the tub or make it twirl. For this glorious gimmick, Minneapolis small fry want to elect him their Man of the Year!

Contrary to what most men think, the distaff side is proving pretty inventive too. Recently Mrs. Stella Peterson, a domestic, had to turn inventor to keep her job! A confirmed snorer, Mrs. Peterson has lost more than one position for sawing logs loud enough to wake her employers. So, Mrs. P. invented a simple cloth harness with soft rubber pad which she clamps about her head before going to bed. This rig keeps her mouth gently but firmly shut—hence, no snores! Demonstrated on Idea Jackpot, it caused a deluge of calls from fellow-snorers anxious to become ex-snorers!

Not all of the 100 to 200 ideas submitted to Weston Farmer every week are worth while. Many inventors come to him too late—somebody else beat them to the gadget. Others may be first with the idea but still have to be told that they have a thoroughly dead duck on their hands. One wizard came to Farmer with a purse done up like a football made in all sorts of school colors.

“Very interesting,” says Farmer, “but who wants to carry around a football?”

“You’ve got to invent the things people will want,” he advises. “Home and personal items are best, automotive items next. Seasonal items like ice-fishing houses or novelties based on seasonal manias like football reach limited fans, and only for limited months.

“Plastic gimmicks look cheap to make but actually are the most expensive to tool up for production. An average plastic mold will cost about $1000 per cavity. If you have that kind of dough, then why bother to gamble?

“But there is a natural which is bound to make money. That’s the device which performs a useful function out of all proportion to its initial cost. Take the safety pin as an example. If the function is universal in the needs of mankind and the selling price is six to seven times its price cost (including manufacturing, overhead, commissions, etc.), you can rate the item as a winner.”

Here’s Farmer’s ABC for inventors:
“A—Have an idea that is new and protectable by patent or trade name. Don’t waste time doping out something lots of people— a mass market—won’t want.

“B—Make a model and work all the manufacturing bugs out of it. Be sure you have firm prices from reputable manufacturers.

“C—Get out a pilot model and sell some of them.

“With bona fide sales, you have a business. Businesses are easy to finance but even a supersalesman would have a hard time selling just a raw idea.”

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