EVERY time anybody in the United States pulls the cap of a beer bottle or a soda water bottle with the. intent to quench a thirst, temperately or otherwise, he puts the fraction of a cent into the pocket of one William H. Painter, of Baltimore. A good many people have pulled these caps in the last few years and Painter is consequently an ever increasing millionaire. Yet the cap for bottles is a small thing, an idea crystallized and patented. The patent is the source of the millions. Painter. however, carried his patent in his pocket for six years before he succeeded in interesting capital in its manufacture. Then a man of means advanced the necessary capital in return for a half interest in the patent and a company was formed. At the end of the first year he and Painter each had a net $27,000 in his pocket. Now the invention has crowded all other stoppers for fizzy water of the market and a big factory in Baltimore turns out the caps by the million every day. Before the time of Painter there was a man by the name of De Quillfeldt who lived in New Jersey and who invented a stopper that took the trade away from the corl,s of our youth. This stopper was of rubber and was tightened by a wire attachment which was pulled down as a lever on the .outside of the bottle. A decade ago they were generally used on milk bottles. De Quillfeldt is said to have made $15,000,000 out of his patent. He might have amassed a competence had it not been for William Painter and another equally clever person who ftted a piece of pasteboard into the neck of a milk bottle and took the business away from him. An idea that is perhaps simpler than the pasteboard stopper is the “hump” on the hooks that furnish so much employ'ment for married men just before theater time. Women had been fastening their dresses up with hooks and eyes for a generation and it is probable that some. one had made a lot of money out of the original invention. But hooks had a way of coming unfastened much to the chagrin of the neat and fussy. Then came the genius of the hook and eye. A man who was wide awake despite his residence in Philadelphia, bent one of these hooks, so as to make a hump in it. He tried hooking it up and found that it remained hooked. He patented it and has monopolized the business- through his “see that hump” advertisements ever since. One day a man stood behind his wife while she put up her hair. The hairpins of those days were straight pieces of wire. They did not “stay put” very efectually. The woman in this case bent her hairpins before putting them in. Her husband saw her do it. The result was the invention of the crinkly hairpin which is to-day used in carload lots by the women of the world. So important an invention as the telephone was made by turning a screw one-fourth of one revolutio:. All the millions that have resulted from the invention of the BeIl telephone, depended upon this slight twist of the wrist of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Th·we had been men before Dr. Bell who had come near fnding a way to make female gossip and masculine commercial intercourse easier. The Reis patents came nearest success. But in the Reis patents the current wal intermittent. It had to leap a gap. Dr. Bell closed that gap when he turned the screw. But Dr. Bell W,ts not trying to invent a telephone when he incidentally stumbled upon his secret. He was working on a method of making speech visible, for his wife was deaf and dumb and he was seeking an easy method of conversing with her. Instead he found the method of talking over a wire to people at a distance. He did not patent the idea. however, and it knocked about his house for months. Finally he demonstrated it to some friends and they saw the possibility of its application. Upon their advice he patented the invention. His patent was fled at ten o'clock in the morning and at three in the afternoon another man applied for a patent on the same thing and lost a hundred million dollars by a nose. Such are the stories that the veterans of the Patent Ofce gossip about in the moments of their leisure. They tell you, for instance, of the Selden clutch whi!?h is one of the vital patents that has much to do wIth the control of the automobile business of the country. It is this clutch that enables the operator of the machine to stop and start without having to get out and crank his machine-sometimes. It is interposed between the running gear and the motor, where it keeps the car marking time while the crossing is blockaded. This clutch was invented before automobiles were. For a decade after its invention there was no opportunity of applying it to any good purpose. Then the automobile was invented. In fact George B. Selden was one of the early builders of automobiles and it is logical to suppose that he built them that he might make an opportunity to use his clutch. Certain it is that he long had a clutch on the automobile business. Before his patent was declared invalid about $2,000,000 had been paid by nearly ninety automobile makers, who found it cheaper to pay than to engage in ex pensive litigation. Thaddeus Fairbanks was a New' England farmer with long whiskers and much Yankee ingenuity. In his time old-fashioned steelyards were the only accurate means of weighing the produce of the farm. Platform scales were unknown, for nobody had ever worked out a method of arranging the levers th't supported the platform in such a way that an object would pull <qually no matter upon what part of the platform it rested. Old Thaddeus Fairbanks used to tell the story of the evolution of the arrangement of these levers. For a long time the problem was upon his mind. He used to lie awake nights and attempt to arrange those levers. It was in the dead of night that his thinking fnally bore fruit. The arrangement unfolded itself and the Fairbanks scale was the result. So did a farmer practically monopolize the scale business of the world and so did he write his name upon platform scales wherever civilized man buys and sells by weight. It was a man by the name of Hyman L. Lipm:m, likewise a resident of Philadelphia, who invented the rubber eraser that throughout our generation has been attached to the lead pencils in common use. It was in 1858 that the invention was made. In those times people talked in much smaller fgures than nowadays. Lipman was, however, able to cash in his oatents for a cold hundred thousand dollars when dollars went much farther than they do to-day. So did a man by the name of Heaton, resident of Providence, notice that mother was occasioned a great deal of trouble because the buttons constantly came of the children's shoes. Heaton devised the little metal staple that