Yankee tinker; Finger Maids, Bed Readers, and Safety-Sets help others while helping John Adams

John F. Adams is an independent-minded young inventor who is finally beginning to make it in Massachusetts on a shoestring, a rubber glove, a gold-plated mousetrap, and his own homespun philosophy.

''I would much rather be broke and be learning how to live right, than wealthy and not know.'' he says. ''Life, somehow, has a way of helping you along with the money if you've got the right ideas. I don't say I have the answers. But it's important to think about them. Anybody can do that. You don't have to be rich to investigate better life styles.''

What makes J. Adams so different from most inventors, who sell their ideas, is that he runs his own show. He is the sole manufacturer and marketer of his inventions. He never sells his ideas; he patents them. In business for only 11 years, he has been granted eight patents - all he has applied for. He owns all the stock in his company. (''A president is an employee unless he owns all the stock,'' he says.) He has no other source of income. He is his own canny financier.

Profit, he says, is not his basic motivation. He likes to help people. Inventions are his way of doing it.

The problem-solving theory on which he operates is adroitly simple: Recognize the shortcomings in what you are designing. Try to lick them. Then proceed to the next step. If you are doing something wrong, have the humility to change direction, get on the right path, and then see the results.

''I think this common philosophy underlies a lot of life,'' he says. ''If you apply it over and over again to every phase of invention, you can solve problems.''

As a boy, Adams was always inventing things - a new kind of saw, a slingshot. His father, Ralph Adams, a well-known surgeon who invented a number of things himself, including afilter mask used by surgeons, inspired in his son the desire to solve mechanical problems and make a contribution to the world. ''My father always said, 'when you go camping, always leave more wood in the woodpile than you found.' ''

While at Harvard, Adams reasoned that if he was going to become ''an inventor of things and better ways of thinking,'' he would have to have substantial financial backing. The best way to get that, he figured, was to play the stock market. He was wrong. He lost his inheritance in commodities and graduated in 1969 broke. ''But that was all right,'' he says, smiling philosophically. ''It guaranteed me a genuine American experience.''

That summer he began his American experience by going West and prospecting for gold. When his pittance of diggings was filched, that settled it. Then he really had to start from scratch.

He founded his company in 1970 with a patented Bed Reader that enables a person to lie flat on his back and read looking straight up with his hands free.

''When you read in bed you're reading in the most relaxed way possible,'' Adams contends. ''Your mind is free to concentrate on what you are absorbing from the page. It's possible to read until really late hours. Of course, it's also possible to fall asleep. But if you drop off with a book propped up on my reader, you wake up and the book is right where you left off. It works either way.''

In 1975 the inventor incorporated as Aparco Inc., short for Adams Products & Research Company, a title deliberately designed to give him ''plenty of room to grow in.''

Today John Adams's business life style defies all norms. The world has barely begun to find the path to his door. One reason for the delay may be that there is no name on it. He just hasn't gotten around to putting it up.

It may have been his rock-bottom start or his frugal Yankee upbringing or both. But something has uncovered in him a genius for eliminating expense.

Take, for example, his rent for manufacturing space in a South Boston warehouse loft. By an ingenious arrangement that typifies his creatively economical approach to all his life problems, it costs him absolutely nothing. He sublets one-third of the fourth floor from what he refers to as the ''formal tenant,'' the Boston Mailing Company. ''This works out well,'' he explains. ''They get the use of a machine shop without charge. I have the use of their letter shop for my mailings. They use my United Parcel Service daily pickup service, and I use their trash collection.''

Adams then writes off his part of the rent by letting his identical twin live there. For Frank it provides an inexpensive if not luxurious rental near Boston's high-rent downtown district, where he works.

Adams has discovered that a good way for an inventor to succeed is to develop a little line of items, like housewares or travel. He calls his products, ''daily living aids.''

He has learned how to add new inventions to his product line that cost him practically nothing extra to manufacture. His group of reading aids is an example. After inventing the Bed Reader, he used the same tools and materials (aluminum tubing and Plexiglas) to produce two more patented items: his Book Maid, a device that holds a book for a person to read sitting up in bed, in an arm chair, or a wheelchair; and his Bathtub Reader, a book rack that hooks over the side of a tub.

He is now in the process of launching a nationwide distribution system for his products, which he latched onto with no financial outlay whatever. He has simply lined up the services of manufacturers' representatives who operate on a commission basis. He also has been fortunate to obtain the services of a highly experienced marketing manager who also works on a commission basis.

