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Perseverance and prototypes

When his heat-pump prototype shot a stream of water across the room, Lonnie Johnson realized the technology could create a super-powered water gun. Getting the toy to market, however, would take years.

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Each month, our Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors or entrepreneurs whose groundbreaking innovation have made a positive difference in the world. Hear it in their own words or read the transcript below.

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Linda Hosler: Taking a great idea from concept to market can require years of hard work and unwavering persistence. This is Linda Hosler from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. I recently interviewed Lonnie Johnson, an inventor and engineer, originally from Mobile, Alabama. His journey as an inventor began in high school, when he designed and built his own robot, entered it in a regional science fair, and won first place. Since then he has received more than 100 patents for inventions that include new types of engines, batteries, and spacecraft. In fact, it was his work at NASA that inspired his most famous commercial success in the Super Soaker®—a line of toy water guns. Here is a bit of our conversation.

Linda Hosler: So where did it all start? I like to think of inventors as having an origin story, like a superhero. Is there a moment that defines you when you turned into an inventor?

Lonnie Johnson: A moment that defined me, when I turned into an inventor? I have been inventing and tinkering with things and have always, as far back as I can remember, I've been curious about how things worked and I used to take my toys apart.

Lonnie Johnson: I’d take my siblings' toys apart because I wanted to see inside. I can't remember when I was not curious that way. I think you might find, when I—the time I got my first patent, maybe that would officially classify me as an inventor. In reality, we're all inventors. We all have creative minds and I think some of us are focused on tapping into that more so than others.

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Lonnie Johnson school photos

-Lonnie Johnson
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“In reality, we're all inventors.”

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Linda Hosler: One of the most accessible inventions that you created was the Super Soaker®. [LJ: Yes.] Was that a problem you were trying to solve or is it just something that sort of came about?

Lonnie Johnson: Actually, it was a problem. I was working on a new type of heat pump that would use water as a working fluid instead of freon and I was experimenting. I was working for NASA at the time, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I would go home and work on my own projects, and I machined these nozzles and, and I'd hook them up to the sink in my bathroom, and I was looking at the stream of water coming out of a nozzle, and I turned and shot the stream across the bathroom, and I thought jeez it would be neat to have a really powerful toy water gun. And I thought to myself about inventions that I’d come up with up until that point. In fact, I had gotten my first patent a few years before that point and having trouble getting investors and figuring out how to commercialize some of my other ideas. I felt that a toy would be something that could, anyone could look at it and appreciate, and if I can get that going, then maybe I can get enough income to really become a full-time inventor. So that worked out pretty good.

Linda Hosler: Was there ever a time that you struggled or you felt like you wanted to quit?

Lonnie Johnson: Well, Super Soaker® is a good story along those lines of, you know, being frustrated. And I can remember I was still working a day job, and then I'd go home at night and I'd work on my own projects, and my sleeping hours actually were very short, and I remember one time stopping and thinking to myself jeez, I can conceive of things. I can actually go into my shop, make them, make them work, have demonstrating models and prototypes. Why is this so hard? Why is it taking so long to get some—to achieve some success? Super Soaker®, I got the idea in [1982] and it wasn't until [1989] that I actually got a deal going. It wasn't until [1990] that the toy came out on the market. So it took about eight years to get it on the market.

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Lonnie Johnson (bottom right) with colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

-Lonnie Johnson
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“There were a lot of false starts, and a lot of reasons to give up.”

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LONNIE JOHNSON: There were a lot of false starts along the way and a lot of reasons to give up. One of the companies I was working with actually went out of business trying to do it. Another company where I was going to try and set up manufacturing myself and found out that it was gonna cost a lot more money than a captain in the Air Force was making at the time, so there was just one discouraging event after another, but I think the key to success, and the most important thing above anything else is perseverance. I think sticking to it and not giving up is what makes the difference.

-Lonnie Johnson
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“I think sticking with it and not giving up is what makes the difference.”

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Linda Hosler: That's fantastic. So having a mentor and being a part of team is often—I've often heard that that's part of the invention process as well.

Lonnie Johnson: In terms of actual mentors, you know my dad was my first mentor. He wasn't an inventor or anything, but he used to work on the car, and I was always curious about how things worked. When he was working on something around the house, I was Johnny-on-the-spot. I was watching his every move. I think that was—that made a difference, but it wasn't long. He was not, didn't have formal training, so it wasn't long before he couldn't help anymore.

