“The successful inventors of the future, like those of the past, will undoubtedly owe their success to the development of some idea or ideas which they are able to grasp and convert into commercial commodities.”
— Pierre Barnes, Seattle patent attorney, 1904
The Seattle region has a reputation as a hotbed of innovation. It’s the birthplace of Boeing, UPS, Starbucks and Amazon, not to mention a robust ecosystem of creativity that has nurtured inventive people working in such disparate areas as video games, the fine arts and pop culture. Appropriately, the Museum of History and Industry has dedicated a portion of its new South Lake Union home to the permanent Bezos Center for Innovation, whose exhibits cover a wide range of local inventions.
Whether they are restless workshop tinkerers or highly disciplined research scientists, all inventors are on the same basic quest: to build a better mousetrap, to solve a vexing problem, to dramatically improve on a previous invention. While new mousetrap designs appear in the marketplace all the time, Earth has yet to experience a noticeable mouse shortage. So some inventions prove to be more effective and more valuable than others. Just ask each week’s contenders on Shark Tank.
Patent grants are a good indicator of an area’s relative degree of inventiveness. Inventors in Washington state were issued 5,878 patents in 2013 — not bad for a state whose population is a fraction of the size of the four states above it on the list: Texas, New York, Massachusetts and California. But while an ever-increasing number of patent applications are filed with the U.S. Patent Office almost every year, fewer emanate from amateur, lone-wolf creative types. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., noted in its 2012 State New Economy Index: “From Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, the independent inventor is an established American icon. Today, many owners of individual patents — those patents not assigned to any organization — are not mere tinkerers, but rather are trained scientists, engineers or students pursuing independent research.”
Thus, we see scientists at local brain trusts like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington Medical Center earning thousands of patents for various innovations in life sciences. UW neuroscientist Robijanto Soetedjo was honored recently with a $25,000 prize in a national competition for an educational toy that allows children to measure electrical signals created by a working muscle and use that energy to power a light or small motor. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a cosponsor of the competition, plans to help Soetedjo commercialize the product.
An old Northwest joke suggests there must be “something in the water” around these parts that causes people to be abnormally creative. Perhaps water does play a role here. The area’s rainy weather has long been cited as a factor in our lifestyles. Cultural anthropologists have posited that the highly stylized and easily recognizable artwork of North Coast native peoples may have partly been a result of the fact that precipitation kept them indoors refining their skills. Similarly, the moody, mid-20th century “Northwest School” of oil painters was evocative of our dark cloudy days, just as garage rockers woodshedding indoors while escaping the incessant rain created the grunge music of the 1980s and ’90s.
Our relative geographic isolation has also played a role in forging a do-it-yourself attitude. The challenges of living on the far West Coast seem to have sustained a social environment where innovators are admired. The frontier era itself sparked a certain mentality that saw necessity in the circumstances and bred innovative thinking to handle whatever problems arose.
Do our local innovators possess specific behavioral traits that set them apart from inventors elsewhere? In 1991, Seattle author Adam Woog shot down that notion in a book about Northwest inventions, Sexless Oysters and Self-Tipping Hats. Woog wrote: “Northwest inventors share the attributes of inventors anywhere: stubbornness, individualism, creativity, perseverance, industriousness [and] intelligence.”
True enough, but it doesn’t hurt to be based in a place that is culturally open-minded, has the critical mass of well-educated workforce and provides ready access to a wide variety of physical materials for experimentation.
Woog points out that the special circumstances that Northwesterners face — including climate and geography — do partially account for the high ratio of local inventions that center on outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, logging, fishing and such. But, like innovations generated most anywhere, exceedingly few embody something wholly unprecedented. Most, like a mousetrap, are a more effective or more popular version of an already existing thing. Thus, William Boeing did not construct the world’s first airplane, but his improvements on various design, manufacturing and sales concepts resulted in an amazing airplane empire. Similarly, Microsoft’s Kinect is a marvel of integration, bringing together technological advances in voice recognition, motion sensors and many other areas.
The funny thing is one never really knows in advance which innovations will reward their creators with great riches and which will fade away unheralded into the mists of time. Behind all inventions is an inexact scale of intrinsic value, and even reviewing local examples illuminates the fact that these items can range all the way from being profoundly foundational to perfectly frivolous.
But this brief survey of some notable local inventors and their inventions does reveal the depth and scope of this region’s creative nature.
United Parcel Service, 1907
Jim Casey’s American Messenger Co. hired teenagers to carry notes, deliver packages and run errands for individuals and businesses in Seattle. From walking to using bicycles, motorcycles and eventually trucks, the company expanded into California and became UPS in 1919.
