In telling the unceasingly unconventional story of Lloyd Copeman, it’s fitting to start at the end. Relatively anonymous despite numerous impactful inventions during the first half of the 20th century, he was such a prolific innovator that some of his patents were approved after he died in 1956.
Best known among Copeman’s 650-700 patents are the heat-regulated electric stove, flexible ice cube tray and an automatic electric toaster. At one point he was a millionaire—a highly rare distinction in the first half of the 1900s—ran his own companies, lived on a large estate, and reportedly knew Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
But as the middle of the century approached, income from his patents had dried up. He had sold his sprawling family farm east of Flint, Michigan, and faced having to apply for Social Security benefits. Worst of all, his childhood sweetheart and wife of more than four decades was seriously ill.
So much had changed, but so much was not going to change. Copeman kept brainstorming and creating. To help comfort his bedridden Hazel at their rural home, where residential air-conditioning was not commonly available, he mounted sprinklers on the roof of the house and pumped cold water through them to cool the shingles and lower the temperature in the room where she rested. Then he designed a system of pipes in her room for cold water to run through.
Hazel Copeman was as comfortable as possible until her death in 1950. Lloyd Copeman was always as comfortable as possible doing what he loved the most, with uncanny precision and vision. Few inventors in American history—including many who are in the National Inventors Hall of Fame—have accomplished more.
Kent Copeman vividly recalls some wide-eyed days in his grandfather’s basement workshop in the tiny village of Farmers Creek, Michigan. Once he turned 10, Kent would frequently bicycle the four miles from his Hadley home to the large estate, marveling at the possibilities and finished works downstairs.
“One time I was there and he said, ‘You need tools,’ recalled Kent, now 82. “He found me a tool case that had his initials, LGC, on it. He filled it with tools for me from his bench and his racks and gave it to me.”
By the time of these educational mid-1940s afternoons, Lloyd Copeman had long since been a big deal who was making big deals. He told his grandson that he could walk into any store and see some of his inventions. It didn’t happen overnight.
After growing up on the family farm, he attended Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). He was an information sponge at the many companies he worked for in rapid succession: Baldwin Locomotive Works, the Philadelphia Edison Electrical Co., the Washington Power Co. of Spokane, the Detroit Edison Co., and Consumers Power Co. (The Spokane job came after he had moved to Washington state and married Hazel Berger. They moved back to Michigan a few years later.)
His inventing breakthrough came in the early 1900s: a thermostat that gave a warning when transformer stations for high-tension wires were ready to burn out. His electro-thermostatic heat regulator, which controlled the amount of heat generated by a heating element, became U.S. Patent No. 932,966 in 1909.
When Copeman told Flint businessman Josiah Dallas Dort about his idea for an electric stove, Dort and 22 stockholders raised a half-million dollars to form the Copeman Electric Stove Co. in 1912. The stove—invented in 1915 and promoted as “the fireless cooker”—featured removable round hot plates that were plugged into outlets on the top and inside the ovens.
Another signature invention available from the stove company was a joint effort which, according to family history, was spawned by a comment made by his wife when the couple saw an electric toaster displayed in a show window. At that point, the way a toaster worked was that bread was put on a rack facing the heating coils, then turned over by hand for toasting on the other side. Hazel asked her husband if he could invent a toaster “that would automatically turn the toast.”
Family sources also say that she made a prototype using hairpins. Eventually, the first toaster that allowed the toast to be “turned” without touching the bread was complete; Hazel received the patent in 1914; and rival companies wanting to make toasters had to pay royalties to Copeman or find another way to turn the toast until the pop-up toaster came along later.
Appliance behemoth Westinghouse absorbed Copeman’s company in 1918. He also profited handsomely by selling the rights to his rubber ice cube tray to General Motors Corp., not long after that 1928 invention.
Per lloydcopeman.com, a website compiled by family members: “While he was out collecting maple sap in the sugar bush one cold February day, the ice and slush began to collect and freeze on Copeman’s rubber boots. He sat down and contemplatively worked the toe of his rubber boots.
