Where, you might ask, are the country’s best minds? Where is American ingenuity revealed by remarkable inventions, design honed to a fine edge? In large metropolitan areas? New England’s Yankee country? AI. T.?
Consider the crucible of Ventura County, where a stunning array of gadgets was awarded patents by the United States government. Some of these items are on the market; some are not--but it’s not for lack of originality.
And the inventors are walking among us right now, for the most part unrecognized for their contributions to technology. They are leading ordinary lives, thinking up even more unlikely accessories to tempt us into parting with our money.
THE TALKING TOILET
It was Steve Herbruck of Oak View who envisioned a talking toilet seat that reminds users to lower the seat after use. The owner of an auto detailing business at the time of his brainstorm, Herbruck was thrust into electronic design by an unfortunate incident at home: He made a midnight trip to the bathroom without turning on the lights.
“I came to a very rude awakening,” Herbruck said, recalling the chilling experience, “I stayed up that night and came up with the basic idea of the product.”
The resulting device has a sensor that activates a nagging voice chip when a user walks away from a toilet without lowering the seat.
“At first, a friendly voice says, ‘Please come back and shut the lid,’ its inventor said. “The second voice is a little more stern; and the third time it yells at you.”
Herbruck knew about market research. He did a door-to-door survey of 100 homes in Oxnard and Ventura, and found that every family with young children was eager to buy the device.
He proceeded through the patent process; meanwhile, other ideas surged into consciousness--the toilet seat was a watershed event in his life. He has since started his own development company, Herbruck’s Research, in Ventura, where he works on his designs and develops other inventors’ ideas.
He has patented items from toys to dental products. One toy, Flashball--which he developed with Camarillo inventor Doug Dykstra--is a battery-operated toy that lights up when bounced. Herbruck claims that more than 600,000 Flashballs have been sold thus far.
He is only now bringing the toilet seat to market, licensing it under the working title, Johnny Be Good.
Many inventions are launched in the same mood as Herbruck’s. Annoyance stirs anger, then imagination--and an idea is born.
Take Ravindra Athalye of Thousand Oaks, an electronics engineer. He arrived from India three years ago and sat in his kitchen, out of a job, nervously clipping his nails. This annoyed his wife, Sanju, who took objection to the clippings.
“When I see a problem, I try to solve it,” said Athalye, who promptly devised Klip’N’Katch, a nail trimmer that leaves no debris.
Athalye won a patent for the gadget by virtue of the unique addition to a standard-looking clipper of tiny sidewalls, which neatly trap nail trimmings, then release them when hinged-laminate magnets are folded outward.
A national sales company is planning to offer the product through a television marketing channel.
Athalye now works full time, but has gone on to patent other problem solvers. His latest is Speed Serve, a modestly priced attachment for tennis rackets that accurately measures the velocity of a serve.
If frustration and ingenuity are factors in the dawn of an invention, a bonus ingredient seems to be joblessness.
Doren Berkovich of Thousand Oaks was disabled from a career in auto mechanics and had time on his hands. During a rainy spell in 1991, he took note of the family’s two cats, which were confined to the house.
“They were becoming really ill-mannered around here. . . . They were touchy, irritable cats,” Berkovich said.
His solution was not your average bag of catnip. He created a motorized, variable speed electronic mouse-on-a-string that is suspended from a scratching post, and which rotates, leaps, stops, reverses and runs on household current.
“The cat will play with it for an hour, two hours; it walks away tired and it doesn’t raise hell all night,” said its creator.
Mouse Chase is in pet stores locally. But Berkovich admits it’s pricey for the average feline owner. Suggested retail: $59.95.
Meanwhile, in Camarillo, another out-of-work designer found inspiration. Angelo Sessa was off the job with a back injury and getting acquainted with housework when he learned of the intricate maneuvers required to put a sheet on a water bed.
“I was at home three months, so I came up with something real fast,” said Sessa, who is vice president of a family manufacturing business.
