Hope Is a Strange Invention

Tony Nelson

A confidentiality agreement awaits at the door. Everyone has to sign it. "There are guidelines we all must follow," a man whispers conspiratorially. "What we say here does not leave the room." About 75 people--mainly inventors, but also patent attorney and marketing types--have gathered this evening in the meeting hall at the Van Dusen Center, an old mansion located just off Franklin Avenue in south Minneapolis.

In the pre-program shuffle, the advice is handed out as fast as the business cards. "It takes a while to go through with everything. Don't quit your day job," offers one attendee, an unemployed technical writer in his mid-30s. Then at 6:59 p.m., as announced, the monthly meeting of the Inventors' Network begins. With cookies and cups of thin coffee in hand, the attendees settle into their seats.

Near the front, a group of chatty older men--some look like they could be pushing 90--take seats at the front table. In the back, a middle-aged man plucks a pen from a cluster of implements in his breast pocket and begins to quietly draw mysterious sketches and diagrams. A young blond woman who arrives late and alone takes her seat, carefully placing a small plastic box by her feet.

The evening's featured speaker is Jeanne Larson. A nurse-turned-business consultant, Larson doles out her advice by way of a protracted analogy. Inventors, she explains, are wizards. Business plans are rocks. Investors are angels. For the inventor with limited funds, Larson explains, angels are critical. And they can be hard to find. "There is no listing for them in the telephone book." At this, one of the bald men from the front pivots in his seat, adjusts his spectacles, and addresses the ranks. "If you can go it on your own, go for it. Anytime you bring an angel in, they just want part of the cut," he says.

In the world of inventors, angels can sprout devil's horns. Everyone knows this, but no one knows it better than the president of the Inventors' Network, Robert Albertson. With his plaid collared shirt and tan slacks, Albertson looks more suited to the basement workroom than the corporate testing lab. But he's no mere hobbyist--he's the mind behind the weed eater, the shower massager, and dozens of other inventions, and he owns a patent list nearing 250.

Albertson got his start in the tinkering game more than 50 years ago when he came up with what remains his best known innovation: the paper coffee filter. He sold the idea to a vending machine company for a couple of thousand dollars--a fortune for him at the time, but a pittance when you consider that the concept launched Mr. Coffee.

Years later, Albertson would gain a reputation for brawling with the big boys. In 1984, when Albertson was installing private pay telephones through his Tonk-a-Phone, Inc., he even took on Ma Bell. Bell had challenged the legality of his enterprise and, he says, even resorted to sabotaging his phones. Albertson filed a suit with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, Bell gave in, and Minnesota became the first state to allow competition in the payphone market.

"It's a mercenary world out there," he warns his fellow inventors. "We're not in the good old days where distribution is the local hardware store or the drug store. All these ma-and-pas are going by the wayside. It's all become a Kmart, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club market. It's all about the biggies. In order to sell the biggies, you have to be a biggie yourself."

These days, Albertson spends more time as a mentor to other inventors. He is also developing a TV show called Inventing with Bob, a meet-the-inventor, interview-format cable access show he expects to syndicate on more than 100 networks. Among his guests: Art Fry, inventor of the Post-It Note; and Earl Bakken, inventor of the portable pacemaker. Future episodes will feature four teenage girls who he says are on their way to millions, thanks to such inventions as the microwave bacon cooker.

As the meeting draws to a close, a woman named Wendy Thomas takes the floor in the meeting hall to get some reactions to her invention: a special quilt that is split in the middle so it is thick on one half and thin on the other. This, she thinks, will go over well with couples who disagree over how warm a bed should be.

When most left the hall for the evening, a dozen or so members stick around to get a closer look at Thomas's bedding. "This is how we learn," she says with a smile. "If I can answer all their questions confidently, I have a good idea. If I can't, it's just a pipe dream."

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