And you find inspiration along the way, you know, wherever you can draw upon it. One of the things that happened, for example, when I was in college, I went to Tuskegee University and that's where the Commodores started when I was a student there. They started on a freshman talent show the year before I got on campus. And one year, one of the stagehands came to me, and said, you know the group is playing in the dark in a lot of nightclubs, and could you come up with some lighting systems? And I say, Oh sure, I can design some. So I designed some lights for the Commodores. And I was really excited about that. So you know, having a problem or a challenge I think is a source of inspiration for me. But I remember later on after I entered the Air Force, and the Commodores and Lionel Richie became very, very famous, and I thought to myself, if they can do it, I can do it too. But why is it taking me so much longer?

At one point they had actually offered me—this was back when I was in college—they offered to have me go on the road with them, and handle their equipment. As I said, no, I don't think I want to be a roadie. I'll stay here and finish my—and get my engineering degree. [LH: Wow, what a cool story.]

Linda Hosler: Was there something that first piqued your interest or made you excited about science?

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Johnson as a college student at Tuskegee University

LONNIE JOHNSON: I remember when I was 12 years old, it was back in [1962], when President Kennedy made his moon speech: we're going to put a man on the moon before the decade is out. I really was excited and I watched the space program from day one, and all of the different launches as we expanded our capability to really launch vehicles, and even design larger and larger vehicles and improve reliability to all them baby steps along the way of actually building that capability was really, really impressive over a very, very short period of time.

I watched—we used to watch sci-fi, science fiction TV shows, and I used to watch these shows. Robby the Robot was one, and then Lost in Space robot, and I was excited about those. And so at one point I decided I wanted to have my own robot. So I actually built a robot. I built robots, little small things with erector sets and things like that that I had gotten for Christmas, but they were different, so I wanted to have a real robot.

And so I started working on him. It took me about a year, but by the time I got into the twelfth grade, I actually had built my own robot, and he was Linex the Robot, and he won first place at the University of Alabama at a regional science fair in 1968. And that was during the heart of the civil rights movement and it was a major personal victory for me. In fact my senior year in high school was, that was pre-desegregation, and so it wasn’t until after I graduated that my high school was desegregated. So, there was a lot to overcome.

LINDA HOSLER: Shifting gears a little bit could you describe the role that intellectual property has played in the course of your career?

LONNIE JOHNSON: It's been pivotal. Certainly the Super Soaker® patent, the original patent, if it we're not for that patent, I would not have been able to license it with—under the circumstances that we did, and even when the infringers started, we were able to get injunctions put in place based on the patent. We actually stopped shipments coming into the country at the docks in Los Angeles. And I think when we took the first infringer on, the other companies decided to step back and leave it alone. That allowed us to focus on developing the product and proving it, and it became a major success. And I think it's extremely important that if you take the risk, do all the development work, and stick your neck out, and prove that something is possible, and then have everybody jump on, pile on and eat the benefits away from you, that is unfair.

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Johnson with the robot he built in high school

-Lonnie Johnson
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“When we took the first infringer on, the other companies decided to step back and leave it alone.”

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Linda Hosler: Could you talk a little bit about taking the Super Soaker® from prototype to patent? How long did it take you? What was that like?

Well, let’s see, I got the idea in [1982]. Okay, and at the time I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena—I decided to go back on active duty in the military—so I got the idea, but I didn't start working on the gun until I actually moved. And when I got my family resettled a few months later—when I had gotten a shop set up in my basement and everything—then I started working on the prototype. Initially I wanted to manufacture the gun myself and set up a company and all this, and I went and talked with injection molding company. And then the owner of the company came back and said, okay it's gonna cost $200,000 and set up the first, set up the production line and get the first thousand guns out. And I thought to myself, I don't have $200,000.

And I realized that I really didn't know very much about business—all my professional work had been you know with the government. And then I started, um, pursuing licensing opportunities. But now it's a situation where I'm going to talk to existing companies, toy manufacturers, about my idea, my baby, and they could just take it and run with it. And then I'd be fighting and trying to get them to acknowledge a contract, or put some kind of contract or instrument in place. But then I decided, well, you know, first off, if nobody knows about it, I can't make any money.

