return to homepage

Archive for October 10th, 2008

The “Intermittent Wiper” Lesson For Creating Convergent Inventions

Friday, October 10th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

This weekend my wife and I took in a movie. The film was preceded by a movie trailer touting a soon to be released production based on the invention of the “intermittent windshield wiper”. Such a topic for a big budget Hollywood movie would seem to be awfully mundane. However, the trailer was a very interesting glimpse of a subject that has deep meaning for every entrepreneur, inventor or dreamer.

Robert Kearns was a university professor and an engineer with a passion for tinkering. He had lost the sight in one eye when a champagne cork had popped squarely into his eye. In 1963, while driving in a heavy rainstorm he noticed that the steady, constant pace of the wiper blades sweeping water from the windshield caused his sight to lose focus.

At that time windshield wipers only worked at a single rate of speed. As mist, or light rain occurred the driver had to manually tune off and on the unit to control the speed of the blades. Kearns had stumbled into an opportunity to address a fairly basic, but needed improvement to an already existing automobile safety feature.

At home in his workshop, Mr. Kearns created a prototype of his “intermittent windshield wiper” system. Once perfected, he filed for patents and began to approach the major American car companies seeking to license his invention. He demonstrated the unit for Chrysler and Ford, and provided each with proprietary data on his device. After internal discussion both advised Robert Kearns that his device was of no interest and they would pass on the opportunity to license.

Much to Mr. Kearns shock and chagrin, he was amazed to discover that in 1969 the Ford Motor Company began to sell an “intermittent windshield wiper” as a featured accessory on their new models. The technology was remarkably similar to his prior art. Thus began a legal odyssey that would consume Robert Kearns life, his fortune and his health.

This is where this tale has ongoing importance to anyone seeking to commercialize a new product or invention. The invention of the original mechanized windshield wiper was the birth of a “divergent product”. The invention of the telephone, the television, the radio, or the internal combustion engine gave birth to “divergent products”. They created alpha opportunities. The addition of color to televisions, answering machines to telephones and clocks to radios are examples of “convergent products”. “Convergent products” are simple product enhancements that are often extremely valuable as wealth generators. Robert Kearns “intermittent windshield wiper” is a wonderful example of a “convergent product’.

He had not invented the windshield wiper but had created simple performance elements that motorists found would add safety, comfort and simplicity to driving in varied climatic conditions. Unfortunately, he had not fully insulated his invention from predatory commercial vultures.

Patent law is an extremely specific practice. There is a reason patent attorney’s typically handle no other categories of legal work. The Kearns vs. Ford Motor Company patent suit was arduous and tortured. The patent law principal of “obviousness” was the center of the dispute. Ford claimed that the Kearns invention was “obvious”, a device made up of pre-existing components. Simply put, Kearns argued that it was his organization of these elements that was truly novel and that his unit was not “obvious” until he invented it.

It took until 1995 for Robert Kearns to prevail. The case is considered a landmark. The instance of a single person taking on a huge, international corporate behemoth, and winning, was amazing, exciting and myth shattering. Ford paid Mr. Kearns $30 million. Robert Kearns spent $10 million on legal fees to fight the case to successful conclusion.

There are many lessons here for inventors seeking to commercialize their ideas and products.

  • Protect your intellectual property

              Utilize Non-Disclosure Agreements

              Seek professional legal assistance to file patents, trademarks, copyright

              File Trade Secrets

  • Lay down a paper trail

             Detail every meeting and phone call with a written re-cap to each person attending

Save every dated receipt for FedEx, phone log, etc.

  • Build a production quality, working prototype of the invention-DO NOT CUT CORNERS HERE!
  • Include 3D Computer Assisted Design Art (CAD) with all legal filings
  • Always assume that others are working on similar inventions and protect your interests

We look at hundreds of inventions and new product submissions each year in our consulting business. A fair percentage of these presentations have real commercial value and could be successfully marketed. Most however, will never see a store shelf because the creator will not take appropriate steps to protect and commercialize their opportunity.

Robert Kearns did. He had a simple idea for a “convergent product”. He took appropriate steps to protect his invention. When he was ripped off, he took up the fight. Because of his success and courage, it is now much easier to fight and win against the “big guys”.

Each of us sees or experiences opportunities almost everyday, in our work or personal environment. Most of us aren’t paying attention or do not recognize opportunity when it appears. For the few that do, and have the courage to act, will be rewarded by a marketplace that craves new products and concepts.

