Better mousetrap builders
How small-time inventors - alone or in clubs - make widgets for fun (and maybe a profit).
Mothers of invention have turned up here at the Yankee Invention Exposition in the old Armory. So too have some fathers and grandfathers, and not a few offbeat uncles and aunts.Skip to next paragraph
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They watch for corporate product scouts, venture capitalists, anyone who'll inspect the whiz-bang widgets they have lovingly contrived. Joe and Melissa Sugameli, from Roseville, Mich., show their "Lil' Sleepy Head" restraint, meant to keep babies from slumping in car seats. Tom Knightlinger, from Zebulon, N.C., touts a tiny "Popabrella" that can keep a camera dry. Octogenarian R.P. "Lux" Wilkinson, from Ardmore, Okla., offers fraud-busting checks with photo identification imprinted in their corners.
Mr. Wilkinson is a consulting petrologist by trade. "If you need a drillin' deal," he drawls, "I've got one of those, too."
Meet today's would-be Edisons, the best of whom might land their work on store shelves and in late-night infomercials. America - culture of invention - celebrates these endearingly earnest characters. USA Network's new reality show "Made in the USA" stages inventor competitions, awarding winners with a year on the Home Shopping Network. Jay Leno sent a camera crew to Waterbury last week.
But at its heart this is a participatory game. Some weekend inventors fly solo. Many others now join inventor clubs to share lessons and tactics, gaining group-rate access to patent services. Surprisingly - in what one might imagine is an inherently secretive world - many even talk over specific ideas with peers, and the ideas flow.
Last year the US Patent and Trademark Office granted more than 164,000 "utility" patents - patents for inventions, as opposed to designs and processes. Most went to the IBMs and Matsushitas of the world; the US government scored 800-plus. But more than 16,500 went to small, private inventors. A patent is no guarantee of marketplace success. Simplicity helps. That's reflected in the Waterbury array: a golf-tee dispenser, a fishing-pole holster, a hat with a pocket, a wrist-wrapping cellphone sleeve. "Those types of inventions tend to have a greater chance of being successful than something that you've got to convince Boeing to do," says Stephen Nipper, a patent attorney with Dykas, Shaver & Nipper in Boise, Idaho. "[The best is] something you can make in your garage, then sell or license to somebody who can get it into Wal-Mart."