So it really was a conscious decision of being willing to take the risk so that I could learn some things that I didn't know about business in particular, and I thought, you know, that I could follow the process, be involved in the whole process of commercializing a product, and then with that knowledge, I could—I'll be ready for the next project, win or lose.

By [1989], I'm ready to make another stab at it, and I went to New York with the idea of meeting some people at Toy Fair. This is a major trade show for toys. And I literally walked the halls looking for someone to talk to about my invention.

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Johnson with an early prototype of his water gun. Photos courtesy of Mike McGregor.

-Lonnie Johnson
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“I literally walked the halls looking for someone to talk to about my invention.”

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And it wasn’t like an open trade show, because at Toy Fair you had toy rooms, and you had to know someone in order to get in there because everybody was very secretive about their new product line. So, I ended up talking to the vice president of Larami. And he basically told me in essence, this sounds like an interesting idea, but I can't look at inventions now. We're at a major trade show here. Our headquarters is in Philadelphia. If you're ever in the area and drop in to see us, we'd love to look at your product. So as I was getting up to leave he said to me, “But don't make a special trip.”

And I said, Oh, you burst my bubble right even before I get out the room. And as soon as I got home, I started working on the next version of the gun, because I had not gotten the previous gun back from the other manufactures I had been talking go. They’d take it apart. And it took me a couple of weeks to get a new gun made. And this is the first time I put the bottle on the top, which gave it the ability to hold a whole lot of water, but through other mechanisms: pumping it up, pressurizing, and things like that—that was all fundamental. So after I finished it and I called him up and asked to speak with the president, and I told them that—the vice president, Al Davis—and I said, “Look, I'm going to be in your area next week. Are you available for a meeting?” So I did make a special trip.

And I went in and they were, all of the—the president of the company there Myung Song, Al Davis, the other staff was there, and he asked me, well, what do you have? I opened up my suitcase. I took it out and pumped it up and fired it across the room. And the president of the company said, wow! It was like, they had never seen a gun perform like that. And then the brainstorming started and I could just sit back and let it happen because I realized that I captured their imagination we were on our path to success. So that was the genesis of the Super Soaker®.

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Johnson plays around with a Super Soaker® while wearing a shirt patterned with images of his famous creation

-Lonnie Johnson
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“I realized that I captured their imagination.”

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LINDA HOSLER: That's fantastic. Lots of ups and downs.

LONNIE JOHNSON: Oh yeah. Lots of challenges, setbacks, disappointments, all of those things that I know just about every inventor runs into.

LINDA HOSLER: Absolutely. I’m going to shift gears again and ask you a little bit about what kind of advice you might have for other inventors. Again, speaking to a wide audience.

LONNIE JOHNSON: I only have one word of advice: persevere. Nothing else is gonna to make a difference. And it's actually difficult for other people to see your dream. It helps to have a model or a prototype or something like that that you can actually demonstrate. Fortunately the people at Larami were in the toy water gun business already, and when they saw my gun compared to what they had, and they knew what to say luck and perseverance and opportunity. But I think perseverance is a path by which you can make your own luck.

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Johnson’s first water gun patent was issued in 1986. Another patent in 1991 would ultimately be commercialized by toy manufacturer Larami as the Super Soaker®. A 1992 patent described further improvements to the design using air pressure instead of water pressure.

-Lonnie Johnson
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“Perseverance is a path by which you can make your own luck.”

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LINDA HOSLER: What do you think it takes to be a good inventor?

LONNIE JOHNSON: I think it takes knowledge more than anything. I think, again, the Super Soaker® is a good example. I realized what I didn't know, and I set out to compensate for that and obtain the information I needed in order to succeed. So, you need to embrace the unknown.

LINDA HOSLER: That’s great. And looking back at the impact of all your inventions and your career, what's the thing you're most proud of?

LONNIE JOHNSON: Wow, well, you know, I don't—that's like asking, well, what's your favorite child; they all have a special place. To answer your question, the robot that I built in high school is a—was a highlight. Getting an invention on an interplanetary spacecraft that my peers at the time—handpicked engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—was saying would not work, but making it work, and successfully solving a major problem. That was a highlight.

