Running parallel with much of my life was my creation of patents. Our grandfathers in the Midwest used to say land would hold its value, and become worth more as long as it is held because, as grandpa said of land, “They aren’t making any more of it.” However, a patent can be “property” created from someone’s mind. And we can make more of it. If you present it correctly, you can actually own an idea. That’s what I liked about patents. A patent is an idea made into property. However, patents are a mystery world to most people, and thus most people have a foggy notion of what patents are and what they can do.
Everyone gets ideas. It’s the human condition. But it is what you do with an idea that makes it patentable. A lot of people will say of your idea, “you should get a patent on that.” They don’t know that a patent must be expressed with plans that could be made – so probably no engines that run on air. Also, the solution a patent offers must be “unique to the practitioner of the art,” meaning that your air-powered car must impress, even stun, the German automotive engineer who makes minor improvements every day, as part of his (or her) job.
But that doesn’t stop people from creating patents. The other problem is that with the freedom to present ideas in this form, there are a lot of silly-looking patents. The eyeglasses with windshield wipers are a good example, and there are whole magazine articles, even books, full of silly patents from the past. One reason people may not work on a patent idea is the fear of looking silly. However, lucky for us, there are still inventors. There are still the Wright Brothers, who change the world or, equally life changing but unsung, the inventor who patented the electric starters for automobiles. Early on, automobiles needed real muscle to turn the crank to start the engine. Without that patent, taken up immediately by every startup car company, there might be no soccer moms, or at least they would be strong moms indeed.
Possibly inventors start as kids saying “there must be a better way to do this.” I remember at age 10 trying to make wings so I could jump off the roof and fly. My stepfather, I think, talked me into trying it first off a 4 ft high terrace in the back yard. Sure enough, I didn’t fly. At all. I put the wings made of long tree liombs with newspaper over them onto my shoulders and ran as hard as I could across the terrace and leapt into the air hoping for the air to lift me. No lift, all crash. Luckily I did not try this first from the roof. The principle I should have learned was “simulate your invention first to see if it works in a smaller scale.” It took me twice to learn it. The second time was a truly innovative invention at age 12.
If I had known about patents at age 12, I should have patented my automobile one in I954. We were racing soap box type cars down a neighborhood hill in Seattle. These are not the kind of piddly, wimpy hills the Official Soap Box Derby is run on, somewhere in Indiana where they have never seen a hill. Seattle has real hills and this one dropped about 600 feet in elevation over about a half mile. It was known in our family as the “Pig Hill” because some new homes we looked at there, with startling views out over the water and the mountains, were advertised in a “3 little Pigs” take off, for some reason.
Anyway, the Pig Hill was more than challenging. It was a Soap Box crucible. The Pig Hill was so steep some cars could not get all the way up it, and had to take a less-steep detour. Such was suburban South Seattle in the 1950s. So when the kids in the neighborhood decided to build Soap Box cars, and actually started racing down it, the decreasing hairpin curves destroyed most of the cars within a few minutes. It was pure chaos rumbling downward at 40 miles per hour. Wipeouts were the total rule. No one even made it halfway down. Some of the kids went right through leather shoes trying to hold them on the road, and cars skidded out right and left and kids went home with concrete gashes on their arms and legs and gravel and dust from the roadside skidouts.
I thought “there must be a better way to do this.” There had to be. And behold, a 12 year old’s Eureka. I had also been learning to roller skate backward (on flatter pavement) and noticed that the good skaters did it by pointing one skate outward and then point the other one away in the opposite direction. When both skates were on the ground they formed an arc – part of a circle, and you would turn around backward with no loss of momentum. I never became much of a skater, but I was much impressed with this physical/geometric principle that skaters all use.
It seemed to me that if I could get the front wheels of the car to point in one direction, and the back wheels in a broadly different direction, you could make those arcs out of the front and back wheels. The left turn would then make a small inside arc with the left front and back wheels, and the right wheels would then make a much larger – stabilizing – arc on the right side. But how to make these all work together when you turned the steering wheel?
