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Iowa Ingenuity: Inventors and inventions in our state’s history


The Apple computer wasn’t built in Iowa, but the first automatic electronic digital computer was — and the Delicious apple was also patented here.

The Apple computer wasn’t built in Iowa, but the
first automatic electronic digital computer was —
and the Delicious apple was also patented here.

“How could I manufacture 30,000 hot dogs every hour?”

That must have been the question Ray Townsend asked himself before inventing his trusty “frank-o-matic,” the machine that stripped skin away from pork, enabling the mass production of linked meats. His Townsend Model 27 turned the meatpacking industry on its ear, but Townsend isn’t the only inventor in Iowa history. The state has a long line of brilliance when it comes to ingenuity, and Iowans are responsible for offering many of the world’s best and ingenious machines and mechanisms that enable overeating. Iowa leads the world in finding efficient ways to pack on the pounds.

Believe it or not, it was a fellow Iowan who invented the mechanism for slicing bread. Davenport’s Otto Rohwedder patented the bread-cutting machine and eliminated clumsy-handed bread breaking, alleviated the need for yesteryear’s dull-knife smashing, and set the standard by which all subsequent inventions would be measured for at least the next several generations.

Iowans’ ingenuity didn’t stop there, though.

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Some say the first vending machine was was invented in the first century AD by a guy named Hero of Alexandria. Hero’s contraption took coins and dispensed holy water. Hero wasn’t an Iowan, but 1,900 years later, an Iowan named F.A. Wittern dreamed up an invention allowing a vending machine to return change to the customer. His company, Fawn Engineering, operated in Clive.


The Eskimo Pie was also invented by an Iowan. This tasty chocolate-covered treat was the brainchild of Christian Nelson of Onawa. It was also the result of indecision. Nelson owned an ice cream shop and he watched as a child debated between buying ice cream or chocolate. The boy first went for the ice cream, and then he opted for the chocolate. The rest is history.


Norman Borlaug nearly ended world hunger with his grain improvements, which is a tall order. Some estimates say he saved more than a billion people from starvation — which is just cause for his 1970 Nobel Prize in 1970 — with his contributions to agriculture including “dwarf wheat,” a strain of wheat that stood up to Mexico’s harsh growing conditions.


When George Nissen was a college gymnast at the University of Northern Iowa, he saw trapeze artists bouncing off the safety nets and thought that an apparatus capable of heaving him up instead of breaking a fall could benefit his training routine. He and his coach built the first modern trampoline in 1931. Nissan later went to work at production, and he centered his business operations at his headquarters in Cedar Rapids.


The Hawkeye State holds its own in 21st century diet busters, too. If you ever wondered why Ben Silberman’s Twitter page has rows of corn in the background, it’s because the Pinterest founder and Yale grad has wrecked innumerable diets with the invention that enables recipes — and other favorite things — to be shared worldwide with one easy mouse click. Silbermann’s ingenuity has made him a rich man. He’s worth an estimated $1.5 billion. But before he was rich and “pin worthy,” he was reared right here in central Iowa. He attended Des Moines Public Schools until graduating in 1999 from Central Academy and Roosevelt.


Ken and Paul Estlund didn’t invent the basketball hoop, but they did improve it. In 1985 the brothers patented a new kind of hoop, a breakaway basketball goal that allowed the hoop to release if and when someone took it to the rack a little too hard.


At least part of it. Hannah Harger was a mother in rural Manchester, Iowa. She worried about flies and other insects bothering her babes, so she invented the screen door. The invention allowed cool air in while keeping the undesirables out. And her kids slept like babies, presumably.


Dr. W.D. Paul and Dr. J. I. Routh teamed up to invent buffered aspirin — the buffer inhibits some of the effects from the acidic nature of aspirin.


God is commonly considered to have created the apple, but Jesse Hiatt of Peru, Iowa, patented the Delicious apple. Hiatt originally called it the “Hawkeye,” but the patent was purchased, and the name was changed. No word on if Eve took a bite.


The first helicopter was dreamed up 17 years before the Wright Brothers took their historic flight, and on July 4, 1886, August Werner took off in his homemade helicopter with a friend. He lifted 4 feet off the ground before he collapsed in a heap. The southwest Iowan was done flying — after what might have been the first helicopter crash in history — but he will be remembered for his Iowa ingenuity.


