Any shopper who's tried juggling a grocery list, a pencil, discount coupons, and pocket calculator will know why Armand Rheault came up with his "Shopping Secretary." He says the way to free the cluttered shopper came to him out of a clear black sky one night when he was driving home: a clipboard fastened onto the handle of the shopping cart to hold all these items. "It's a very simple thing. There's nothing really new, it's just an arrangement of existing things."
Peter Frangos got his idea for a new type of book safety matches with a concealed striking surface, after reading an article about the dangers of children playing with matches.
"[The boxes are] primarily designed to make it hard for children to figure out how to use them, and to avoid scattering sparks," says his son, Bill, adding that he and his father are now talking with manufacturers about producing the matchboxes on a large scale.
Arnold Gould, chemical engineer and Frisbee enthusiast, designed a chemical light to fit inside a Frisbee and make it possible to play at night. He's hoping the light will be even more popular than another of his inventions -- a pocket sundial and compass which he says has proved to be a real moneymaker.
"I was really interested in clocks and watches, and someone commissioned me to do a big sundial. So I said 'Sure.' In researching sundials I found out that the first portable timepieces back around 1500 were sundial-type things. That was the neatest idea I'd heard in a long time. Then, being an engineer, I figured, I'd update them and get them really modern, and nice and accurate. I make a couple, and all my friends said, 'Gee, can I buy one?' So I decided to get serious about it."
Mr. Gould and the others were among 40 exhibitors at the second annual "Inventor's Weekend" held recently at the Boston Museum of Science and sponsored by the 275-member Inventors Association of New england (IANE). The purpose of this nonprofit organization is to advance the interests of the independent inventor, and help him bring his invention to fruition.
IANE and the many nationwide inventors' organizations like it, says its president Dorothy Stephenson, provide an alternative to those organizations that promise to take care of all such things as patenting, marketing, etc. for a "modest fee." Such "modest" fees, says Dorothy Stephenson, can run into the thousands of dollars with the inventors getting little, if any, return for their money.
"Instead of charging $2,000, we charge only $15 [to join]," says Ms. Stephenson. "The big difference is that we're a self- help group. It's every man or woman for himself or herself.
"Maybe 60 to 70 percent of our members are inventors," she says. "Another 10 to 15 percent are entrepreneurs -- I happen to be in that category. I would be hard pressed to come up with an invention. Some of our members are patent attorneys, others specialize in financing or marketing. We have members who have small tool and die shops and other types of small manufacturing operations that are helpful if there's prototype work to be done."
Marie Ring, inventor of Flor-D-Cora, a device for holding floral decorations, has belonged to the IANE for two years and has found it a lifesaver, she says. She already had a patent and was selling Flor-D-Cora at garden clubs and fairs when the North Carolina factory that supplied the elastic used in her invention warned her that it had stopped production for several months because of a flood. IANE was able to give her the name of a Masschusetts company that makes the material.
When Dr. Franz Browne moved to a neighborhood where rooftop antennas were not permitted, he sat down and invented a new kind of indoor television antenna. "Since I've joined the Association," he said, I've learned how to participate in various trade shows to get my product before the public. They've helped me by letting me know what contacts I should make and whom to see."
"If you look at the billions of federal dollars spent in research and development, you find that about 3 1/2 percent of it goes to small businesses. But a study by the National Science Foundation showed that 24 percent of the significant innovations that resulted from that money came from those small businesses. It also said that while some innovation was possible only by large companies, the cost of innovation by small companies was half that of the larger companies. In effect, you get a bigger bang for your buck."
She says federal legislation now in committee may help with patent law and capital reform to provide start-up funds for small businesses. In January, a White House small business conference also proposed such measures as tax laws to encourage investment in small high technology firms and increased federal research and development money for small businesses. Perhaps such changes will enable stairCat Incorporated to market the revolutionary new Stair-climbing wheelchair invented several years ago by Malcolm Winsor.
"You can't imagine the joy on a paraplegic's face to be abe to climb stairs when they haven't been able to do so for so long," says company president Norman Van Dine. "I had hoped at this time we'd be making them about 1,000 a year, but we've been held up because of money."
He estimates that $800,000 would be needed to start production.
"We've had orders, but we dan't fill them. People come in to buy them, write out a check for the deposit, and I've had to give the money back saying, 'I'm sorry we can't deliver it right now.' We need help badly, or this'll never be more than an inventor's dream."