- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Some children are natural inventors, although the line between fantasy and reality is sometimes foggy.
Even the grandfather of inventors Thomas Edison had some trouble distinguishing between the two in his early years. At 6, the young Edison tried to launch the first human balloon by persuading a friend to swallow large quantities of effervescing powders to inflate himself with gas, according to a study guide published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
That invention failed, but America's most prolific inventor went on to earn 1,093 patents in his lifetime. His first workable invention was an electrical cockroach control system, developed when Edison was in his teens. The young inventor glued parallel strips of tinfoil to a wall and wired the strips to the poles of a powerful battery to zap the pests.
Edison's innovations have inspired many an unsung inventor to toil in the hope of one day persuading government examiners to grant a patent for a unique invention. A visit to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Museum in Arlington gives a brief glimpse of some landmark inventions that have become permanent fixtures in American industrial society.
The museum's small collection includes some 19th-century models submitted to the patent office when an inventor applied for a patent. The government stopped accepting models after 1880 because storage became too difficult. From 1840 to 1893, the patent office operated a museum of models featuring more than 250,000 items some of which belong to the National Museum of American Art.
The models on display in the patent museum include early examples of the washing machine, the wood-burning stove and a carpet sweeper. The doll-house-size exhibits were submitted along with detailed drawings by inventors who hoped to capitalize on their ideas.
"The biggest misconception is that there is a million-dollar check waiting for someone who gets a patent," says Ruth Ann Nyblod, curator of the museum and a spokeswoman for the patent office. "We recommend that any inventor, before applying for a patent, develop a business plan," she says. "Getting a patent is expensive it can cost a minimum of $4,000 so it should not be viewed as a trophy to hang on the wall."
Ms. Nyblod leads tour groups through the museum, where visitors view a film on the patent process. Children can participate in the museum's "inventive thinking" project, which outlines the procedure for solving a problem in a creative way.
For inspiration, children are given some tidbits of history, featuring the unique ways inventors have coped with some ordinary problems:
In 1873, 13-year-old Chester Greenwood was cold. He found a piece of wire and covered it with a padded piece of fabric, which he used to keep his ears warm. Although his friends laughed at first, they noticed that Chester was able to stay out in the cold longer than they could. Soon they began asking for pairs of "ear muffs," and an invention was born. Chester got a patent on the invention when he was 17 and founded a company that manufactured the devices.
In 1913, Clarence Crane, a chocolate candy manufacturer, discovered his shipments were turning into gooey blobs during the warm months. The candy maker searched for a substitute. Using a machine designed for making medicine pills, Crane invented small circular candies with a hole in the middle. Life Savers were born.
The patent museum's most recognizable items are housed in the section devoted to trademarks. Some famous trademarked items include a McDonald's french fry container, five different designs of the Coke bottle, the Hershey chocolate Kiss, Tide detergent, Wheaties, Mickey Mouse and the Dustbuster.
Even color schemes have qualified for trademark protection. Owens-Corning set the pace by applying for permission to trademark the color pink for insulation products. The John Deere Co. has trademarked the yellow wheel and green body color scheme for its farm machinery.

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