Did you ever wonder why it’s the “Gallup Poll” and not “gallop poll”? The famous poll was invented by an Iowan, George Gallup, and is named after him — not the stride of a horse.


Arguably the first automatic electronic digital computer in history was built at Iowa State University in 1939 by John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry.


Janie Kakakis gives her husband Anthony’s invention a test run. The need for the ability to work out at home arose following the birth of their baby.

Janie Kakakis gives her husband Anthony’s invention a test run. The need for the ability to work out at home arose following the birth of their baby.

Anthony Kokakis knows he’s up against long odds to become the next Iowa inventor on the list above, but he’s betting on himself and his Yoga Flexer to hit it big — and he’s asking you to bet on it, too.

Kokakis started masterminding in August after his first child was born. He and his wife had previously been active in physical fitness — she was a Division I athlete, and they worked out at the gym daily — but the baby’s arrival made it more difficult to get a workout in. He says the adjustment to parenting impacted her the most because leaving the baby to go work out wasn’t easy. So Kokakis decided to do something about it.

Kokakis had an idea that combined various exercises into one. The outcome would be a portable workout product that didn’t take up much space. He centered the product around a yoga mat, which he believed was important for their fitness benefits, and then he bundled the other items to create four key training accessories that include: resistance bands, a traditional stretching roller, a weighted fitness bar and handle weights.

After his wife and child would go to bed, Anthony would head for the garage and attempt to put the contraption together. He says he spent about three hours a day working on the invention.

“I’d be out here until about midnight,” he says. “And then I was at Home Depot every single day for a month.”

Kokakis suspects the staff at the store probably had a good chuckle seeing him in the aisles every night, testing different materials.

He isn’t a yoga aficionado, and he says others don’t have to be, either, to use his invention, but he wanted to incorporate the mat for its material benefits.

“Yoga mats are perfect for joint protection,” he points out. “And it turns out that no one has ever done that.”

Kokakis says he filed for the provisional patent by himself and encourages others to do the same. But he recommends doing research and being careful.

“There are snakes out there that are searching for patents,” he warns. “They find a loophole in your filing, and they’ll steal it.”

Kokakis plans to use an attorney to finish the work.

“It’s about $5,000,” he says. “Five to 10. It depends on the attorney’s hourly rate and how complicated the claim is.”

Kokakis is asking the public for $15,000 through his Kickstarter campaign. He says it’s a great tool for would-be inventors to attain the needed capital to launch production. If his project gets funded, the money will go toward covering the tooling and molding. People who preorder will receive a $50 discount off the retail price, he says.

If he receives funding, he’ll manufacture some finished products and begin testing to ensure everything works properly. Right now, his prototype works as the finished one will, but it looks clunkier, and it is made of hardware-store materials such as irrigation couplings, PVC pipes, plastic caps, thick grade plastic and grout sand, and it is held together by epoxy putty or Mighty Putty.

“In the end, I probably spent $600 in supplies,” he says. “I’d test and fail, test and fail.”

Finally he tired of bringing the supplies home only to fail again, and he said, “forget it” and built it in the aisle of the hardware store.

Kokakis says he is excited to get funded and see a final product. He feels as though he’s spent a lifetime inventing and failing — or dreaming up inventions — but then not having the funds to produce them. He’s an “Edison” at heart.

“The final won’t be made out of this stuff,” he says. “But I needed to have a working prototype, so I figured out a way. I’ve had so many products that… I’m the crazy guy, I’m the crazy friend, and I drive my friends nuts because I was have so many ideas. I’m the guy that’s like, ‘Anthony is crazy.’ ”



Obtaining a patent generally takes two to three years, and it grants the holder the right to prevent others from making the product.

Go directly to jail. Don’t pass “go.” Don’t collect $200. Many central Iowans have childhood memories of taking a walk on the Boardwalk, playing Monopoly and winning second prize in a beauty contest — as well as the phony $10 prize that came with it. But in the real world, monopolies are supposed to be illegal. The thinking is that monopolies hinder competition and harm consumers.

However, U.S. law does allow entities to maintain short-term exclusivity rights in some circumstances. If an entity can prove it invented something unique, the Federal government will award a patent, which means the inventor’s rights are protected for up to 20 years from the date the patent application is filed.

These property rights are effective only within the areas under U.S. possession. And if you are a fine-print junky, note that the patent doesn’t grant one the right to use an idea, just the right to prohibit others from using it. Thus, a patent on an illegal substance such as a new strain of super-charged cocaine doesn’t allow a way around the law prohibiting its distribution.

