#136 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 1          January 1995

How to Invent 
by Harvey M. Severson

Mr. 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, D.C.

I’ve been 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 1977.

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 the problem.

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 from them.

How do I do it?  Up here in the North, we rely on common sense--or at least I do.  Let me give you some examples. 

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. 

“Good idea,” he replied. 

A few days later, my phone rang.  “Can you make a shaving machine to do the job?” 

“I’ll do 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 peanuts."  They 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 invented).

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!

My 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 straightforward:

  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 and safe. 

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 it!!

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