He patented a long flexible shaft with a clip that expertly stretches a sheet between bed frame and massive mattress. He made up 1,000 samples, then went back to work. The samples just sat around--there was no one to market them.
“That’s not my line,” Sessa said. “I’m an engineer; I build things.”
Apparently coining names is not his line either; he calls the invention Sheet Stuffer.
STONES THAT GLOW
Marketing was not a problem for Chuck Weiss of Westlake Village; it’s what he does full time. He and Lawrence Gluck of Thousand Oaks are co-founders of Science at Play, a Westlake Village development firm. As well as inventing their own products, Weiss and Gluck are hired by companies to devise solutions to vexing industrial problems.
While Weiss was putting in brickwork around a flower bed in his yard, darkness fell and he tripped over a brick. He complained to Gluck, a technical designer.
Ergo, glow-in-the-dark steppingstones went on the national market this summer.
“Sometimes we do contracting work that’s dull,” said Gluck. They have their most fun, he added, working with things that light up. Science at Play marketed Magic Glow Friends, luminescent plush animals, several years ago. And now, Lumastones.
By day, the stones look like ordinary concrete circles; but they are made of plastic alloy with incandescent lighting mounted inside. Activated after dark, they give off what Gluck calls “an elegant, soft ethereal glow,” which, he said, eliminates the need for yard lights.
If a competition were held to determine the design capital of Ventura County, Thousand Oaks would win the title hands down. According to U. S. Patent records, just under 5,000 patents have been granted in the county since 1970; one-third of them were filed from Thousand Oaks.
“A lot of engineers found it a congenial place to live,” said Richard Begley, a mechanical engineer who lived there in the ‘70s when he and partner Woody Garvey of Los Angeles conceived an ambitious project: a self-cleaning restroom.
A gas station operator’s dream, the room is designed with a double-hinged wall, which, when activated, moves 90 degrees to create a small, square box containing sink, toilet and urinal.
Then, nozzles emerge like artillery from under the sink and blast the fixtures with soap solution, followed by a rinse, which drains out through the floor.
“It’s a wonderful idea,” said Begley. “Basically, the restroom cleans itself like a dishwasher.”
The inventors spent hundreds of hours creating a working model of the room. Just as they were showing it off to a major oil company, the energy crisis struck, and, Begley said, “they got disinterested. They could sell all the gasoline they had without an extra amenity to attract customers.”
Begley left restrooms and got into electric mopeds; his partner kept up the patent, improved its design, and is about to show it to a new generation of oil executives.
BUILDING A BETTER MOUSETRAP
Most Thousand Oaks inventors, like Begley, have engineering backgrounds and are tinkering with any number of ideas. But Robert LaVoie and his partners were in pest control when they had the sudden, single brainstorm.
In 1985, LaVoie was an executive dreaming of ways to make his company more competitive. One day over a long lunch, he and two fellow administrators conceived a new product, which they drew on the back of a cocktail napkin.
The device would be small, but the possibilities the men saw were far-reaching: quickly they set to work to develop RAMS--the rodent activity monitoring system.
Not for the average homeowner, RAMS was conceived for industry--food processors and restaurants vulnerable to extreme mouse attacks (although LaVoie always uses the professional term: rodent). The device contained a trap, and was rigged to relay a signal via modem to a central computer when that trap was tripped.
“It would tell us: at food plant X, trap number 22 has gone off. We could send a technician out to check it. If it was a rodent, he would remove it and reset the trap.”
The plan was ecologically timely--it could eliminate conventional poison sprays from food plants and avoid labor intensive checking of traps.
“We had a good PR firm; we were in USA Today,” said LaVoie, "(but) we didn’t have the financial backing to take it to market.
“Everyone is always trying to invent a better mousetrap,” he said. “I still think it’s a viable idea.”
It wasn’t the spirit of competition that motivated James Scrudato of Simi Valley six years ago. He and his two partners were thinking of a spirit of a higher order when they invented the electronic rosary.
An automotive engineer, Scrudato designed the internal circuitry for a hand-held circular rosary, which the team planned to reduce to wristwatch size.