Also note that it is the patent holder — not the government — who is responsible for enforcing the prohibition.

Des Moines patent attorney Brett Trout says that not everything you read on the Internet is true about patents.

“There’s a lot of false information out there,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say, ‘I’ll just put (the invention) in an envelope and mail it to myself, and then that’s a poor man’s patent.’ ”

He shakes his head and reiterates that this isn’t a viable option.

Another popular misconception is that a patent gives one the rights to make a certain product.

“A patent is basically just a piece of paper,” Trout says. “It doesn’t give you any right to make your invention; it only gives you the right to stop other people from making it. A lot of people are under the misconception that, since I have a patent, I can go ahead and make it.”

But he says that isn’t the case.

“If someone has a patent on a chair, I can get a patent on the rocking chair, but I won’t be able to make the rocking chair legally because it infringes on the chair patent,” he says.

He points out that the holder of the chair patent wouldn’t be able to make the rocking chair either, so it might make sense for the two inventors to put their heads together and work out a deal.

He says it’s wise to do a thorough patent search before spending a lot of money on getting a patent.

“Typically, when you’re looking at getting a patent, you do some research,” says Trout. “Before there wasn’t really any way to search it. But with the Internet, you can search for products that would be on Amazon, maybe. Or you can search the United States Patent and Trademark Office website for patents. And then there’s Google patents, which is a good place to search for other patents.”

Des Moines patent attorney Brett Trout purchased an old protoype out of a patent warehouse that had been destroyed by a fire. The patent office used to store all prototypes indefinitely.

Des Moines patent
attorney Brett Trout
purchased an old protoype
out of a patent warehouse
that had been destroyed
by a fire. The patent office
used to store all prototypes

Trout warns that it’s far more common to lose money through the patent process than it is to strike it rich. Getting a broad, protectable patent can be difficult, which means that just because getting a patent is an option doesn’t mean one should go through with it.

And there are times an inventor might not bother with a patent at all. Trout uses himself as an example.

“It’s pretty easy to get a patent,” he says. “I did a patent myself, just to show everybody how easy it was. It’s a bottle cap — like a medicine cap — that is super-easy for people with arthritis to open, but kids can’t open it. It never sold anything, and I’m just kind of the example of, ‘I have a patent, and it never went anywhere.’ ”

He says the patent wasn’t broad enough. The product was too easy to copy without infringing his patent, which is a common problem, especially for ones dealing with technology.

“A lot of IT (Information Technology) companies don’t file a patent,” he says. “Because if they have to disclose everything (which they do during the patent process), then people can see what you’re doing and maybe build around or design around your patent.”

Once an invention is disclosed, the rights are legally protected, but the secret will become public.

According to Trout, the patent process varies in length but usually takes two to three years, with the cost ranging from $5,000 to $10,000 on the lower end of the spectrum. More complicated inventions may cost much more.

“The major cost is not the filing fees; the major cost is the attorney’s fees,” he says.

The attorney earns his or her money with the one-line description at the end, and Trout says he’s spent up to 12 hours figuring out how to best state it. The rest of the patent aims to support it.

After filing for protection, the examiner will have questions that need to be answered. In order to win the patent, these questions must be answered to show why the idea is unique.

But it needs to be more than an idea. Trout explains that one can’t patent something that doesn’t work or is against the laws of physics. It has to be possible, but it doesn’t necessarily have to have been already produced.

“You can’t get a patent on something like a perpetual motion machine,” he says. “Which is, by definition, something you can’t work.”

You also can’t just add something to someone else’s patent. Adding things to a design doesn’t allow someone to make a product, but subtracting something that was necessary in the patented design might.

“If a chair is patented with four legs, and you designed one that works with three, you are good,” Trout says. “But you can’t add a fifth leg and be good.”

The patent attorney’s job is to write that main sentence, and then to support it.

“Getting a patent is the first step in a long journey,” he cautions. “Very few independent inventors make enough money from their patent to eventually even pay for the patent. So usually it’s not a great bet.”

Another not-so-great bet is stealing someone else’s idea. Trout says the penalties are severe for infringing on a patent, so if you receive a cease and desist letter, you need to immediately contact a patent attorney. And if you did the infringing on purpose, then you might have to pay triple damages and attorney fees. ♦








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