Craig Williams remembers the exact moment when the idea flashed in his head.
He was relaxing with some buddies at a lodge after a day of hunting. A friend had
his leg draped over a chair and was absent-mindedly clipping away at his toenails.
Suddenly, a toenail clipping flew across the table and landed in Williams' coffee.
Rather than being grossed out, Williams, a construction worker and plumber
from North Central, Pa., was intrigued. "I thought, 'You know, it's a wonder
nobody has done something about this,'" he says.
Thus was born the Tidy Clip Nail Clipper, one of 101,860 official U.S. patents
issued in 1991. It's a simple device--one that makes you smack your head and say,
"I wish I'd thought of that"--just a standard clipper with an attached sliding plastic
shield that deflects out-of-control nail projectiles into the trash can. And thanks to
his friend's errant toenail, Williams has grossed, to date, nearly $50,000.
"It took me a year to get the components to make that slide shield for the
clippers," he says. "In this day and age you'd think you can find anything, but let me
tell you, it was a tough process. Just the rivets and the plastic."
Williams, 52, belongs to a very loosely organized army of American inventors
who are continually scrawling ideas on paper napkins and fiddling with gizmos in
the basement. Many of them have anonymously tinkered with their ideas for
decades, fastidiously writing 10-page patent proposals, while relying on word-of-
mouth marketing and door-to-door sales. Most of us never hear about these
inventors--even though the U.S. government has doled out over 12,000 patents to
individual inventors each of the past seven years. These mysterious and creative
individuals are often overprotective of their inventions.
The Internet, however, has dragged them out into the open. Something
resembling the impossible--a central inventors' community--has begun to
materialize via Web pages and Usenet newsgroups.
The main gathering place is the alt.inventors newsgroup, where tinkerers trade
tips and occasionally engage in debate over trivialities, like whether somebody
could patent a perpetual motion machine, even though it violates the laws of
thermodynamics. (The most recent consensus was "no.") Just down the virtual road
is the U.S. Patent and Trademark office's site (www.uspto.gov),
which maintains a searchable database for patents issued since 1976.
For a small fee, an inventor can also list his product on Da Vinci's Inventor
the Internet Invention Store (www.catalog.com/impulse/invent.htm) or countless other "trade pages" just like them. There's even an
inventor's FAQ, (sulcus.berkeley.edu/FLM/SH/MDL/invention/) plus plenty
of sites authored by patent attorneys, agents and interested companies.
After a quick Yahoo! search and a few minutes of Web surfing, one can find
Craig Williams' Tidy Clip Nail Clippers listed neatly among other inventions like
the Java Jacket, the Electronically Operated Clothesline, Pacific Rim Ginseng, the
Remote Control Locator Device ("Just clap your hands to find it!") and the Pocket-
Sized Ski Sharpener. Though it's unclear whether Tidy Clip's Web presence has
significantly increased sales, it certainly has helped raise global awareness; Williams
has received letters of interest from Syria, Japan and Australia.
"The Internet can unify all this," says Bill Nasset, a 51-year-old former real-estate
agent in Salem, Ore., who now markets his patented invention nearly full-time.
"The inventor community is absolutely fragmented. That's the big problem: They're
in a barnyard in Montana or they're in Nome, Alaska. They're really all over the
place. The hardest thing that all inventors deal with and the biggest thing that
defeats them is ignorance."
Nasset, through his Inventor World home page (www.InventorWorld.com),
aspires to build an international coalition of basement
tinkerers. He believes that Americans have a constitutional duty to transform their
off-the-cuff ideas into tangible, marketable products. To achieve this end, Inventor
World lists nifty "Inventions of the Month" and posts updated complaints about
wicked invention-stealing corporations. The page, not surprisingly, slips in plenty
of plugs for the Strait Jacket (not the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
variety), Nasset's proud invention and a key source of his yearly revenue.