“Different prayers were indicated by different light colors. ‘Our Father’ was a red-light emitting diode, ten ‘Hail Marys’ were all yellow. You press it; it moved to the next diode. If it didn’t get a signal for a minute and a half, it would shut down,” Scrudato explained.
“We brought it to a couple of priests, and they ranted and raved about it. I think their thinking was it might effect the younger people.”
The high-tech rosary was not to be. The inventors found no way to produce it in the U. S. for less than $50 retail. Asian manufacturers, sensitive to its religious significance, were reluctant to produce the rosary.
Indeed, with many inventions, however ingeniously designed, production and marketing are the chuckholes on the road to success.
“Marketing and sales are 50% to 70% of the product,” said Steve Herbruck. “Ninety percent of inventors don’t have the drive, tenacity or commitment to take a product to the marketplace.”
Statistics show that only 2% of patent owners make a profit from their inventions, said Mike Hamlin, Ventura County chapter president of the nonprofit Inventors Workshop International.
Yet, idle engineers continue to tinker.
So do sports enthusiasts, judging from the number of patents they obtain--particularly for accessories to improve golf and fishing.
Local golfers have devised alternative materials and shapes for clubs, a vacuum for retrieving balls, a tee dispenser, and most intriguing, a contrivance for holding a golfer’s wrists together while swinging a club.
Fishermen during long lakeside hours of silent vigil tend to think of ways to keep lines from tangling, to prevent lures from catching on weeds, and, in one case, to keep worms on hooks.
The D-Ken Baiter was designed one afternoon using the combined worm-threading expertise of Richard Fogo of Ventura and Kenneth Sauer of Camarillo. Fogo described it as a narrow shaft with a crook that strings the leader right through the bait and keeps it there.
“It doesn’t mean you catch fish, but it means your bait will be down there,” said Fogo, who added that the device doubles as a sweater de-snagger.
The baiters sell for about $2.50 in local tackle shops. Fogo makes them himself, but said he doesn’t plan to give up his day job as nursing supervisor at Camarillo State Hospital any time soon.
The sport of skating inspired another local inventor. Twelve years ago, a patent was awarded to Bobbie L. Wickman of Thousand Oaks, who could not be located for comment. She invented a light assembly and battery pack for roller skates, perhaps after a bad spill on a night ride.
Skate manufacturer Harry Ball, president of Sure Grip International in South Gate, remembers being offered the product a few years back; he was skeptical of its value.
“Can you imagine the liability it would create if it ever came off?” he said. “Anybody would be better off holding a flashlight in front of him.”
A matter of opinion. But apparently that opinion prevailed, and another great idea slipped into inventors’ limbo, where thousands of patented things languish. There they remain, protected for up to 17 years, should their owners keep up payments to the U. S. Patent Service.
So, be alert for breakthroughs. Inventors may be ahead of their time; the climate for acceptance can change.
One never knows when a skater might emerge from the shadows on the trail along Ventura Beach throwing twin beams of light before her as she glides through the settling fog.
Or when an apparently passive restroom will suddenly contract, squeezing its fixtures into a tiny airless chamber filled with high pressure suds.
We can only hope that a device will signal a master control board somewhere if a patron is inside.
The following tips to aspiring inventors are offered by Mike Hamlin of Ojai, local president of Inventors Workshop International:
* Start at the library. Read books written for the small inventor, such as “You’ve Got an Idea, Now What?” published in 1992 by Robert M. Sperry.
* Be wary of market research companies with toll-free numbers that solicit business and ask for hefty payments up front. Ask for successful product references.
* Join an organization where inventors help one another and recommend development companies and patent attorneys with good track records.
* Figure on spending two years to get a patent, $1,000 at the patent office, and $1,500 to $3,000 in attorney’s fees for a simple invention.
* Consider carefully if you want to work without an attorney; writing patent language that will protect an idea is complex.
* No matter how great your idea is, it needs development. No manufacturer will drive to your house in a limousine and buy it.
* Subscribe to a good inventors’ journal, such as Inventors’ Digest.