Apr 5, 2012

Inventors and Entrepreneurs

My grandfather Nick lived what looks in hindsight like a cliched life. Born in "Turkey" in the 19th century, as he told us (we only later learned he grew up in Jerusalem, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, ie, Turkey), steamship through various ports ending up in  Ellis Island in the early 20th century, immediately shuffled off to a tenement house on St Marks and 2nd Avenue, later escaping to Flatbush, Brooklyn, then engineering degree at Stevens Institute of Technology (graduation picture below).

When we were growing up, we asked him what his job was. He said he was an "inventor" - he invented things and then he patented them because there was no other way for a lone individual to protect his physical inventions. Most of them were useless, but they were his attempts at solving problems, albeit small ones - there was a Phonographic Toy Telephone, and the Multilipstick Holder (!). His idol was Thomas Edison.

In the 1950s on his walks through NYC he noticed something. He used to walk past the back entrance of a supermarket regularly. Because of NYC fire regulations, the exit door leading to the store room could not be locked - from the inside or the outside - it had to allow for free and easy access in and out in case of a fire. But because of that, he often saw people looting from the store - they simply opened the door, walked in, took something and walked out. So he thought up the idea of a door lock that would satisfy the fire code and provide security. He invented the emergency door with the push strike plate - a door that was locked but could easily be opened by someone pushing a plate which would unlock it. Later, an emergency sound was added to the push plate. It became something like this:

Every time I see one of those I think of him. And the patent is here.

It was only about a year ago however that I realized what my grandfather really was - an entrepreneur. Right now, it might be a name used so often that it loses much of its meaning. But in the 1940s and 50s, he didn't have that name, and he didn't have access to people, blogs, incubators, accelerators, venture investors, founder meetups, lean start ups, minimum viable methodology or Skillshare classes to allow him to do more. A Google search for "entrepreneur" has 135,000,000 results. A search for "inventor" has only 15,100,00. So he did what he could: he later sold the patent to a firm which could manufacture and distribute the locks, which enabled him to move out of Brooklyn and live comfortably with Grandma in a one bedroom rent stabilized apartment on East 16th Street.

We don't often think of inventions anymore, and certainly less of inventors. But they are all around us - we've just given them another name and the tools to take the ideas and create more and realize more from those ideas. My grandfather would have loved to see that change.

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