My mother-in-law had a fair number of traits that simply got under my skin but one of the lesser ones was telling me from time-to-time when she had an idea for an invention that I should market.
Why she always handed those gem-of-an-ideas off to me mystfied me. She was good at making me look like the jerk in somehow refusing her overtures of benevolent goodness and opportunites to vast wealth. “How about inventing an attachment for the vacuum cleaner to allow you to attach the TV remote controller? I bet you could get rich on that one!” Uh-huh.
Well, she’s dead and I’m living, so I won. But be that as it may, I was always interested in science and gadgets and gimmicks and there were a few instances where I did in fact think of an idea before anyone else put it to market. For example, in the late 60’s while in high school I worked part time for a local power tool manufacturer, WEN Products in Chicago. If you did anything electronic you might recall their name on soldering irons and soldering guns, but they also made drills, saws, buffers and grinders. In the late 60’s the tool manufacturers started moving away from the cast aluminum housings in favor of the safer and less hazardous plastic.. or what they called “double-insulated” products. This made the tools lighter in weight as well.
Well, one day I was doing some tree trimming with my mother, which meant I had to use the manual tree saw in odd positions as I dangled oddly from some ladder against a tree limb. I mentioned to my mother that they (it was always “they”, whoever “they” were) should build an electric chain saw. An electric motor with a typical chain saw blade on it. Mother would of course encourage me to run with it (um.. the idea, not the saw) but, yeah.. fat chance of that at my age. But I did run the idea past my best buddy at the time, Lee. Now, Lee was another more cerebral guy like myself but far more academic in his approach to things. He thought for a moment then said what I had already thought… if it were a practical idea someone would have thought of this already. There were likely issues of torque stresses in cutting through certain limbs and tons of safety issues in using a chain saw with one hand. Oh well.
Then one day at WEN the research guys came up with an electric double-insulated chain saw. Hey, that was MY idea! Ok.. no one will ever believe me. Back to trimming the trees.
Another tree trimming day I was using that long wooden extending tree trimmer.. you know, the one with the rope you pulled that made a scissor-like blade at the top snap through a small limb. Again I told my mother, “They need to put an electric chain saw on the top of these poles rather than doing all this rope pulling and manual effort.” “Oh.. you poor boy. You’re so overworked.”, replied mom. Thanks for the encouragment, Mom. You could have had a rich son if you listened to me that first time!
I went over to Lee’s house and we sat around evaluating that idea. “Can you imagine all the limbs being cut off (not tree limbs) because of some unwieldly chain saw mounted ten feet up a pole?” “What happens when the saw locks onto a limb and stops and the pole gets yanked out of the user’s hands?” “What happens if the chain saw cuts through the electric cord going up that pole?” Oh, well.. another idea bites the dust. About 10 years later I saw an electric chain saw mounted on an aluminum pole at a local K-Mart. Go figger.
Then there was the oil can spout. Back in the 60’s and earlier automotive oil cans were indeed “cans”. You had one of those metal pour spouts with the pointed blade that when rammed down onto the can would puncture the top. The problem with that was if you didn’t need to use a full can of oil there was no lid for safe storing. One day I looked at a metal funnel, and then looked at the top of the oil can, and came up with the idea of making a funnel fit the top of oil cans.. kinda snapping on for a tight seal. You simply used a common puncture-type can opener to make the two triangle holes at the top of the can, and snapped on the funnel. No fuss, no muss, as they would say. Well, by time I graduated high school someone had not only developed a plastic snap-on funnel with a small cap to close the funnel spout, but it came in different colors. Shucks. But those proved too messy to use anyway when the oil can was empty and you had to remove the plastic spout. So then “they” invented the common plastic oil bottle with the formed spout that’s so common today.
Then there was the shopping cart elevated rack idea. Actually that was a team effort between myself and my oldest son. For some school project he had to come up with a new idea and build a prototype. We agreed on the basic idea… using a typical shopping cart we added simply a drop up/down hinged rack that in effect raised the bottom of the cart to just a couple inches from the top. This afforded the elderly and handicapped who had difficulty reaching deep down to the bottom of the cart some ease in placing and grabbing groceries at a raised level. Of course that rack, when not required, could hinge down along one side of the cart to allow for full use of the cart. We “stole” a shopping cart from the local grocery store and built a rudimentary rack, then Steve took the cart to class and got a good grade (we returned the cart after the project). A few years later I was in a mega-grocery store somewhere and there was a variation of that idea in actual use.
Well… as they say, everything in life is all about timing. Just goes to prove that just having an idea will never make you money. That’s the small part of the project. The big job is building your idea and marketing it. And that brings us to capitalism, free market, and being an American in the land of opportunity.
Now if I can just spin yarn into gold….