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Don Yarber Don Yarber
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How to think like an inventor

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See you on Shark Tank !

How to think like an Inventor

A lot of books have been published about inventions and inventors.  The popular TV show Shark Tank has made people think a little more than they used to about how inventions come about, how to get them marketed and, of course, how much money can be made by inventing something.

Inventions aren’t often turned into money overnight.  The guy that invented the “delay” windshield wiper waited 20 some years as courts battled over his patent rights.  I’m not sure that he has ever collected a dime.  The man who invented the laser has had patent battles, as well as the microwave inventor.  There’s more than a dozen books out there that tell about inventors who were put out of business by the “oil monopoly people” by the “automobile people” and others.  Some of these books may be valid.  This isn’t about inventions, patents or marketing in that respect.  This is about how the ideas for inventions happen.

Everyone has heard that necessity is the mother of invention.  Let’s look at that word necessity for a second.  What does it mean?  

Necessity: n…-sµs“¹-t¶) n., pl. ne•ces•si•ties. 1.a. The condition or quality of being necessary. b. Something necessary. 2.a. Something dictated by invariable physical laws. b. The force exerted by circumstance. 3. The state or fact of being in need. 4. Pressing or urgent need, especially that arising from poverty. --idiom. of necessity. As an inevitable consequence; necessarily.

I think that the 4th definition is probably the most appropriate in discussing ideas for inventions, and how they occur.

Pressing or urgent need.  

The true success of any idea depends on the need.  If there were not needs for cell phones, the cell phone would never have been invented.  If there were not needs for computers, computers would not have been invented.  Mankind has needed things since the beginning of time.  Fire (or the control of fire) was probably the first major invention.  Some cave man saw lightning hit a tree and the tree burned.  The cave man felt the heat radiating off of the burning tree and thought, “mmm me can keep warm in cave if me take burning tree”.  So he picked up the burning limbs and took them to his cave.  After a while the fire went out as the limbs were consumed by the fire, so the cave man realized that he would have to add more limbs before the fire went out.  That was part two of the invention of control of fire.

Often an invention is not the first use of an object.  Computers were built to store and retrieve data.  A secondary invention was to join Facebook.  (Or maybe the 1000th invention relating to computers, I don’t know.)  The point is that inventions do not have to be original thoughts.  It helps if you are the first person in the world to invent something.  Lets say that you come up with the first teleportation machine.  You patent it.  You charge people to teleport their packages from New York to Los Angeles.  You had the orginal thought, you acted on it, and the rewards of that thought should rightfully be yours.  Right?

You would think so.  Patent laws are not always cut and dried.  There are loop holes that have been used to bypass the system, although it is getting harder to “crack” a patent.  American lawmakers saw the need for inventions for many reasons, primarily to boost the economy.  Today’s  lawmakers have made it easier to protect one’s invention by passing laws governing “disclosures”.  

The important thing to remember, however, is that first comes the idea, second the invention.  So how do you come up with an idea?  

That’s where thinking like an inventor comes in.  Recently I hitched a trailer to my truck using a Reese trailer hitch. The receptor on the trailer was for a two inch ball and the ball on my Reese hitch was a 1 and 7/8 ball.  That left 1/8 of an inch “play” all around the ball.  It isn’t important what I hauled in the trailer, but I could hear the “play” and the trailer didn’t tow smoothly like it would have if I had changed the ball to a 2” ball.  So I had an idea.  Why not make a receptor that would accommodate ALL ball sizes?  When my work with the trailer was finished, I came back to my home, got a pencil and paper and started sketching ways to build a receptor that would work regardless of the ball size, and make a good, solid connection.

I found a need and I had an idea.  Ideas, then are the children of necessity, not inventions.  Inventions come later.  Inventions are the byproducts of ideas.  

Every day, almost every adult person in this country has an idea.  Something you are doing during the day will make you have a thought and the thought will be something like this:

“What if they made this widget this way, that would make it work with this gadget this way, and I wouldn’t have to do it that way.”

That is the birth of an idea, and the grandfather of an invention.  America needs inventors.  Someone sells the invention in his store.  A salesman is needed to sell the invention.  (Along with many other products, of course.)  You get the idea.  For every widget that sells many people may be directly or indirectly employed.  So inventions are the lifeblood of our economy.  It would behoove lawmakers to make it as easy as possible and with the shortest duration of time possible to turn an idea into an invention and thus to the market.  

Yet the average patent takes about $5000 and four years to get.

In 2010 more than 219,000 patents were granted.  The number of patents granted, however, may be obfuscated by the fact that a lot of the ones granted were “bad” patents, ones that may fall under challenge.  The U.S. Patent Secretary demanded that the Patent Office reduce the backlog of patents applied for, and as a result more patents were granted in 2010 than in any year in the Patent Office history, but not all of them were “good” patents.  With today’s technology and data retrieval methods, there is absolutely no excuse for the Patent Office to issue a “bad” patent.  Either something is “original” or has added to the purpose of the “original” patent.  That’s it.

