FARMINGTON — When former resident Chester Greenwood filed a patent 136 years ago for his earmuffs design, he became an enduring local symbol of innovation and business acumen; but he might have had a more difficult time achieving the same success today.
On Saturday, in Greenwood’s honor, people lined the streets to watch an earmuffs-themed parade, the centerpiece of a two-day annual celebration that has been observed religiously for the past 37 years.
Many are drawn to the simplicity of the story of Greenwood who, as a teenager, reportedly came home from ice skating one day and asked his grandmother to attach pads of beaver fur to a wire frame.
On the strength of that idea, Greenwood built an earmuff empire, employing hundreds at a Farmington factory and supplying his product to soldiers during World War I through a government contract.
Greenwood is credited for 4 patents, including one for a metal-toothed rake, a wood-boring machine, and a matchbox that doubled as a business card holder.
For his achievements, the Legislature declared Dec. 21 “Chester Greenwood Day” in 1977, 40 years after his death.
In reality, however, Greenwood’s invention was not as clear-cut as the public might imagine, according to Dennis Haszko, a patent agent based in Farmington who often works with local inventors to help them register and protect their ideas.
Haszko has been practicing as a patent agent since 1997 and is affiliated with Eaton Peabody, a law firm with offices in five Maine communities.
Haszko has studied Greenwood’s patent, still on file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in an effort to answer a question.
“Why did Chester Greenwood get a patent?” he asked. “I have one of his original earmuffs. If you’ve seen one, it’s not a very comfortable product.”
In addition to being uncomfortable, the product was also somewhat unoriginal.
“Candidly, there were earmuffs prior to that,” Haszko said. “It wasn’t the first earmuff. It was an improved earmuff.”
Haszko said that while Greenwood is credited as the inventor of the earmuff, what he actually patented was an earmuff component consisting of a metal band with a v-shaped hinge on either side that swiveled with the ear.
That triangular hinge, Haszko said, was the true innovation.
“It was just that swivel hinge, the best I could determine, that made it patentably distinct and made it a better product,” he said.
Greenwood’s earmuffs, which he branded as “Champion Ear Protectors,” continue to have relevance today — not only for freezing ears, but also for other inventors seeking patents.
Greenwood’s patent has been cited by patent office examiners for other inventions, including a trolling motor mount for outboard and inboard boats.
Over the past 10 years, it has been referenced in a dozen patents for ear-warming devices of one kind or another, including one for an “ear warmer with a speaker system.”
One filed in May, the “ear protection device,” demonstrates how patents have changed over the years. While Greenwood’s patent was two pages long and included two simple diagrams, the modern earmuff patent application consists of 31 pages of diagrams, some very complex, and dozens of pages of text.
“It kind of amazes me how the rules have changed,” Haszko said. “It’s gotten so much more complicated to get a patent. Chester Greenwood would have been up against the same problems. His two-page patent would have morphed into that 50-page patent.”
If Greenwood tried to patent his invention in 2013 instead of 1877, he probably would have struggled with the patent office.
“You don’t just submit it and get a rubber stamp,” Haszko said. “You have to negotiate with a patent examiner and negotiate some line in the sand where they think it’s patentable and you think it’s patentable.”
Every time a patent is filed, it touches off a tug of war between the person filing the patent and the patent office, which employs more than 6,000 examiners.
Generally speaking, the inventor benefits from having a broad patent that prevents others from marketing similar products.
Meanwhile, the patent office seeks to make sure that any ideas belonging to the public, or to other inventors, are not stolen.
“Their job is to put you in a box, and our job is to push the borders of that box,” Haszko said.
Haszko said the process has gotten more difficult as the decades have passed.
“I’m not sure if it’s because examiners take their jobs a little more seriously now than they did 100 years ago or what, but it’s a very different world,” he said.
Greenwood also probably would have needed more money to file for a patent.
The cost of patenting an invention, Haszko said, depends on how complex it is; and these are complex times.
