By Jack Lander
An infinite number of monkeys, each equipped with a computer and given an infinite amount of time, could duplicate all of Shakespeare’s plays.
Hard to imagine, but you can’t deny the logic.
Not long ago I was convinced that this principle applied to inventing. The older an invention became, the higher the probability that every useful variation of it had been conceived, tried and either succeeded or failed.
My frequent searching of patent files seemed to substantiate this concept.
Recently, however, I’ve reversed my thinking. Yes, it is more difficult to invent useful variations of ordinary, established products, but not impossible.
And the payback may be more substantial than for an entirely novel invention, because the market has already proved itself. You don’t have to create the market; you merely butt in and ride the coattails of what already exists.
You can find many examples of such inventions and products. Here are three:
- Bongo Ties
- Ball-bearing shower-curtain hooks
- Gel-ink ballpoint pens
Stephen Perry patented the rubber band in England in 1845. It has become an essential tool of modern living. Billions of them have been made. Among the many uses: bundling electrical cords.
We’ve always had the problem of unsightly, dangling power cords from our toasters, coffee makers, lamps, etc. But the Computer Age has produced an unprecedented mess of cords and the ordinary rubber band is no longer adequate to keep them neat. Now what?
Enter inventor Tim Petros. Tim, a professional photographer, invented Bongo Ties to keep his photographic equipment orderly. He first tried an ordinary dowel pin, but the band kept slipping off its ends.
He knew that he needed something tapered that would prevent slippage, so he modified two golf tees and Bongo Ties were born. He believed that his invention had significant potential and he patented his final design. Sales have been growing steadily since its introduction.
The shower-curtain hook came into popular use around 1890 as a component of several showering systems patented around that time.
So we had been tugging on balky shower curtains for about 120 years until recently, when ball bearings with holes through them were added to the arched top of the hook. The shape of the wire part of the hook remains pretty much the keyhole shape that it has been for decades.
Strictly speaking, the ball doesn’t act as the traditional ball-bearing; it acts as a spherical wheel. The balls could be made of nylon or other durable plastic and they could be shaped as wheels rather than balls. But the stainless steel ball has visual appeal and will last a lifetime.
The first known patent on ballpoint pens was issued in 1888. The critical setting of the ball socket was not yet possible to achieve on a reliable commercial scale. Too loose, and the pen leaked; too tight, and it wouldn’t write. Early ballpoint pens were not successful.
In 1938, Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor, patented his version of the ballpoint pen and began producing it in Argentina in 1940.
When WWII ended in 1945, Milton Reynolds copied the Biro design and became the first U.S. producer of ballpoint pens. The first pens sold for today’s equivalent of about $118.
Even with the skips and smudges, the ballpoint pen has been accepted as the most practical writing instrument around. Gradual improvements in ink chemistry and precision machining have upgraded the earlier models, but for more than 60 years we’ve written with the same basic pen that Biro invented.
However, the recently introduced gel ink is beginning to take over. The gel pens are more expensive and they use ink faster than the older pens. But they glide across the paper with less effort, never skip until their cartridge is empty, start instantly, offer a more dense pigment, and produce writing that can’t be distinguished from a quality fountain pen with the naked eye.
The development of the gel chemistry was not done by an independent inventor, however. Its ingredients are critical in kind and quantity.
The bottom line is that even when products appear stable over time and acceptably satisfactory, there are often opportunities for improvement.
Stable they may be, but the world around them changes. And what had been satisfactory for many years may now need a bit of tweaking to meet today’s needs and wants.
Bongo Ties, for example, are the computer-age counterpart of the belt buckle, and such simple, but ingenious, inventions don’t come along very often. Ball-bearing shower- curtain hooks are more representative of the improvements that most of us can dream up if we try.
So, take another look at common things. Stare hard. Look for subtle changes in how these things are now used.
Perhaps you’ll uncover what the rest of us have been missing.
Editor’s note: This article appears in the May 2011 print edition.
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