If an item requires very little tooling and “set up” work, can be made from readily available materials and has a valid market, it is sometimes better for an inventor to license the idea without going to all of the expense and delay to patent it.  Lets say you have an idea for a “new” bowstring that eliminates the snap when an arrow is released.  You have the idea, you know it works.  Get a bow maker to sign a non-disclosure agreement, tell them about the idea, and let them get the patent.  Just make sure you have a license agreement with them that pays you a royalty of some sort on every “new” bowstring sold.  If you’ve watched the Shark Tank show, you’ll understand a little about the licensing effort.

How do you get ideas?  Sitting in your chair, reading this article, look around you.  There are bookshelves on my wall.  They are attached to the wall with brackets.  The brackets are attached by screws through the drywall.  Someone invented the screw with two little spring loaded arms.  When you push the arms through a hole in the drywall, the spring opens them and you can then tighten the screw down which draws the arms up against the inside of the drywall, spreading out the weight.  That holds the bracket, the bracket holds the shelf.  Is there an easier, more economical way to do that task?  Think about it.  You may have an idea.

I suffer from a bad back and often have to rely on my inversion table to let my back relax enough so that nerves are not pinched between my spinal chord discs.  The inversion table that I have is an Iron Man table.  It has some very distinctive features.  All of these features started with an idea.  If I can think of an idea that makes this inversion table easier to operate, cheaper to build (without sacrificing safety) or more suited to the task it is designed to do, I can go directly to Iron Man manufacturers and negotiate for sale of my idea.  I don’t need a patent, just a non-disclosure agreement with an in perpetuity clause that prohibits Iron Man from using my idea without my permission.  (In perpetuity means FOREVER).  That would be found in the agreement under DURATION OF AGREEMENT.  The major problem is that you may be asked to reveal the details of your idea before the company you are visiting is willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  Someone in their employ may have already had the same idea that you are trying to sell.  

A friend of mine had an idea to increase the production of chickens in chicken raising houses by as much as 20% without building new houses.   I helped him design the “show and tell” items and drew up a non-disclosure agreement.  We took the idea to Tyson  in Arkansas and they were willing to sign the agreement with a duration of agreement clause of one year.  That agreement has long since expired and Tyson is now free to use my friend’s idea without any compensation.  It was a risk my friend was willing to take to get his idea to the right people.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I keep looking around my room.  On my desk is a package with two LED lights enclosed in small plastic cases with spring loaded clips that would allow the lights to be attached to the bill of a hunters cap.  Someone had to have that idea.  It just didn’t fall out of the sky.

On one wall I have a wire contraption that holds a harmonica.  The contraption is designed to fit over my head so that I can play my guitar and my harmonica simultaneously.  Someone had to think of that.  I didn’t, but someone did.  Ideas are free.  All that is necessary to have an idea is to find a need and think of a way to fill it.  That is Yankee ingenuity.   That is inventing!

As you go about your daily tasks, keep your mind thinking.  I wouldn’t suggest that you run to your boss every time you think of an easier way to do something, he may think you are too lazy to do it his way.  A lot of very useful suggestions have never been turned into ideas or inventions because some bosses feel that their way has been carefully planned, studied, and implemented over a period of years, and they do not want or welcome suggestions.  Other companies have suggestion plans and boxes and forms for employees.  I remember suggesting something that tripled the storage capacity of a warehouse.  It was a simple idea that I wrote up and drew pictures and turned in.  I got paid for it.  The amount of money that I got was no where near commiserate with the amount of money the suggestion saved annually as the company’s suggestion plan outlined, but it was something.  Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  And, too, it let my supervisors know that I was not just a run-of-the-mill employee, but one who could think on my feet.

Another suggestion for being able to think like an inventor is to go to your local library, or look on the internet, for a book on home improvement and being a “handyman”.  Most books will give you very precise ways of doing almost anything you need to do around the house.  But if you read through it, you will find that may of the ideas have become obsolete.  The methods for doing some things have changed because of someone’s new idea.  I’ve got a five volume set of books on the shelf published by Popular Science.  I’ve had them for years.  Some of the things in those books are outdated by new inventions.  If I think of an idea while skimming through the books, I write it down.  My idea may show up in the next five volume set of Popular Science encyclopedias.  

Ideas do not necessarily have to be about physical items.  An idea could be a plot for a new TV series, a book, or just an idea for your summer vacation.  Write it down.  Pat Riley, former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, used the word threepeat while talking about repeating a championship three times.  He was smart enough to get a copyright on the word, and now every time a sports announcer uses the word threepeat, Pat gets some money.  I have no idea how much he has collected since he invented the word, but I would take it, whatever sum it is.

Inventions are the children of necessity.  Necessity is the mother of invention.  Think about it.  Invent something today.  Who knows?  Maybe we will see you on Shark Tank in a few months!

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