Of course the Super Soaker®. Most people don't know that I'm also responsible to large extent for the success of the Nerf dart gun line. In fact the N-Strike line of products we're based—started based on my patents. And the things I'm working on now, the JTEC, which is a new type of engine that converts heat directly to electricity, more efficient than other engines. And what's really unique about it is that it's all solid state with no moving mechanical parts. And I'm developing an advanced battery technology that could be as much as an order of magnitude higher in energy storage capability than existing batteries.

So these are highlights that I'm excited about it this point.

LINDA HOSLER: This is really fantastic. It's so fun to hear the stories firsthand. So I really appreciate it.

LONNIE JOHNSON: You have a fun job, obviously…

LINDA HOSLER: A big thank you to Lonnie Johnson for taking the time to sit down with us and share his experiences. And thank you for listening.

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Johnson today, discussing his inspirations and his early years

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Image: Johnson plays around with a Super Soaker® while wearing a shirt patterned with images of his famous creation.
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How eight years of hard work led to the 'overnight success' of the Super Soaker®.
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Moondust and marketing magic

In 1979, Black & Decker introduced the Dustbuster®—a cordless, rechargeable, hand-held vacuum cleaner that is still popular 40 years later.

Less known is the story of the product’s evolution from earlier innovations and its origins in the “space race.”

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Carol Gantz
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Each month, our Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors and entrepreneurs who accomplish great things. This month, we delve into the past for a look at Space Age technology.

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In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously called for “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle and onto the surface of the moon. The ambitious national effort that made such an extraordinary feat possible also generated a flood of “downstream” innovations that soon found their way into the homes and businesses of ordinary Americans. From quartz-powered wrist watches to building insulation, many consumer products we use today have their origins in the space race. Few were as commercially successful as the pint-sized cleaning tool with a big name: the Dustbuster®.

-Carol Gantz, lead designer of the Dustbuster
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“A successful consumer product is not the result of an instantaneous flash of genius that many imagine.”

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Before Armstrong could take his "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind"—before, in fact, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) could even plan on sending him to the moon—there was a pressing need for power tools that could be safely operated in space. NASA’s scientists and engineers were particularly concerned about cords, which could easily entangle astronauts in the weightlessness of zero gravity.

To solve that problem, NASA awarded Black & Decker (B&D)—a household company name since 1914, when S. Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker invented the first hand-held electric drill—the contract to develop a cordless, rechargeable drill for extracting core samples from the moon. Using battery technology created by General Electric, B&D had already begun experimenting with cordless tools, including the world’s first rechargeable drill in 1961.

For the NASA project, the company accelerated its research and development, experimenting with different kinds of batteries and even creating a computer program to help optimize power usage so astronauts would not have to stop their work to recharge. These new cordless tools included the B&D Moon Drill, first used during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, B&D sought to profit more broadly from their work on the Moon Drill, incorporating some of the ideas behind it into their mass-market consumer products. In 1969, they debuted a cordless lawn mower featuring bigger rechargeable batteries, followed by a cordless shrub trimmer a year later.

“Where others might have focused on cost-cutting, B&D execs focused on creating new products that would expand their business into new markets,” recalled the company’s design chief, Carroll Gantz, in his book “The Vacuum Cleaner: A history.” Gantz had come to B&D after 17 years at vacuum maker Hoover, and his experience would prove invaluable creating B&D’s breakthrough products in the years to come.

One such product, released in 1974, was the Mod 4 Power Handle Cordless System. A multi tool with five attachments—allowing it to be a drill, shrub trimmer, and small “Spot-vac” vacuum cleaner—it came in B&D’s signature orange-and-white color scheme. The interchangeable tool heads resulted in a versatile product while keeping the overall cost affordable thanks to a single battery pack that worked interchangeably with the various attachments.

As with many new and innovative ideas, however, the Mod 4 ultimately failed in the marketplace, generating far fewer sales than anticipated. But B&D believed they had a good product on their hands, one they weren’t ready to abandon. They wanted to know why it failed to sell.

