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Besides a Great Idea, an Inventor Can Use a Patent on Patience

Clever gadgets are the products not just of imagination but also of elusive financing

October 01, 2002|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in 1983, John Picone had an inventive idea. If the electric screwdriver was such a big hit, why not an electric wrench?

At the time, Picone was working as a machinist, a major plus in creating gizmos from scratch. Armed with his metalworking skills, he set to work building the world's first electrically powered adjustable wrench. By 1985, he had the wrench and the patent to go with it.

And therein lies one of the more vexing aspects of invention. When Picone, of Oceanside, N.Y., conceived his wrench idea, he was a young man. Only now, after almost 20 years of failed efforts to attract funding, is his dream of marketing it coming true.

His big break came when his wrench was the 1999 grand prize winner of Hammacher Schlemmer's Search for Invention contest, which netted him a cool $5,000 and enough buzz about his product to allow him to move forward and attract financing for his own manufacturing facility. His prototype was a hit at a recent national hardware convention. "I could have sold a thousand of them," said Picone of his $39.99 wrench, which grips a bolt with the flick of a battery-powered switch.

The wrench will soon be an item in the famed Hammacher Schlemmer catalog--the oldest in the United States and one that specializes in high-end gadgetry.

Picone's long road to recognition is nothing new. In fact, for inventors it's the norm. Lawrence Udell, the director of the California Invention Center, said that less than 3% of all patents issued earn more money than is spent on development--a figure that can range from a few hundred dollars to millions. And he also said most amateur inventors haven't a clue about how hard it is to move from idea to market. That includes everything from building prototype molds, obtaining patents, finding a manufacturer and, finally, putting the invention on the market.

"I try to discourage more than encourage," said Udell, whose invention center was founded in 1995 at Cal State Hayward. "They think all they've got to do is file for a patent and the world beats a path to their door."

Still, the idea of inventing the next must-have gadget is alluring, hence the popularity of the 9-year-old Hammacher Schlemmer contest. Even with its stringent entry rules, which include already having obtained a patent, the contest has attracted more than 200 entrants this year, with inventions ranging from Space Age pool heaters to global positioning pet trackers.

The catalog company, which has been around for more than 150 years, prides itself on having introduced the first pop-up toaster, electric razor, steam iron, microwave oven and cordless telephone, among other now-common appliances. The winners of this year's contest will be announced Oct. 29 at the company's Chicago store.

"I wish more companies did it," said Joanne Hayes-Rines, the editor of Inventors' Digest, who said the Hammacher Schlemmer contest is a way to spotlight ingenious creations that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Take, for instance, the mashed-potato maker by Carmina O'Connor that was a finalist in last year's contest. She actually went to several stores looking for such a machine before finally realizing that one did not exist. So she decided to make one herself, using parts from other appliances she already owned. Once she concocted a design, albeit a crude one, that would cook and mash (but not peel) potatoes she applied for and received a patent on her machine. That might have been the end of the story were it not for the contest. O'Connor, of Chicago, submitted her idea to Hammacher Schlemmer after receiving a flier in the mail inviting her to enter the invention contest.

When informed she was a semifinalist, she and her sister-in-law stayed up all night piecing together the prototype with a glue gun. Now the potato masher--looking like a cross between a bread machine and a Cuisinart--is in the hands of an engineering company, which is putting together a machine that, with luck, should be on the market in about a year.

"It would be great if we could get it out in time for next Thanksgiving," she said.

One thing about inventors, there are lots of them. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has more than 6 million patents on file. The first U.S. patent ever granted, in 1790, was for potash, an ingredient in fertilizer and soap. In 1999, Patent No. 6,000,000 was granted for the technology used to transfer data from computers to Palm Pilots. Last year, more than 350,000 patent applications were filed. There is even an inventor's hall of fame in Akron, Ohio.

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