In 1992, when Nasset went out to make photocopies of a $3,000 check for his
real-estate business, he inadvertently left the original at the copy shop. (It had
somehow blown behind the copy machine.) On his way back to the store, he had
his big idea: Why not design a mounting board for unusually shaped copies? That
way, he thought, you could sit at your desk and affix the originals to the board,
and then carry the whole unit to the copy machine. It took Nasset three months to
write the Strait Jacket proposal, but a year later he received the patent. He
estimates he has earned more than $30,000 from the idea since its conception.
"I said, 'I'm tired of photocopying stuff and gluing it to a sheet of paper and I'm
tired of these curled faxes,'" Nasset recounts. "Then I said, 'Someone should make a
board to put these on'...It saves paper, saves the environment, saves waste. It
completely changes the way people approach photocopying."
Nasset is somewhat philosophical about the inventing process: "An idea person
does nothing. An inventor is somebody who does one thing that furthers an idea
into physical existence."
That "inventor" definition, perfectly describes 60-year-old Lou Hinslaw. The
frequent contributor to alt.inventors claims to have come up with more than 5,000
ideas, and the file drawers in his Tulsa, Okla., house are jam-packed with hastily
scribbled plans and outlines. Some of the ideas are comparatively simple, like his
two 20-year-old patents--a toy with moving parts called the Kanoola, and a solar
heating and cooling device that he declines to describe. Other ideas are more
complex, including a proposal to rid Wal-Mart of 90 percent of
its shoplifting problems (which, Hinslaw laments, won't get past
an obstinate security chief) and an old scheme to make a blind person see by
containing them for hours in a dark room (Hinslaw insists it works).
"As to how and why I invent," he says, "I invent like people get hiccups. I don't
know why and I can't help it. I've got boxes of [ideas], but every once in a while I
go through a fit of depression and clean out my files. I went from
four large file cabinets to one two-drawer cabinet. I threw everything else away."
Most inventors, Hinslaw says, have trouble selling after they've come up with the
idea. "The thing with these particular people--there's a certain stigma that they have
ideas all the time; also, personal untidiness makes them rude, crude, vulgar and
socially unacceptable and they also say stupid things all of the time, even though
they're not stupid people.
"I can invent two inventions a day, and a breakthrough a month," he says. "Then,
of course, what you've got to do is sell it."
More than 206,000 individuals applied for patents in 1995, less than half of
which were accepted. This means that a lot of basements out there are filled with
scrap paper and unusual thingamabobs. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office press
secretary Lisa-Joy Zgorski says that these inventors surprisingly come from all
walks of life.
"People you wouldn't expect," she says. For instance a young girl recently came
up with a "Makin' Bacon" machine after watching her father ruin breakfast too
many times. The device hangs bacon vertically, so it drips into a pan. Or there's the
woman who has been trying to patent an entire line of complex adhesive
bookmarks, shaped like people and animals with protruding tails and heads. She's
working with Jack Lo, a patent agent in San Francisco who runs a patenting Web
site (www.patentingservices.com/). Lo himself entered the business by
inventing two products, including the yet unpatented Real Man Condom. Then
there's Dennis Harris, a physician in Phoenix, who patented Snorex, an anti-snore
formula, (www.catalog.com/impulse/snore.htm) which uses natural enzymes
and herbs to open up people's airways.
As a doctor, Harris can probably afford a patent attorney and a marketing team
to handle complicated patent issues. Many inventors, however, can't afford such
luxuries, and have to use a little ingenuity to save dollars, like using the Net.
Williams says Tidy Clip is very tough to market because it's such a low-priced item
($4.95). Add the cost of advertising and shipping, and the profit margin shrinks
"I've got an easy product, but it's a tough one to get on the market. I think even
Revlon has come up with a boot--like a shoe that clamps on the bottom (of
clippers). But it can get lost. It can drop off. Mine is a
sliding mechanism," Williams says. "Plus, I have them in hot pink --and that's the