holds on the shoe buttons of to-day and I'ealized a fortune for his pains. No less clever was a man of the name of Dennison who pasted little rings about the hole in a ship)ing tag and thus made an “eye” that would not pull out. Elias flowe conceived the idea of placing a hole near the point of a needle and under the eneouragerent of this small thought 'was the sewing machine developed. Howe was one of the Colur buses in the development of a machine to sew seams and deserves a monument from the women he emancipated from needle work. When he asked Congress to extend the term of his patent for a short time (one extension had already been granted) he admitted that he had collected $1,185,-000 in royalties. but considered himself entitled to $150,000,000. Howe had many followers who improved the sewing machine. One of the cleverest of these was the man who patented the stitch his machine made instead of the machine itself, and thus made infringements more difcult. Another man, Allan B. “ilson, a journeyman cabinet maker of ,Pittsfield, Mass., who dropped into the ofce of the SCIKNTIFIC A.VEIMOAN in 1849, exhibited the frst model of what has since become known as the four-motion feed. He afterward founded the frm of Wheeler&Wilson and became immensely wealthy. In the SCIENTIFIC AlmcAN of 1849 James C. A. Gibbs saw a picture of WIlson's machine. The working of the device was clear down to the point where the needle perforated the cloth. He wondered what happened after that. Finally he decided to make the needle work. After much thinking and infnite whittling he worked out the ingenious little revolving hook which became the important feature of the Willcox&Gibbs machine and which made that frm wealthy: The man who was born too early to wear, as a boy, red top boots with a brass tip across the toe, was also born too early to feel the true thing in the way of pride run rampant. Silverthorn brass tips, they were called, and they were most serviceable in preventing holes in the toe. Silverthorn made his fortune out of them. There is a palatial mansion up the Hudson with a private yacht moored beneath the Palisades that is a monument to the millions that Adams made in the chewing-gum business. It was in 1871 that chewing gum was patented and millions of willing jaws have wagged industriously upon it ever since. Harry Hardwick invented an ingrain carpet with the threads of it so interwoven as to prevent wrinkling, and Hardwick is now $4,000,000 better of for his pains. A towel manufacturer found that his machinery was not working right and that his towels were sufering a vast tangling of the threads. While adjusting the machine he used one of the damaged towels to dry his hands : He found it pleasingly absorbent, and from the idea to which that gave rise was born the bath towel and a fortune to the patentee. Charles Edward McCarthy was a blind man and lived in South Carolina. He devised a method of attaching mule power to a cotton gin and lived his life out in luxury and ease while the mu1es did the work. The cast iron tombstone is a patented article that is to-day covering the graves of many of the dead and departed. It is efective and economical. It has amassed a fortune for its inventor and proven a solace to the mourning yet undecided survivors of the nation's dead. R. R. Catlin of Washington invented a pattern cat that need but be stufed with hay and sewed up to become a toy. Such fgures as “Billiken” and such games as “Pigs in Clover” are always a fortune to the inventor if they become popular. The rubber return ball made much money both for the inventor and likewise for an infringing manufacturer who fought him in the courts. The brass paper fastener which is still generally HEed for thick documents, was patented in 1867 by a government clerk by the name of G. W. McGill. Yet it was not new, for the Romans used a similar device two thousand years ago and the modern appliance was but a resurrection. The patent for a typewriter lay dormant for half a century in France before it ever came into use. Then a man by the name of Sholes made a machine in this country and caIled it Remington. Another man named Brown made a diferent kind of typewriter and called it the Smith. The patentees immortalized other men by their work. They made millions and also made it lllUCh more pleasant for the editor who has to read copy. The man who invented tin cans made it necessary [or somebody to invent an opener. This was done and the money corralled. A can opener is not a very laborious thing in the using, but the public is always ready to pay for things that are made easi<r. So, just recently, an inventive genius made a can with a seam just below the top and when the owner wants it open he has but to strike it a blow where the seam breaks and the top is of. A single Chicago packer ordered fen millions of these cans as an experiment and others followed suit. The inventor has a fortune, and the thing is but just begun. So does the story of the making of big fortunes out of patents on very small and apparently unimportant things pyramid as one goes into the subject. There is a current belief to the efect that but few of the many patents issued are of any practical value. The writer had occasion recently to look through a series of the issues of the Patent Ofce Gazette and was struck with the number of patents and found that one in three was assigned, this meaning that a third of all patents issued were sold before completed. These patents must be of value or they would not sell. There are others, of course, that are of value that are retained by the patentee. So it would, on this basis, seem reasonable to estimate that half the patents being issued are of value. Many of them are of stupendous value. An estimate of the revenue being to-day received from patents of the United States would be impossible to make but it seems safe to say that many of the great staple crops will have to look to their honors if a census of patent profts is ever taken. Silk Growing in the Philippines THE Philippine Bureau of Science is making a determined efort to introduce the growing of silk in the Philippines, not only for the purpose of increasing the productive possibilities of the islands generally, but also as a means of furnishing silk for use in connection with industries already established. Thus considerable silk is used in the weaving of various forms of the well-known “jusi,” or pineapple-fber cloth, for which the Philippines are famous, and ninety-fve per cent of this silk is now imported from China.
This article was originally published with the title "Big Fortunes in Little Inventions" in Scientific American 105, 21, 450 (November 1911)