“He watched somewhat disinterestedly at first as the ice cracked and flew off the boots. ‘Oh, my God, a rubber ice tray,’ exclaimed Copeman.” The result was the biggest money-making patent of Copeman’s career (royalties alone netted more than $1 million).
Creating and sharing
Among several hundred other inventions by Copeman was an automobile lubrication system that greased automobile bearings and other mechanical equipment for a quicker, easier and cleaner process. He eventually sold the Copeman Lubricating System or Copeman Lubri-Caps to Alemite Corp., which further refined it. One of his later inventions, the Flexo-Line travel clothesline (1943), is still manufactured and currently celebrating its 75th anniversary.
Copeman had a strong interest in rubber latex for many years. According to the family, that obsession resulted in inventions that included non-run silk stockings; tamper-proof and water-proof envelopes and packages, and rust-proofing automobiles. He patented all of those but the car rust-proofing.
As with most inventors, part of his story are the ideas and dreams that never advanced past that stage. “He had money but went through it pretty fast,” Kent Copeman said. “North of where he lived, he drilled for oil in 1935. He sunk $60,000 in that oil well. … He leased a lot of land around Michigan hoping to find oil.”
He loved sharing his creations, even the ones for which he was not known: “They built a large pool on his property that held 100,000 gallons of water. It was the first concrete pool in this part of Michigan. It’s still there. I think it was built in 1929 and used every day. It still does not leak. This was before anybody had pools in their yard.
“We used to go over there and swim. At one point he built a very tall swing, I would say 25 foot in the air. You could get on that swing and start to be pushed and you would jump off and you would just about reach the other end of the pool when you jumped off that swing, way up in the air.”
It didn’t take long for Kent to develop a close bond with his grandfather. He went to Florida with him a couple times when Copeman visited relatives. “He built my mother a beauty shop. He raised turkeys and gave them out to people at Christmastime during the Depression. He was concerned about the way the town was going. At that particular time, all that was there was a gas station.”
An avid outdoorsman, Copeman loved animals—“dogs, horses, even an owl that he kept in the middle of this big, circular building. One time he had a raccoon. This raccoon would sit on his lap and drive his car when he’d go down the road. The raccoon had his little paws on the steering wheel, just driving along.”
Given Copeman’s resume and impact on American life, The Flexo-Line Co. co-owner Andrea Perchotte is proud to help drive the campaign for his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
“The progressive inventions of Lloyd Groff Copeman have revolutionized the daily lives of the American people and helped foster the early technological revolution at the turn of the 20th century that forever changed the United States,” she said. “Considered one of the most prolific American inventors, Mr. Copeman was always asking himself, ‘How could life be made better for the housewife, the farmer or the industrialist?’
“His inventions have been indispensable to them and the general public in the United States and around the world. Forward-thinking and passionate about inventing, Mr. Copeman persevered to develop innovative products that would benefit others and reshape the future. His goal was not to accumulate wealth but rather to continually invest his money into developing new ideas.
“Despite the significant impact Mr. Copeman has had on the lives of Americans and those around the world, he’s long been forgotten. Bestowing on him the prestigious honor of being an inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame would serve to challenge and inspire current and future generations of American inventors to persevere and develop well-designed products that contribute positively to society and the economy.”
DesignWanted named Copeman among the 10 most influential product designers of all time. His story and accomplishments have been featured in numerous publications that can be found at flexo-line.com/about/.
Kent Copeman said the family-created website—which includes a list of all of his known U.S. patents—has been instrumental in publicizing his grandfather’s accomplishments. Now that many of those family members now in their 80s and older, they want to see Lloyd Copeman get his deserved recognition while they are still alive.
“He was a genius not just in the ideas he came up with, but how to make so many different things in so many different facets of life,” said Kent Copeman, still living four miles from his beloved mentor’s former property. “He was devoted to helping people and making life better for them, especially his family. He was definitely a different kind of person.”