07 May 2014

Combination Sled and Toboggan, U.S. patent number 1,888,857

This is the story of the Combination Sled and Toboggan, U.S. patent number 1,888,857.

It's hard to say how things started.  There must have been some collaboration between Carroll E. Greene and Leroy Bailey, because Greene may have submitted the patent, but Bailey seems to have owned the rights to it.  Did Bailey buy the patent?  Did Greene just file the patent application for him?  Was Bailey just acting as business manager?  Impossible to say.

We do know, though, that Bailey sent away for information on how to obtain a patent.  He almost certainly answered one of the advertisements that the Victor J. Evans & Co had placed in Popular Mechanics.

In two installments ($30 on Dec 30, 1929, and $25 on Feb 1, 1930), Bailey paid for a patent to be filed. United States Patent Office records show that it was registered on Apr 21, 1931 by Carroll E. Greene of South Ryegate.  The amount Bailey paid would be something like $750 today.

A combination sled and toboggan was not, frankly, a new idea.  The first patent for such a contraption dates to 1887, from a gentleman in Yonkers, and Popular Science ran a feature on making your own in 1872.

If something is popular enough for features like this, especially with the booming popularity of tobogganing during the late 19th century in Canada, it makes sense to patent and manufacture a version for the masses.  Thus, our own cleverly-designed Combination Sled and Toboggan.  No example survives today of this particular version (or of a different style, patented six years earlier), so we must rely on our imagination and the drawings made by Victor J. Evans & Co. for what the machine must have looked like.

The only issue, once you have such an idea and a working prototype, is how to get your invention into a factory and selling.  For that, we turn back to Popular Mechanics, as Bailey seems to have done.  We find the Chartered Institute of American Inventors.

Leroy Bailey wrote away in response to this ad, or one just like it, and on Apr 16, 1935, T.W. Shibley of the Chartered Institute of American Inventors replied that they were very interested in the Combination Sled and Toboggan: "[W]e have looked up our records on this patent, and think that it has much commercial merit."  Also enclosed was an invitation to apply for membership in the Institute - for a modest fee.

 Let's be frank: the Chartered Institute of American Inventors was a little bit of a scam.  They made most of their money selling a dream: YOU can be an inventor!  Here is an impressive blueprint!  Here is a certificate!  Hopeful inventors of a better pouring spout or a printmaking chart would answer advertisements and pay a series of small fees, and in return the Institute would draw up some blueprints and contact manufacturers on their behalf.  T.W. Shibley of the Commercial Department of the Chartered Institute of American Inventors was almost certainly a member of the typing pool, who simply responded in the affirmative to every inquiry.  Almost all correspondence came from the same pool, from V.J. Leizer or V.E. Bell or A.H. Alder, presumably with abbreviated first names to hide their gender.

The whole thing wasn't a fraud: the Institute really did whip up a mean set of prints and description, assembling a ready-made little selling pamphlet that Bailey could send to any manufacturer in the country.  They also supplied a list of a thousand manufacturers, something that would have been considerably valuable to someone with no knowledge of the industry and no Internet.  And the Institute never did less than they promised to do on Bailey's behalf, acting as draftsmen and letter-writers and patent agents.  They did work to sell his invention.

But the real business of the Chartered Institute of American Inventors wasn't in churning out helpful inventions, it was in sucking in as many hopeful inventors as possible.  They peddled two main products: hope and prestige.

Your hope would come from the attempts to get your invention under production (or sold for quick cash).  Over and over, you would be coaxed into paying another small fee for another useful service, presented to you all shiny and slick.  Buy some of those litho-line prints, to put your best foot forward to manufacturers.  If you buy 150, you get a bulk discount.  And of course, you'll need professional presentation for them, letters and envelopes.  And you'll need someone on your side.  And before you know it, you've invested a tidy sum - another $35, in fact.

At the same time, you had the opportunity to Be an Inventor.  With your initial application, you got a decent-enough certificate of membership.  You might not want to hang it on your wall, but think of the thrill that might come from pulling it out of an envelope.  There it was... proof positive that you were an inventor.  A person of ideas, who could turn them into reality.  Whether or not you sold a single Combination Sled and Toboggan, no one could take that away from you.

Unfortunately, certificates or not, the Combination Sled and Toboggan did not see great success with manufacturers.  The Chartered Institute advised Bailey that he could expect to realize $4,000-7,000 ($68,000-118,000 today) by the direct sale of the patent, or royalties of $10,000-18,000 ($168,000-304,000 today) over its lifetime, but none of the manufacturers saw the potential.  The Institute demonstrated their diligence by forwarding some rejection letters (The Colson Corporation, The Murray Ohio Manufacturing Co., The Lloyd Manufacturing Co., Gregg Manufacturing Co.), accompanying them with advice to be patient ("We hope that the lack of interest shown by manufacturers approached in behalf of your Combination Sled and Toboggan has not discouraged you. ... Continue to use the inventive ability with which you are blessed and give to your fellow-man the benefits of a fertile mind by bringing forth new ideas.")

After considerable time, and many attempts, Bailey grew dissatisfied with the efforts of the Chartered Institute of American Inventors.  He'd thought he had an offer of interest from a manufacturer, and had triumphantly forwarded it, only to discover that the offer had been from a different patent agency - who probably would want a few more dollars.  The dedicated salesman, James L. Richtie (a first name!) gently responded, "We have your letter of February 11 and advise that the card enclosed with your letter from was not from a manufacturer as it appeared to be, but rather from a patent agent. ... Why not have us prepare another list of fifty prospects and another fifty letters and envelopes?  ... You have spent not only money, but time, labor and research on this Combination.  You consider as you would your child; it is a product of your mind, and you should determine definitely its practicability and salability." [sic]

It took a year, but Bailey tried one last tactic.  He took up the offer of the rival patent agency, American Patents Corporation, which appears to have been identical in every way to the Chartered Institute of American Inventors.  They were even housed in the same building in Washington, D.C.  They were probably the same people, in point of fact.  Bailey paid them a final $15 to have his invention placed in the pages of Commercial Inventions, a publication produced by the company for manufacturers.

And that, unfortunately, was the end of the matter.  There had been a chance, and many stories of success have taken just such a path.  We can admire the man for trying.  But no manufacturer took Bailey up on the invention, however promising it may have been, and the $100 he spent in total ($1,739.17 today) left him nothing in exchange.

Well, almost nothing.  He had a year of dreams.

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