Back


Gadgets, Gizmos, and Doohickeys that Changed the World

Imagination met reality in these 13 modern inventions by local inventors

by Nancy Sajdak Manning

One might think that the money value of an invention constitutes its reward to the man who loves his work. But…I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success. ~ Thomas A. Edison

Independent inventors in our Great Lakes Bay Region are an observant, creative lot who often wonder "What if?" and assume there just has to be a way-or at least a better way. They are the doers who tinker around and continuously create new small and large innovations to improve businesses, economies, and quality of lives both here and around the world.

The following select group demonstrates some inventions created locally and marketed over the past three decades:

"The Amigo" Scooter, patented 1971

INVENTOR:

Allan Thieme, Bridgeport

BUSINESS:

Amigo Mobility International, Inc., Bridgeport (est. 1968)

WHY IT'S BIG:

This mobility power-operated vehicle (POV)/scooter launched an entire industry to aid people with mobility limitations. In 1977, Thieme's efforts led to amended Social Security law that includes POVs. Amigo POVs now appear in all sorts of indoor and outdoor settings, and are manufactured in Bridgeport, with worldwide sales.

HEX Vertical Tanning

INVENTOR:

Joe Bommarito, Saginaw

BUSINESS:

HEX Tanning & Marketing Concepts, Saginaw (est. 1979)

WHY IT'S BIG:

The vertical unit was initially created as a medical component for phototherapy, then next produced for use as the world's first vertical tanning system. Bommarito is recognized as "the father of stand-up tanning." HEX systems are more hygienic, easier to use, require less maintenance, have longer lives, and earn higher profits than bed-type units. HEX systems sell on six continents.

The JAC Fitting, patented 1980

INVENTOR:

Daniel Corcoran, Bay City; now residing in Traverse City

BUSINESS:

(Previous) JAC Distributing, Inc., Bay City

WHY IT'S BIG:

This unique fitting, still used today, enables easier installation of fire sprinklers and saves contractors time and money. The fittings were produced by Corcoran for several years, and distribution took off in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In 1989, Corcoran sold lucrative patent rights to an Australian company.

Snowmaking Apparatus and Method, patented 1980

INVENTORS:

James B. VanderKelen, Midland; William E. Riskey, Whittemore Lake

BUSINESS:

[Vanderkelen] Snow Machines, Inc. (SMI), Midland (est. 1974)

WHY IT'S BIG:

This snowmaking apparatus and method overcame snowmaker freeze-up challenges with an anti-freeze-up system for use in conjunction with snowmaking guns. It made better snow with warmer temperatures and did not freeze up with extremely cold temperatures. SMI's global company has supplied snowmaking equipment to three winter Olympics.

Early Solar Heating System, patented 1981

INVENTOR:

Norman D. Stevens, Bay City

BUSINESS:

(Previous) Doc Solar Heating Company, Bay City

WHY IT'S BIG:

This energy-saving system, supported by government tax credits available to consumers when filing income taxes, was applicable to manufactured homes, and was placed on those at the factory level, which allowed for rapid, widespread nationwide distribution.

Early Wind Turbine Blades, patented 1984

INVENTORS:

Meade Gougeon, Bay City; Jan Gougeon, Bay City

BUSINESS:

Gougeon Brothers, Inc., Bay City (est. 1969)

WHY IT'S BIG:

The Gougeons won an early NASA contract to create energy-saving incredibly strong, light-composite wood and epoxy wind turbine blades. The Gougeons' WEST SYSTEM Epoxy was used to eliminate fatigue problems in the extremely large blades. Hollow blades created in sections allowed easier shipping and in-the-field assembly. For 14 years, the Gougeons built 4,300 blades for NASA and others.

