#136 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 1
How to Invent
Severson, an 82-year-old independent inventor from Minneapolis,
Minnesota, received the 1994 Spirit of America Ingenuity Award
from the Intellectual Property Owners Association, Washington,
inventing since I was 15. Not
from choice: inventing
was a necessity. Since
we didn't have much income, if we needed something I had to make
it. Usually someone
else had a use for my inventions, so I made some income from them.
As a boy, my
favorite hangout was the village blacksmith shop, where I could
watch rural craftsmen at work. I realized that the more ability I
acquired, the easier things would be, so I took whatever short
courses and night classes I could.
During the Great
Depression, I hitchhiked to New York City and landed a job in a
gas station. It took
me 12 years to save money to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, to study
aircraft engineering. After
a career in major airlines, and military projects, I retired in
While working in
the aviation industry, I developed, on my own time, numerous
products, including camping trailers, beds, chairs, machine tools,
lumber mills, and oil reclaimers.
Whenever I saw a need I believed I could solve, I attacked
I didn’t patent
most of my projects, since my market research indicated
insufficient demand, but I did make quite a bit of extra money
How do I do it?
Up here in the North, we rely on common sense--or at least
I do. Let me give you
In June, 1992, I
was returning from a Minnesota Inventor’s Congress and noticed a
large pile of slabs behind a saw mill.
I asked the owner what he proposed to do with them. “Burn them, or sell some for firewood,” he replied.
“Why not make
them into shavings for turkey or animal bedding?” I asked.
A few days later,
my phone rang. “Can
you make a shaving machine to do the job?”
it.” I found some
channel iron and pulleys, made a cutter head, and took a hydraulic
feed from an old tractor. The finished shavings traveled a
conveyor into a pole barn for storage and shipping.
Once we solved a few glitches, the machine was a success,
and the mill owner had all the customers he wanted.
Now, with a little ingenuity, a little curiosity, and a
little reluctance to see something go to waste, he had a salable
product and no garbage.
I got a spin-off
from this shaving mill in 1993, when I noticed a bag of used styrofoam
packaging pellets--the infamous and indestructible "plastic
make great packing, but I knew some people hate them, since after
being used once, they last forever in a landfill.
So I invented a machine that forms hollow wood tubes, or
curls, about 3/4” long, for cushioning objects for shipment.
These biodegradable "peanuts" were also a great
success. After I
overcame the expected bugs, I applied for a patent, and all
nineteen claims were awarded!
After the expenses involved with patents, tooling, and raw
material, I finally hope to see some profits this year (aside from
a small pension, most of my income comes from products I’ve
My wife and I
were invited to Washington, D.C., by the Intellectual Property
Owners Association, which gave me its National Intellectual
Property Award for my wood-curl maker and my “inventing
ingenuity.” I was
also interviewed at the National Press Club by various news media,
including The New York Times.
On top of all of this, I was received by members of
Congress, and was given a fine plaque at the Caucus Room in the
Senate Office Building. It
still hasn’t settled down:
a CNN television crew just finished filming me--quite an
affair for a lone inventor who’s used to working in obscurity!
Formula for Inventing
In my early
inventing work, I was at the mercy of machine shops to make my
models, and realized that I needed my own facility to invent. Since I accept no venture capital, I cannot recall how many
times I mortgaged the “kitchen sink” to buy tools.
As each tool produced revenue, I bought more, and
eventually could make almost any model or product I
needed--although I still “job out” things I can't do.
I've gained some
wisdom from a lifetime inventing, and most of it is simple and
Be alert—every day—for problems to solve, for better
ways to make things, for better ways to do things.
These are all problems crying out for new products.
Promptly check it out and, if you can, make a working
model. Try it out,
but don’t spend an extra penny until you check out the market
and perform a patent search.
Be practical--for an inventor, life is too short to get
higher degrees in one narrow subject.
Be alert to other people’s abilities--and use them. If
you've got a metallurgical problem, find someone who knows an
alloy from an alibi.
Combine other people’s talents with your own, and get on
with the project.
And find a good intellectual property law firm to complete
your patent applications.
In closing, I'd
urge you to “take a crack” at a new invention or development
if it makes sense. It’s
a great thrill to see your inventions in use, creating new jobs,
and making people's lives a little easier.
And, above all, helping make our air, water, and land clean
Even if you
don’t want to be an independent inventor, concentrate on looking
for needs that will help your organization.
There are lots of them out there.
I wish you
success. You can do