I can not wait to see the movie.

Aztec Technology That Still Sweetens Our Taste-Buds and Outlasted the Conquistadors

Friday, October 10th, 2008

by: Geoff Ficke

Chocolate was first harvested and converted into a consumable drink by the Aztec’s in Mexico. Before the Aztec’s, the cacao bean was considered a nuisance plant that neither animals or humans would eat. Tough, bitter, hard, and inedible, cacao was the plant seemingly least likely to have an upside commercial destiny.

The Aztec’s took the cacao bean and blended the meat of the plant with peppers, cane and various liquids to form a drink that was consumed vigorously as a luxury tonic. The cultivation of cacao became a significant industry in Mexico and the beans actually represented a type of currency that facilitated trade.

When Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico, he and his Spanish conquistador’s were repulsed by the taste of the cacao spirit drink that the Aztec’s consumed in such large quantities. They spit it out and written accounts refer to their disgust at the drinks harsh, bitter taste. However, through experimentation, they found that by removing the pablano peppers and other Mexican herbs and substituting pure sugar the combination produced a sweet, savory foodstuff that was consumable as a drink or a candy.

The undesirable cacao bean had found it’s initial commercial niche. Plant specimens were transported back to Spain and soon the popularity of chocolate spread across Europe. Planting of cacao trees spread across parts of Africa and Asia as demand increased and plantations were required to produce cacao in huge quantities.

The Aztec’s likewise are central to the discovery and commercialization of chewing gum. In remote parts of southern Mexico, trees release a type of sap called chicle. The Aztec’s harvested this chicle resin and developed a chewable paste that could be imbued with herbs, sweets and flavors. For hundreds of years the use of chicle as a forerunner of modern chewing gum was common throughout Mexico and parts of Central America.

Hernando Cortes however did not just conquer the Aztec’s. He obliterated their society and culture. The southern source of chicle was unknown to the Spanish and thus lost for centuries. In 1870, Thomas Adams, exploring in Mexico’s southern-most jungle rediscovered the ancient chicle resin. Soon after, William Wrigley found the source and the first chewing gum war soon commenced.

Adam’s most famous brand of chewing gum was Chiclettes. Wrigley launched the Juicy Fruit and Spearmint brands. Both were very successful, though Wrigley came to be a towering beacon of Chicago commercial and social life. The Company he founded, in addition to the eponymous Wrigley Building and Wrigley Field, has seared the name Wrigley as one of America’s great brands.

Inadvertently, the search for new sources of chicle in Southern Mexico has lead to the discovery of many ancient Aztec and Mayan cities that the jungle had devoured. To this day archaeologists are diligently working, and discovering lost tombs, pyramids and ruins that might have never been brought from beneath the jungle’s grasp without the commercial desirability of chicle acting as the apex prod for exploration.

The Conquistador’s were not interested in foodstuffs. They were lustily seeking gold, silver, jewels and mineral wealth. However, after plundering Mexico and Central and South America of all the booty they could pilfer and transferring this haul to Spain they never recognized the real treasures they had discovered.

Many types of grains, vegetables and fruits were introduced to Europe and the world as a result of the rapaciousness of the Spanish Conquistador’s. These unintended side effects of the Spanish invasion of the New World were, at that time, considered tertiary benefits of the conquests. Certainly, the exportation of chocolate and chewing gum has provided the modern world with several of life’s most appreciated and satisfying products.

Cadbury, Nestle, Mars and Hershey are international behemoth brands that provide sinful delicacy and enjoyment to humankind at amazingly affordable pricing. Hundreds of enterprises, large and small, all over the world produce amazing confections based on the Aztec discoveries of chicle and chocolate. Today, we are the beneficiaries of the Aztec genius for taking unwanted forest by-products and converting them to wondrous concoctions that make our mouths salivate and tongue’s quiver with delight.

The Aztec legacy would be great even without the treasured gifts of chewing gum and chocolate. But when I watch a child eat chocolate ice cream, or a Snickers bar, or blow bubble gum bubbles, I know the world is a happier place as a result of this ancient genius.

Any reflective student of history is often amazed at the products and processes invented and discovered in the ancient world that we take for granted today. Paint, gunpowder, weaponry, cement, the arch, beer, silk, papyrus, champagne, and so many others remain at the center of modern society and commerce in one form or another. Two of the most interesting ancient inventions are among the most popular consumer products of modern times, chewing gum and chocolate.