That was second part of the true Eureka. No steering wheel at all. The most primitive of my friends cars just had a front axle on a 2×4 that pivoted on a front bolt, and they had ropes back from the ends of that axle that they held in their hands while pushing with their right or left leg to steer. That is why my Eureka worked so intuitively, and the first time. The Eureka plan was to build the back axle bar also on a pivot, and then make the two axle-bars connect in a way that the front steering would instantly align the back wheels to make the perfect turning arc — all part of one motion.
Unfortunately, if I just tied the two pivoting axles together, they would not make a turn at all but go skewing off obliquely to the side of the road. But AHA…if they were not tied at all, but if the pivoting front axle was allow to “drive” the pivoting back axle making an “X” underneath (which I created with long lathes I bolted to the ends of the two axle bars, then: AHA –when you steered to the left that “X” structure would pull the left back wheel into an arc with the left front wheel you were steering….and the right back wheel was pushed into a wider arc with the right back wheel. When you steered to the right, the whole system made perfect right turn. And I mean perfect…no skidding nothing, just taking that turn at full speed and holding the road like it was on a rail. I tried it on a few small hills near my house and it was perfect. I couldn’t wait to show it to the other kids.
We gathered after school on next Wednesday when the Pig Hill road was pretty clear before people came home from work. Denver Carney laughed at this silly piece of work. Larry Leview said it was no different that his front end pivot car. We couldn’t jaw much because we could only get in one run before the afternoon traffic, because we had to pull these heavy things half a mile up the Pig Hill for each run. Mike Dawson had no car, and no desire to ride along, so he started us.
The other guys roared out, running along and hopping aboard their cars. They were way ahead as I tried to keep from over steering this perfect system. Within a few minutes Denver spun out right over the edge of the road into someone’s flower bed below. He was done. Larry was a great driver, and artfully skidded through the curves on the outside gravel. Other kids were crashing because their wheels could not take the edgewise gravity.
Cars were littered like wrecking yards down the Pig Hill. Larry was still ahead of me, but he lost a little on every skidout – and I lost nothing. I lost no speed and Iost no traction. I gathered speed and built speed and shot past Larry LeView on the inside as he skidded outward again. It was a helpless look on his face. The best racer totally defeated. They all watched from above as I took every turn, building speed and never skidding out, flying down the hill, never losing a second, never missing a perfect turn, losing absolutely nothing…until it lost me.
If I had put on a seat belt I might have had a land speed record for Soap Box cars. But I hadn’t thought that success might just kill me. On a decreasing hairpin about two thirds of the way down, the tires held the road perfectly, and the car kept all traction perfectly….and it threw my little body about 30 feet through the air, luckily into a large blackberry bush. I was bloody from the thorns and purple from the berries and it took me 10 minutes to climb out. All the kids were waiting. They were laughing at me, quite glad that my invention had proved to be foolish rather than brilliant.
Larry LeView went cruising by to the finish line. But he was not laughing. He knew what he had seen. He never spoke to me again, and his family moved away soon. I wonder if Larry was watching a Grand Prix race on Wide World of Sports twenty years later, when the design engineer on the winning car said they had pioneered tilting the wheels in the turns so they made arcs, and lost very little speed.
I didn’t make another invention for another twenty five years, but after hearing the Grand Prix engineer talk about his invention, I started to feel again that I could make a difference with my ideas. Heart attacks were the major cause of early death in America. Cardiopulmonary Rescuscitation, applied in the street within a few minutes of the attack could save the person’s heart and perhaps more importantly, their brain function. In a Gallup poll 70% of the respondents wanted to learn CPR.
A comprehensive solution could mean millions of lifesavers on city street corners, but the training outreach was expensive and time-consuming and volunteer instructors burned out after 4 or 5 sessions with 10 people each time. This was no way now to reach millions, and there did not seem to be any easy answers. It had been 25 years since I had said as a young boy, “there must be a better way to do this.” Now I was the National Training Manager for the American Heart Association. That was when I said again, “there must be a better way to do this.”
My invention career from there on — started late at about age 35 with no prior training or experience — led me into roads of computer programming, sensor technology, micro-ship design, technical writing, salesmanship, politics, nation-wide public speaking, a little fame, a small business that lasted 14 years — and often cat calls from unbelievers, and occasionally, utter despair.