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Top image: Carroll Gantz, lead designer of the Dustbuster and Fellow of the Industrial Designers Society of America (FIDSA). Photo courtesy of Industrial Designers Society of America.
Above: The Black & Decker cordless Lunar Drill. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

One reason, B&D’s market researchers soon discovered, was that consumers would often forget to place the tool’s rechargeable batteries back in the charger after use, defeating its convenience the next time the tool was needed. However, the researchers also uncovered a bright spot: 92% of women users were highly satisfied with the handheld Spot-Vac component of the Mod 4, which they often borrowed from their husbands’ workshops to clean up small kitchen spills. The small vacuum was much easier to use than lugging a heavy canister vacuum out of a closet, unwinding the cord, cleaning a minor kitchen spill, and then rewinding and returning it to storage.

According to Gantz, “B&D learned several important lessons… First, that market research needed to be done before inventing a new product, not after. Second, consumers needed to be educated about new technology.”

With these insights in mind, the B&D marketing department believed the company could sell a revamped stand-alone product based on the Spot-Vac. To lead that effort, Gantz was tapped to be the design chief for a team consisting of B&D product managers, engineers, and designers.

“In contrast to almost all B&D products intended for men, [the new product] needed to be one aimed primarily at women, to be used upstairs in the home, not the basement,” wrote Gantz.

Within a few days, he and his team had an initial prototype, patched together from modified Spot-Vac components and including a wall-mounted charging base. The base addressed consumer confusion over where and how to store and recharge the tool, but the team agreed the product still looked too much like a power tool that belonged in a workshop or garage. To make it more appealing and practical, it had to be completely rethought.

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The mod 4 Power Handle Cordless System was innovative, but had disappointing sales. Photos courtesy of Industrial Designers Society of America (left) and Connie Holland/National Museum of American History (right).

Instead of a round mini-vacuum, they changed the device body to be triangular, a nod to the shape of dustpans commonly found in the kitchen. Because it needed to be kept within plain sight, where it would be most useful, they streamlined the footprint to keep it from being knocked off the wall in high-traffic areas. Lastly, they ditched B&D’s bright orange color scheme for a goes-with-anything almond beige. With a slimmed down and neutral appearance, B&D had a new product designed to be out in the open in American homes. Initial market tests with customers were promising, and the sales team doubled their initial sales estimates from 50,000 to 100,000 units. But the product still needed a name.

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A later prototype for the Dustbuster, which dropped the B&D orange-and-white color scheme and minimized the B&D logo. The designers included the wall and outlet to show how the tool should nest in a charging base plugged into an outlet. This would make it easy for consumers to recharge the device when not in use, so it would be at full power the next time it was needed. Photo courtesy of Industrial Designers Society of America.

After a company-wide naming contest and some consumer testing, B&D’s logo—long associated with power tools for the male-dominated, do-it-yourselfer market—was reduced to minimal size, and the “Dustbuster” was born.

The Dustbuster’s design was so new and different that Gantz urged B&D to protect it by filing the company’s first-ever design patent.

“This protection would prove invaluable in a few years,” recalled Gantz, “when design patent infringement lawsuits would begin.”

For years, vacuums all had a similar shape: a fat, round body with a long nozzle attachment. But the angled and nozzleless design of the Dustbuster was unique and signaled to customers that the product itself was new and innovative. The design patent—a form of intellectual property protection first started in the United States in the 1840s—protected B&D from others who wanted to copy the vacuum’s new appearance, while a separate utility patent applied to the function-charging base. Indeed, B&D used the protections provided by its patents on the product to block competitors from selling vacuum cleaners in the United States that had a similar appearance.

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U.S. patent no. 4,225,814 covered the Dustbuster’s unique storing and charging base.

The Dustbuster created a whole new category of cordless vacuums that satisfied consumers’ needs for a quick way to clean up messes and spills. It also opened a new market for B&D and led the company to create a household products division. One of the first products the new division created was a Dustbuster for cars. The company would continue to refine and develop the Dustbuster, including a major redesign in 1986 and subsequent redesigns in the 1990s and 2000s.

By some estimates, more than 150 million Dustbusters have been sold in the 40 years since the product’s introduction in 1979, racking up $6 billion in sales for B&D. An original Dustbuster is even on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where it joined two of its B&D “ancestors” in 1995: the first cordless drill and the Moon Drill.

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U.S. design patent no. 257,661 protected the Dustbuster’s unique triangular design.