William Dubilier’s wireless telephone
Wireless Telephone, 1909
High school dropout William Dubilier was 20 when he exhibited at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition the first wireless device to transmit voice. He later built between Seattle and Tacoma a wireless communications link that featured a receiver atop what was then the largest wooden tower in the world.
Lettering Pen, 1914
Ross George and William Hugh Gordon filed a patent for a “lettering pen” that included a built-in reservoir for ink and a replaceable, square-tipped nib. The pen became popular among designers and calligraphers because it allowed for creating a thin or a broad line, depending on how it was held. Called the Speedball, it enjoyed great commercial success and left an indelible mark on generations of artists and cartoonists.
William Ruttle’s tool for creating serving-size portions of butter from a one-pound block.
Butter Cutter, 1920
William Ruttle received a patent in 1920 for a cast-aluminum hand tool that sliced one-pound blocks of hardened butter into 54 uniform serving-size pats.
Inspired by the discomfort of hiking with a primitive wooden pack borrowed from a Native American friend, Bremerton’s Lloyd “Trapper” Nelson designed, built and marketed the first mass-produced, wooden-frame canvas knapsack.
Doughnut Maker, 1924
Thomas and Walter Belshaw, former builders of marine engines, began producing patented manual and automated doughnut-making machines in Seattle. They sold thousands worldwide and the firm continues today as Auburn-based Belshaw Adamatic, the world’s largest maker and distributor of doughnut-making equipment.
Water Skis, 1928
Don Ibsen was one of three individuals who independently invented water skis. After finding snow skis didn’t work well on water, Ibsen took a pair of 7-foot cedar planks, steamed and bent them against a utility pole, and nailed on a pair of tennis shoes. Ibsen sold his first pair in1934. Frustrated with patent application costs and processes, he abandoned the effort and formed his own firm, which evolved into a supplier of marine products.
Romano Diving Bell, 1933
The U.S. navy tested the Romano Diving Bell, a mechanical device Seattle engineer Gene Romano invented to assist in underwater salvage operations. A Navy diver descended 485 feet beneath the surface of Puget Sound using the device, whose pneumatic lifting tanks allowed the diver to set a new Navy record.
|Trapper Nelson, above, would take his daughter on sales calls to demonstrate the strength of his wood-frame backpack.|
Down-filled Parka, 1936
When Eddie Bauer, an avid outdoorsman and sporting goods shop owner, almost froze to death on a fishing trip, he devised the Skyliner goose-down parka. His company was already stocking goose feathers for fly tying. He invented machinery to sew a coat stuffed with lightweight down. In 1937, he followed up with the Canadian Downlight vest, and a retail empire was born.
Electric Guitar, early 1930s
Seattle music teacher Paul Tutmarc had been experimenting for years with electrifying musical instruments when, in collaboration with Art Stimson, he came up with an electromagnetic pickup to amplify sound. When a local attorney said the technology could not be patented, Stimson headed to Los Angeles, where he patented the device with the owner of Dobro Manufacturing Co. Tutmarc, meanwhile, manufactured his own line of
A Belshaw Bros. automated doughnut maker and an ad for the firm’s products in the official Seattle World’s Fair guidebook.
Audiovox electric guitars in Seattle. Along with Dobro, Vivi-Tone and Rickenbacker, the Audiovox was among the first electric guitars on the market. In 1936, Tutmarc’s electric bass guitar preceded Leo Fender’s California-made Precision bass guitar by 15 years.
While working as chief engineer with Seattle’s Intervox Corporation, Wayne Ross used some spare parts to build a device that used ultrasonic sound to find sunken outboard motors, lost fishing gear and other salvageable material within a mile in any direction. Ross Laboratories produced its first compact depth sounder small enough to fit on pleasure and commercial fishing boats. The U.S. Navy liked the technology, which could be used as a maritime navigation tool.
Fiberglass Skis, 1962
Bill Kirschner, a UW graduate in mining engineering, successfully tested a prototype snow ski made of fiberglass in 1962. In 1965, his Vashon Island-based K2 Corporation marketed its new Holiday model and, with an assist from a UW structural engineer, improved the design. In 1968, K2 skis helped a U.S. Ski Team member win a World Cup event and the firm schussed its way to decades of industry domination.
Heart Defibrillator, 1962
Karl William Edmark, a Seattle cardiovascular surgeon, worked with teams at Providence and Swedish hospitals to perfect a heart defibrillator: With support from the UW, he began experiments with a direct-current device, which was safer and more effective than earlier alternating-current models. In 1961, it was used successfully during open-heart surgery on a 12-year-old child. Edmark opted not to patent the invention so the
Don Ibsen’s skis
technology could remain in the public domain. He founded Physio-Control to manufacturer the device and other medical equipment.
