Norman Fawley is a lone California inventor of a more practical way to use natural gas as a vehicle fuel. “While I would like to think that the world would recognize an inventor, this simply is not a fact”, he declared.
Jim Bagby is a coal miner in Kentucky. In the mines he builds brattices which are walls that seal mine tunnels against the passage of air or other gases. He invented a better brattice in 1974. The world did not beat a path to his door either.
But now, thanks to a tiny and little-heralded U.S. government Energy-Related Inventions Program (ERIP), both Fawley and Bagby are on their way to market with their ideas.
Started by Congressional initiative in 1975 during the Ford Administration, this program, jointly operated by the National Bureau of Standards and the Department of Energy, evaluates energy-related inventions by individual inventors and small businesses without charge. It recommends those it considers promising to the Department of Energy which then can offer financial and marketing support. ERIP gives inventors credibility.
For several decades the lone American inventor–once a legendary figure associated with the likes of Edison and Bell — has been shunted aside by the corporate laboratories and other research collectives. The myth grew that modern industry and complicated technology required organizational bases for inventions and that the single inventor was obsolete. The facts are different. A great source of recent and contemporary invention still comes first from the unaffiliated inventor, though increasingly companies receive the credit after buying out or securing the rights to the inventions. Xerography was not invented by Xerox but by a man named Carlson who knocked on many doors for years.
Companies, moreover, usually do not like to pay royalties. Some companies do not relish inventions that would displace their own profitable products with better values for consumers. Other companies have learned how to design around a patented or unpatented device. As one physicist bemoaned: “all a patent does is give you an expensive right to sue.”
For years I have urged that there be an office in Washington to evaluate inventive ideas. Not since World War II, when the War Department had a successful small unit to screen the thousands of submitted devices and designs, did the individual inventor have anywhere to go to receive a fair appraisal.
Enter the oil shock of 1973-1974 and the realization that the country needed all the ideas about energy efficiency and alternatives it could get. Almost 10 years have elapsed since ERIP was opened.The record is promising enough, it seems to me, to be extended to all fields of invention. ERIP has received 19,000 inventions or ideas for review. Of this amount, 225 were recommended to the Department of Energy for assistance. ERIP has awarded 165 grants totalling $12.8 million. Grants range between $50,000 and $200,000.
Grant funds were cut in 1982 and 1983, so the present emphasis is to help the inventor obtain outside financing or marketing sponsorship. Thirty five of the inventions have reached the market with cumulative sales of $178 million. Other products are not far behind.
Those inventors who are rejected at least are told the reasons why and the applicant is welcomed to reapply. ERIP chief, George Lewett, says “We’re always willing to reconsider our position if the inventor can provide further details or new information.”
The successes have included higher efficiency hot-water heaters, furnaces, internal combustion engines, construction materials and superior waste heat utilization techniques for residential, commercial and industrial applications.
Advances in solar, geothermal and biomass energy production, along with technologies enhancing conventional energy production and recovery, are also in the winners’ column. Their significance for energy consumption will become greater as potential becomes reality, ascending to a recent MIT study. Some of these improvements, like the new mine brattice, improve health and safety environments as well.
Americans are a very inventive people. Their ideas need to be given a fair, independent appraisal and market opportunities. Yet year after year, lone inventors have found themselves blocked or ridiculed or ripped off by entrenched industrial companies. Remember how long it took to have a longer lasting light bulb in the stores.
If this nation is interested in a consumer-sensitive economy of rising productivity, the ERIP model, with suitable elaborations, needs wider celebration. There are many other Fawleys and Bagbys in them thar hills.