As Gantz wrote, the Dustbuster “illustrated that a successful consumer product is not the result of an instantaneous flash of genius that many imagine. Rather it is a lengthy and complex process of high stakes trial and error, perfecting and refining a concept.”

From its origins in the first Apollo missions, to the commercial failure of the Mod 4, to its unique patented design and ultimate triumph as a popular household tool, the Dustbuster offers a fascinating example of the journey that innovation can take, and the benefits that consumers can enjoy, when we challenge ourselves to shoot for the moon.

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An advertisement showed many possible household messes the Dustbuster could quickly clean up. Photo courtesy of Industrial Designers Society of America.

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Image: The Black and Decker cordless Lunar Drill operated by an astronaut on a simulated surface of moon
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References

Gantz, Carroll. The Vacuum cleaner: a history. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2012.

Gantz, Carroll and Steven S. Umbach. The Dustbuster Story: How Black & Decker Moved from the Basement into the Kitchen and Cleaned Up in the Market Place. Accessed June 25, 2019 at https://www.idsa.org/images/pdfs/case_studies_2009_blackdecker.pdf.

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How NASA's moon missions and a patented design led to a popular hand-held vacuum cleaner.
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Credits

This story was produced by the USPTO Office of the Chief Communications Officer. For feedback or questions, please contact OCCOfeedback@uspto.gov.

Story by Laura Larrimore. Photo credits noted in captions. Additional contributions by Eric Atkisson, Alex Camarota, and Steve Schatz.

"I'll do it myself"

To protect her fine china and avoid having to hand-wash them herself, Josephine Cochran set out to invent a better dishwashing machine.

Widowed early in this effort, she struggled against society’s limits on women, working tirelessly to build a successful prototype, sell her invention, and ultimately turn a tedious task into an iconic American appliance.

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Josephine Cochran
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Each month, our Journeys of Innovation series tells the stories of inventors or entrepreneurs whose groundbreaking innovations have made a positive difference in the world. Delve into the past and learn about one of history’s great innovators.

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A visitor to Chicago’s South Shore between May and October 1893 would have beheld a strange and wondrous sight: Where before there was only swamp, now rose gleaming new buildings reminiscent of classic Greek temples. There were garish carnival rides as well, including the original Ferris Wheel, and canals with life-sized replicas of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. At the center of it all was a giant reflective pool called the Great Basin. This seemingly magic new city was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, organized in part to celebrate the voyage of Christopher Columbus four hundred years earlier, but also, and more importantly, to highlight the industrial prowess and ingenuity of a confident young nation.

That ingenuity was very much on display in Machinery Hall, at the edge of the Great Basin, where a variety of American inventions were on display, including the telegraph, the phonograph, and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (patented one hundred years earlier). But it was another, more recent invention that was turning heads and drawing admirers. Into this strange-looking contraption of gears, belts, and pulleys would vanish a cage full of over 200 dirty dishes, only to reappear two minutes later as clean as if they had been hand-washed. Called the Garis-Cochran Dishwashing Machine, it was the only invention on display invented by a woman, and there were nine others just like it being used in the exposition’s many restaurants, from the Big Kitchen to the New England Clam Bake.

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Machinery Hall, where visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 would have found a variety of American inventions on display, including the Garis-Cochran Dishwashing Machine.

The exposition’s judges were so impressed with the dishwashing machine that they awarded it the highest prize for “best mechanical construction, durability, and adaptation to its line of work.” It was just the kind of break the machine’s inventor, a widowed entrepreneur named Josephine G. Cochran, needed.

Born March 8, 1839 in Ashtabula County, Ohio, Josephine was the daughter and granddaughter of inventors and engineers. Her maternal grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran named John Fitch, invented the first patented steamboat in the United States, and her father, John Garis, was a civil engineer who supervised a number of woolen mills, sawmills, and gristmills along the Ohio River. When faced with a problem, Josephine was by nature and upbringing determined to find a technological solution—and if one didn’t exist, to invent it.

But opportunities to innovate were rare for 19th century American women who still lacked even the right to vote, and Josephine married right out of school at the age of 19, to William A. Cochran. They had two children together: a son, Hallie, who died at age two, and a daughter, Katharine.