“A very simple product like the pen in my hand that might have very limited moving parts would be on the low end of the spectrum,” he said, and could cost as little as $2,000.
The more parts something has, the more it costs to patent.
A complex software patent would cost tens of thousands of dollars to evaluate, he said.
A study in a 2001 edition of the Northwestern University Law Review found the average U.S. patent costs $10,000 to $30,000, and significantly more when litigation is involved.
A simple invention
For some modern-day inventors, the complexities and costs of getting a product patented and marketed can be overwhelming.
“The patent office only talks to the lawyers, and the lawyers talk to you. And everyone gets paid except for you,” said Russell Danner, a Waterville veterinarian who used to work as a fish pathologist for the state.
Danner’s own trials show how the patenting process can add unwanted complications to an elegant invention.
“I had a simple idea that worked well and was easy,” Danner said.
When working with fish in the wild, Danner identified a problem encountered by marine biologists and other researchers. It’s difficult to weigh fish in the wild, he said, because they weigh nothing in the water, and they flop around while out of the water. The state uses a chemical to knock the fish out; but the chemical, toxic to humans, lingers in the system of the fish for up to 21 days, posing a health concern.
So Danner invented Fish-Eezzz, a mixture of spearmint and wintergreen oils that knocks a fish unconscious in a matter of minutes, with no health concerns for fish or people.
An enthusiastic Danner began pouring time and money in the patent process. Five years later, while watching his own patent application grow to more than 50 pages, he’s still waiting for a payoff.
“I bet I’m into it 30 grand,” he said. And that’s for an idea so simple, “it’s practically earmuffs.”
Danner said the patent office was not satisfied with the claim that the mint oil mixture anesthetizes fish.
“They want it to be real specific,” Danner said. “In my case, it wasn’t good enough to say it was mint. You had to say what concentrations of mint at the low end and at the high end and for what fish species. That gets very complicated when there’s 25,000 species of fish.”
Danner also has struggled with the Food and Drug Administration, which has raised concerns because mints, a natural product, can vary.
“It depends on what field you take them out of and what part of the country you’re in. They want a purified drug, which is a whole other step,” Danner said.
If Greenwood were patenting his earmuffs today, Danner said, he would have to document arguments that distinguished his product from any headgear that protected the user against the elements, from sunglasses to baseball caps.
Each new patent essentially has to be checked against each existing patent. That was easier during the patent office’s first 50 years, when it issued a total of about 10,000 patents.
Today, there are more than 16 million patents in the U.S., and about 150,00 are added each year, according to federal figures.
“I imagine when somebody patented earmuffs, there weren’t billions of patents out there,” Danner said. “There weren’t computers to cross-reference every possible idea. It just seems that things have gotten out of control.”
For now, Danner said, he has put his idea on the back burner. The process has just been too cumbersome.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I’m not bitter, and it’s an interesting process, but it has been very difficult.”
State and local support
For all of his trials, Danner praised the availability of state and local resources designed to guide inventors through the complicated world of patenting and business development.
Some of the $30,000 he’s spent on the patenting process has come, not out of his own pocket, but from the Maine Technology Institute, a state-funded entity that spends seed money on promising business ideas.
The technology institute is one of several entities, including the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, that have a reciprocal relationship with Haszko, who refers his clients to the appropriate business support system.
He also directs people to the U.S. Patent & Trademark Depository Library in Orono, and to the Maine Patent Program, an offshoot of the University of Maine School of Law, which can help inventors to learn whether their idea has already been patented by someone else.
“Do your homework,” Haszko said. “There are great resources in the state of Maine.”
Despite the obstacles, Haszko said the dream of coming up with a million-dollar idea is still alive and well for determined inventors and entrepreneurs.
Haszko said the world is full of examples, historical and current, of people who made minor improvements to existing inventions and profited tremendously. One doesn’t have to be an engineer or professional inventor, he said.
“We can recreate the success that Chester Greenwood had umpteen years ago, today in Farmington, Maine.”