A group of 20-something friends in Spokane devised a game based on participants making quick sketches on paper to help a partner guess what dictionary term was being considered. Moving to Seattle to work as a waiter in 1984, Rob Angel and a couple of partners refined and trademarked its name. Pictionary sold 7,000 copies by the end of 1985. In 1986, an experienced toy industry veteran stepped in, they formed the Games Gang and it went on to move more than 20 million units.
Paul Tutmarc’s electric bass guitar.
Doppler Ultrasound, 1967
Donald Baker, working in the University of Washington bioengineering lab, helped create one of medicine’s most cost-effective diagnostic tools when he added Doppler technology to existing ultrasound devices to give them clearer images. His work was first published in 1967, and in one of the first cases of successful tech transfer, he helped transition his technology to Advanced Technology Laboratories, which would become one of the world’s main suppliers of ultrasound technology.
Seattle-based Immunex, later acquired by Amgen, developed Enbrel (generic name: Etanercept) to deal with rheumatoid arthritis. It was based on proteins produced by genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells.
Blended Winglet, 1994
former boeing engineer Louis B. Gratzer devised the blended winglet, a perpendicular wingtip add-on that improves airplane performance by reducing drag. The wingtips reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 5 percent while also improving takeoff performance and reducing noise.
FUN STUFF: CONSUMER HITS
Kit-cat Clock, 1932
Slinky Train, 1954Seattle entrepreneurs have long had a knack for capturing the zeitgeist. Designer Earl Arnault invented the Kit-Cat Clock, an animated plastic wall clock that featured a tail that wagged back and forth in synchronization with moving, luminous eyes. Arnault designed the product in Oregon but manufactured it in Seattle. It became a ubiquitous item in many kitchens.
Magnolia resident Helen Malsed was inspired by the Slinky Spring toy and created the Slinky Train, which enjoyed booming sales.
Earl Arnault's Kit-Cat Clock
Mark Oblack and Mariel Head invented Chuckit, a plastic device that allows pet owners to toss a tennis ball and then pick up the ball after Fido has retrieved it.
ROCK ON: MUSIC CITY
Harp Guitar, 1896
In 1896, the U.S. patent office granted a protective design patent to Port Townsend resident Chris Knutsen for a harp guitar, which featured a hollow wooden arm that extended from the main body roughly parallel to the neck and theoretically increased its audio volume. Knutsen later relocated his workshop/factory to Seattle’s Cascade neighborhood.
The Brocktave Key, 2012
University of Washington music professor Michael Brockman received a patent for his design improvement that included a piston-operated mechanism that sits on top of newly drilled vents and gives a saxophonist the option of using it for notes most often out of tune. With an assist from the university’s Center for Commercialization, it became the first patent ever to emerge from the UW Music School.
Floyd Rose invented the “whammy bar”
Floyd Rose Tremolo, 1979
Local Musician and jeweler Floyd Rose received his first patent in 1979 for the design of a superior tremolo — or “whammy bar” — for use on an electric guitar. Fender and Kramer brand guitars both adopted the unit, milions have sold and its functionality can be heard on many recordings by rock bands like Van Halen and Metallica.
RISE OF THE CORPORATION: THE NEW FACE OF INVENTION
Inventors have always taken advantage of the many inventions that came before them. But increasingly, the products with the biggest impact come from large companies that have a vision for a product and then integrate a broad range of technologies to make that product a reality. The iPhone may be the best example of that trend. Here are two devices from this region that also illustrate it.
Amazon's Kindle ebook reader
Amazon released the Kindle, an ebook reader capable of downloading books in seconds and storing up to 200 books. The product, which sold out in five and a half hours, represented the new face of invention. The device’s Whispernet feature, which allows it to quickly download books, was codesigned with wireless giant Qualcomm. Its software was developed by an Israeli team using Java, a software product owned by Sun. And the E Ink, which makes the words on the device easily legible, came out of research begun at MIT’s Media Lab.
Kinect for Xbox, 2010
In 2010, Microsoft released the Kinect, a device that allows users to control and interact with gaming consoles or computers using gestures and spoken commands. The device drew from Microsoft research around the world. Voice recognition came from the main campus in Redmond, while the ability to identify individual players in poor light came from a research team in Beijing and the ability to track everything going on in real time came from the Cambridge campus. While developed for gaming, the device has since been adapted for many other uses.
New Contributor | Peter Blecha is a staff historian and contributing editor with HistoryLink.org, dirctor of the Northwest Music Archives and the former senior curator at Seattle’s EMP Museum.