Having failed to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush, William eventually prospered in the dry goods business. He moved his family into a mansion in Shelbyville, Illinois, and Josephine took on the role of socialite with enthusiasm and industry. For the grand dinner parties they often hosted, she loved to use a collection of heirloom dishes purportedly dating back to the 1600s, but was distressed when she discovered the servants had chipped the dishes while washing them. 

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Garis-Cochran advertisements touted their invention as “the only machine used at the World’s Fair” and prominently listed the hotels who had “machines in daily use.”

- Josephine Cochran
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“If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.”

Initially, Josephine resolved to wash the fine china herself, but soon became tired of this tedious task. She was convinced there had to be a mechanical solution that would make the job easier not just for herself, but others as well.

“If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself,” she vowed, quickly sketching out a design.

Around the same time, Josephine’s husband, who struggled with alcoholism, took ill and died in 1883, leaving her with just $1,500 and mounting debt. Suddenly, her invention of a viable dishwashing machine was no longer a dream but an urgent financial necessity.

Finding competent help proved difficult. “I couldn’t get men to do the things I wanted in my way until they had tried and failed in their own,” Josephine would later complain. “And that was costly for me. They knew I knew nothing, academically, about mechanics, and they insisted on having their own way with my invention until they convinced themselves my way was the better, no matter how I had arrived at it.”

Josephine filed her first patent application on New Year’s Eve, 1885, as “J.G. Cochran.” That next year, with the aid of a young mechanic named George Butters, she set to work in a woodshed behind her home bringing the first prototype to life. Although she was not the first to invent a dishwashing machine, hers was the first to use water pressure rather than scrubbers to clean the dishes, and it had racks specifically fitted to hold the dishes in place. Previous washing machines required the user to pour boiling water over the dishes.

Just after Christmas, 1886, Josephine received U.S. patent no. 355,139 for her “Dish Washing Machine.”

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Josephine Cochran as a young woman. She married William A. Cochran at age 19 in 1858, and was widowed in 1883 shortly after conceiving the idea of a dishwasher.

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Cochran’s U.S. patent no. 355,139 for a “dish washing machine” also included a system for cleaning flatware as well as dishes (Figure X, at right).

The next challenge was finding customers for her invention. During a time when domestic tasks were often divided along gender lines, she would have preferred selling the dishwashers directly to women. As she later recalled, “When it comes to buying something for the kitchen that costs $75 or $100, a woman begins at once to figure out all the other things she could do with the money. She hates dishwashing—what woman does not?—but she has not learned to think of her time and comfort as worth money. Besides, she isn’t the deciding factor when it comes to spending comparatively large sums of money for the house.”

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Cochran continued improving her dishwashing machine after receiving her initial patent, ultimately receiving a second, posthumous patent in 1917.

-Josephine Cochran
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“When it comes to buying something for the kitchen that costs $75 or $100, a woman begins at once to figure out all the other things she could do with the money. She hates dishwashing—what woman does not?—but she has not learned to think of her time and comfort as worth money.”

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Instead, Josephine focused her sales pitch on larger institutions, like restaurants and hotels. In 1887, a wealthy friend introduced her to the manager of Chicago’s Palmer House, one of the most famous hotels in the country. The manager was impressed with Josephine’s pitch, and she left the meeting with her first order.

Next on Josephine’s list was the Sherman House hotel, but this time she would have to do it without an introduction. Though she was almost 50 years old at the time, an adult woman from her social class still did not leave home unless accompanied by a man. As Josephine later recalled, it was “almost the hardest thing I ever did, I think, crossing the great lobby of the Sherman House alone. You cannot imagine what it was like in those days…for a woman to cross a hotel lobby alone. I had never been anywhere without my husband or father—the lobby seemed a mile wide. I thought I should faint at every step, but I didn’t—and I got an $800 order as my reward.”

The Garis-Cochran Company was in business, but without enough capital to manufacture the machines on their own, it was slow going in those early years. “Mrs. Cochran is trying to get some one to form a company for the manufacture of her invention, as she is not able to establish this herself,” reported Helen M. Gougar in an 1889 issue of the Women’s Journal. “I wish that women alone might form the stockholders.”