Adams's approach to invention is as unorthodox as his business methodology. The way many corporations introduce new products is to determine by a survey where some lucrative market exists. Then they try to invent an item that will bring a sure-fire profit.

''My bent,'' Adams says, ''is to work on problems that my friends have. I would rather find a problem that people have and solve it, and then try to reach other people who have that same problem.''

His Finger Maid is an example. His mother and his wife, Bonnie, complained that they were forever grating their fingers along with cheese and other shreddables. They also complained about what metal scouring pads did to their manicures. John went right down to his cellar and started experimenting.

As Adams hated doing dishes himself, he designed an electrically driven scrubber. Its centrifugal action shot water all over the place. So he modified it to operate back and forth on a piston.But after questioning a lot of other women on their needs, he returned to human power and in 1977 came up with an extraordinary-looking gloveless rubber glove - a flat disk of tough yellow rubber into which are sunken five stubby finger cups that just cover the fingertips and first knuckles. Finger Maid solved both grating and scrubbing problems. It retails for under $2.

It has since proved handy for opening jars, twisting off bottle caps, and protecting fingers in all sorts of tricky jobs: slicing onions, sanding and woodworking, applying shoe polish, gardening. It even doubles as a sinktop holder for those prickly metal scouring pads.

Mr. Adams speaks affectionately of this item. ''A product is like a kid, in a way. You marvel at what it does on its own. I found out that yachtsmen are using this now to apply oil to their teakwood.''

So far, the father of Finger Maid has sold about 250,000 of his offspring. Half have been marketed in gourmet shops as finger aids for grating. The rest have sold as pot scrubbers. Now Finger Maid may be headed for the mass market. One national food chain has agreed to make it available to its 2,400 stores if Aparco can find another supermarket chain that will do the same.

Interviewing John Adams is different from interviewing your usual businessman ensconsed in deeply carpeted, lushly appointed high-rise quarters. Adams's office, if you could call it that, shows the Spartan simplicity that characterized the living style of his pioneer forebears, the original Adamses of Massachusetts, including the two Presidents.

His 6-foot-by-8-foot cubicle is set off from the rest of the shop by open metal shelves stacked with reference books and other literature. This provides a certain degree of visual privacy. But the rhythmic thebum! thebum! thebum! of the mailing house and machine shop impinge on the ear.

As one takes a seat in one of those folding chairs with wooden slats for back and seat that have been around for a century or more, one's right elbow rests on a card table, beside which rises a four-drawer filing cabinet. By stretching only slightly, one's left elbow could easily rest on the sole remaining piece of furniture, a neatly made-up Hollywood bed (Frank's, no doubt) that occupies the other half of the - shall we call it a room? At the foot of the bed, hooked into the shelving, is an Aparco Bed Reader holding a Toulouse-Lautrec print.

This unconventional setup fits neatly into Adams's overall philosophy. He is not ashamed to take a catnap during office hours. ''I just casually lie on it.'' he explains. ''Napoleon believed in doing a lot of work in bed,'' he notes.

''I believe in a cyclical approach,'' he continues. ''You go at something until you get stumped. Then you go on to the next thing. You don't give up the first thing, but you come back to it - maybe a few hours later, maybe a few years later - but you come back to it from a refreshed, enhanced perspective.

''The trick is staying with something as long as it makes sense to, going on to something else, but never giving up on that first thing. You don't cut out on things, but you allow growth to happen. Stopping your direct participation for a while is not the same thing as cutting out.''

''What is happening is that as you are moving ahead you are making a circle at the same time, so you are actually forming a spiral. The straightforward motion of a car or airplane is produced through circular motion. The wheel goes around over and over again causing forward motion. In a jet, it's the turbines going around and around.

''The Bed Reader illustrates how the inventor applies his knock-off-for-a-while, over-and-over-again philosophy. As fullback on his prep-school football team, he was once laid up flat on his back in bed for a period. He wanted to read and couldn't. So when he was in college he decided to solve that problem for others. He designed a product but it didn't work. ''Then, after 18 different models I arrived at a good bed-reading device.

''The first model stayed dormant for about three years. A woman in a hospital wanted to read her Bible and ordered my Bed Reader. But it wasn't right for her because she wanted to sit up in bed and in a wheelchair. So I went back to this early model and changed the design into what she needed.