Concentric/CRIS (cris.com), First Nationwide Dial-up ISP Network, ca. 1993

INVENTOR:

Chad Shackley, Bay City, co-founder of Concentric/CRIS (cris.com)

BUSINESS:

(Currently) MBS Computer Services, Bay City

WHY IT'S BIG:

This first nationwide dial-up network changed the direction of the industry. The new-style flat rate of $30/month (versus typical fees of $5-$10/hour) provided combined services: unlimited access to content (e-mail, multiplayer games, chat rooms, downloading files, etc.); direct access to about 30 nationwide bulletin boards (eliminating long-distance fees); and browser ability to view Web sites. Shackley sold his profitable interest in Concentric.

"FirstLook" Diagnostic Sensor for Engines, patented 2002

INVENTOR:

John Brock, Auburn

BUSINESS:

SenX Technology, LLC, Midland

WHY IT'S BIG:

This sensor tube with a measuring device that attaches to the exhaust stream of an engine enables automotive mechanics to identify engine problems in a five-minute analysis without touching a wrench. As a result, labor costs are reduced by hours. The device complements the onboard computer to determine if mechanical engine problems need to be fixed first. The product is regarded highly by trainers and diagnosticians in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe.

"Poultry Pal" Beer Can Chicken Cooker, patented 2004

INVENTOR:

Thomas W. Simon, Bay City

BUSINESS:

Poultry Pal (Web site)

WHY IT'S BIG:

The gadget provides a better, safer way to make popular, moist, and flavorful beer can chicken or turkey on the grill or in the oven. The cooker includes a base to collect juices and cook vegetables.

MH Pro! EZ Software Design Method for Drainage Systems, patented 2006

INVENTORS:

Thomas D. Goodman, Bay City; Patrick A. Race, Bay City

BUSINESS:

FBE Associates, Inc., Bay City (est. 1998)

WHY IT'S BIG:

This software helps precast concrete producers design and construct precast drainage structures such as manholes, catch basins, and other outlets. It analyzes the combined requirements of engineering and the precast concrete producer to generate a priority-numbered list of construction solutions. Customers for the software are in the United States and Canada.

"In the Groove" Knee Brace, patented 2009

INVENTOR:

Dr. Alice M. Brown, Saginaw

BUSINESS:

In the Groove (Web site)

WHY IT'S BIG:

A new-style rehabilitative knee brace for medial lateral knee pain allows the kneecap to be "in the groove" the way it was meant to be. The brace provides immediate relief of pain and improves mobility, while slowing new damage and training muscles to maintain alignment. The brace has U.S. and international sales.

Self-sealing Draft-free Pet Door, 2006 patent application

INVENTOR:

Brian Algar, Bay City

BUSINESS:

Access Magnetics (Web site)

WHY IT'S BIG:

The product is the first pet door to allow zero air infiltration. It's endorsed by Energy Star Partners and Energy Star home sealing engineers and approved by building contractors and veterinarians. The Michigan-made pet door, with U.S. and international sales, received the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center's award for 2010 regional best small business.

Heart Pump Vest, 2009 patent application

INVENTOR:

Cindy Bosco, Bay City

BUSINESS:

Bosco LVAD Vest (Web site)

WHY IT'S BIG:

This stylish vest is designed with a special pocket to provide an easier way to manage cumbersome heart pump equipment that sometimes must be worn for long periods of time. The product is Michigan-made.

PROTECT YOUR INVENTION

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and patent attorneys help inventors safeguard their ideas from inception through patent application, patenting, assigning, selling or licensing a patent, marketing, and manufacturing. Certainly, inventors can make and sell their inventions without patents-as long as they don't infringe on those of others. Also, they risk others copying and profiting from the unpatented inventions.

Midland patent attorney Robert McKellar says that if you've been thinking about patenting an invention, it's best to consult with a patent attorney as soon as possible; often, there is no charge for a first visit. McKellar also warns against "publishing your invention, selling, offering to sell, placing the invention in the public domain, and using the invention in the public domain." The earliest violation of any of these prohibitions starts the Federal Statutory clock running on a one-year grace period for filing your patent application and obtaining a valid, enforceable patent.

SUPPORT RESOURCES FOR INDEPENDENT INVENTORS