Forty years after the birth of the women’s rights movement at Seneca Falls, New York, progress was slow. Potential investors often seemed interested only if Josephine would resign and turn the company over to the management of men. Undeterred, she pressed on without investors. It proved to be a wise decision, as many young, more heavily financed companies were wiped out in the Panic of 1893. For Josephine, however, 1893 turned out to be a major turning point in her fortunes.

The World’s Columbian Exposition that year presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain publicity and new sales for her dishwashing machine, and it worked like a charm. Orders spiked from restaurants and hotels throughout Illinois and neighboring states, and Josephine later found willing customers in hospitals and colleges due to their strict sanitation requirements. The large-sized model of the Garis-Cochran dishwasher could wash and dry 240 dishes in two minutes, freeing staff from dishwashing duty and saving businesses vast amounts of money as a result.

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A domestic version of the electric dishwasher manufactured by Josephine Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company in the early 1900s. Image courtesy of Hobart Corporation.

Around 1898, Josephine opened her own factory, with George Butters as manager, and began Cochran’s Crescent Washing Machine Company, expanding sales of her dishwashers to businesses as far away as Alaska and Mexico. In spite of her best efforts, domestic models still cost about $350, which was too expensive for most households, many of which also lacked a boiler large enough to handle the amounts of hot water required. Her most reliable customers continued to be hotels and restaurants.

Josephine’s journey as an inventor and entrepreneur was not an easy one, nor was she the type to ever rest on her laurels. On August 3, 1913, at age 74, she died at home in Chicago—by most accounts, from a stroke or “nervous exhaustion.” Among the lengthy obituaries and tributes to appear in the days after her death, one prominent publication noted that her “untiring efforts and remarkable ability have built up a large and profitable manufacturing business.”

“We hear only praises of her machine and among those who are personally acquainted with Mrs. Cochrane [sic] come words of the greatest admiration, respect and honor, and we feel all these are due one who has so persistently and successfully battled with the world, especially when the business pathway is not always made particularly easy for a woman to cope with.”

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This advertisement from 1921 targeted affluent homeowners who could afford the labor-saving device. The illustration shows a maid loading a Crescent dishwashing machine, while the text promised that the device will “make housework easier—to enable you to keep the best class of servants.”

-Josephine Cochran
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“If I knew all I know today when I began to put the dishwasher on the market, I never would have had the courage to start. But then, I would have missed a very wonderful experience.”

Josephine received a second, posthumous patent in 1917 for an improved version of her dishwashing machine. In 1923, the Crescent Dishwashing Company she had founded and led received a trademark for their distinctive half-moon logo. In 1926, the company was acquired by the Hobart Manufacturing Company, which produced dishwashers under the KitchenAid brand. In 1986, KitchenAid was acquired by the Whirlpool Corporation. Although it is difficult to imagine a modern home kitchen without a dishwasher today, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Josephine’s dream was finally realized as they finally became a common household appliance.

Josephine Garis Cochran was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. As a testament to the far-reaching impact of her invention, the government of Romania—a country with which Cochran had no connection—issued a stamp with her face on it in 2013, in honor of World Intellectual Property Day.

“If I knew all I know today when I began to put the dishwasher on the market,” Josephine said near the end of her life, “I never would have had the courage to start. But then, I would have missed a very wonderful experience.”

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A stamp issued by Romfilatelia, the issuing authority of Romanian postage stamps, commemorated Cochran 100 years after her death. The stamp was part of a three-stamp series of innovative women.

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Even into the 1950s, dishwashers were not commonplace. This 1950s KitchenAid advertisement promotes the dishwasher for home use by touting its past performance in larger industrial settings like hospitals and hotels, shown in the upper right. Courtesy of KitchenAid/Whirlpool.

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Image: 1950s KitchenAid illustrated advertisement of a housewife and husband excitedly admiring their new dishwasher. I the top right, dishes magically float from a hospital and industrial dishwasher into their household dishwasher.
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How Josephine Cochran defied social norms and invented the modern dishwasher.
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Produced by the USPTO Office of the Chief Communications Officer. For feedback or questions, please contact OCCOfeedback@uspto.gov.

Story by Jocelyn Ram and Eric Atkisson. Except where noted in captions, images are public domain. Additional contributions by Jay Premack, Laura Larrimore, Steve Schatz, and Alex Camarota.

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