''Now this Book Maid is the most popular of my home-care items and it cost me nothing extra to produce. I already had the inventory and tools and I had the philosophy to use my previous experience.''

By using another of his tricks - flipping through the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory and using his imagination - he realized he could also market this item as a music stand, art easel, cookbook holder, and portable lectern.

His luggage carrier, the hand-drawn kind airline stewardesses use, exemplifies even better Adams's tenacious capacity to hang in there. He's worked at it on and off for 10 years now, produced 38 models, put 20 of them on the market, sold 8,000, and has been granted three patents in the process.

Time after time his Bag Toter was beaten out by cheaper products that foreign companies sold for less money than it cost him to buy the raw materials.

Now he is using another ploy - market segmentation. Instead of trying to corner the whole market, he's just trying to stake out one corner of it. He has designed a suitcase carrier that is one-third the weight and about one-fifth the size of any other on the market. Selling for about $50, it is for the person who wants a good quality unit that will fold up and fit into an attache case. Several big-name retailers are showing an interest in taking his Bag Toter on board.

Adams particularly likes to invent things like his reading aids and Finger Maid that add to the world items that never before existed. But occasionally he takes on something pedestrian that thousands of others have kicked around, such as the mousetrap. Someone brought him an idea for a trap and asked him to develop and perfect it. John soon found that the idea was flawed in more ways than one.

Applying his over-and-over-again process, he made 150 experiments before he developed his own original design that may become the Rolls-Royce of mousetraps. Molded of chartreuse plastic, it is, he claims, safer and easier to set than other traps and, unlike most, is reusable.

Using his standard technique for mushrooming his sales, he has found an alternative use for Safety-Set Mousetrap. By gold-plating it and mounting it on a polished mahogany base, he plans to market it as an executive paper clip.

Staggering as it may seem, had he bought all the machinery needed to manufacture a little thing like a mousetrap, it would have cost him a quarter of a million dollars.But to squander money that way would have run against Adams's grain. So far he has only spent $3,000 of his own cash on the item.

He simply designed some special tools that piggyback onto big, expensive machines such as injection molders, wire benders, etc., and subcontracts out to various manufacturers who have such machinery. Then he assembles the parts to make his trap.

''Their staffs run the machines and I get a guaranteed mass-produced price for the item and have no labor or production problems. This gives me a price competitive with anybody in the world because I'm getting high volume and am only paying my share of the overhead on the machines when they are producing my parts.''

Even so, he needed about $40,000 in stages to go into production. Instead of selling stock to raise money, he financed the first $23,000 by offering investors of a cent per trap sold for every $1,000 invested. The arrangement expires when the investor has made back 100 times his investment, or when the patent runs out.

Two years ago, says Adams, there was a worldwide shortage of mousetraps. Suddenly, several other companies sprang into the void unexpectedly. So far only a few hundred of his traps have been sold, and Safety-Set is just breaking even financially. Adams is treading cautiously in a volatile market. He won't raise the remainder of his production money until he knows there are no bugs in his trap and demand warrants further investment. But once the gadget shifts into volume production, he hopes to sell a million a year.

If the trap isn't a howling success, most of Aparco's investors still won't lose. ''I have agreed,'' he says, ''to give them their money back.''

In the inventing business, the big trick is to get your clients to pay you before you have to pay your suppliers. According to Adams, ''If it weren't for the financial nightmare - you are constantly worrying about people calling you up and hassling you about money - inventing would be a great thing for a lot of people.''

What Adams calls ''the Edison factor'' - the possibility of sudden fame and fortune - makes inventing a romantic profession in the public mind. But he testifies to the ''harsh realities of the marketplace.''

''The tensions on an inventor and the need to develop into a pretty flexible and psychologically sophisticated person with a minimum of major errors is pretty rugged. I don't think society is making the right choice by demanding such perfection of character and stoicism as a precursor to victory. It eliminates most people.''

John Adams chose this life, enjoys it, and wouldn't be doing anything else. But make no mistake, he warns would-be full-time inventors (not just weekend tinkerers): The early stages of inventing can be very hard financially. It has taken Adams 11 years to get to the point where he is making enough money for things to be running smoothly.

''Yet there are tremendous riches as well that come out of this,'' he says. ''It is fun to to get orders from around the country and the world and to fill them and know that the people are happy with the stuff. It's a basis for growth , for my own growth and the growth of the company. It's a beginning. I can expand on it.''

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