This title story of this book tells of Bob Kearns, tinkering inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, whose patented invention was stolen by Ford and other big automakers. The story was originally a 1993 New Yorker article, but was republished in this book as a tie-in to the 2008 Greg Kinnear movie of the same name. That’s just one story in this fascinating collection, though, which covers topics ranging from Nevada gold mining to the Antikythera Mechanism. The book is quite good—not earthshattering, but interesting, and certainly capable of giving the reader interesting discussion topics so he can avoid politics at the next cocktail party he has to attend.
Kearns was an obsessive genius who was ultimately vindicated in his fight to recover damages from the big auto companies. At the same time, he ruined his life and largely ruined that of his family. This is a cautionary tale, about the dangers of obsession, of trusting big companies, and of involving oneself with lawyers and the patent system. It also raises, as the author, John Seabrook notes, issues that have become more prominent since: patent trolls, the pluses and minuses of the patent system, the expansion of patents beyond actual inventions to “business process” and other stupid patents such as Amazon’s “One Click,” and how best to incentivize flashes of genius. After all, genius benefits society, so it matters to us all—in fact, whether in the form of flashes or concentrated effort by many people, genius is probably the primary economic driver of every society, so any society that does not single out and reward genius is necessarily shooting itself in the foot.
The other issue raised by Kearns’s story, though not discussed here beyond patents, is that of the legal status and social advisability of allowing restrictions on competition. Restricting competition has, in the common law tradition and in modern American law, always been regarded as dubious. It prevents people from making a living, in extreme cases, and prevents them from making an optimum living, in many cases. It can, as with patents, offer incentives, but it can also be used by the powerful to harm both the weak and society as a whole. Thus, the law has always not just strictly limited the length offered by patent protection, but disfavored, limited, and strictly construed non-competition agreements made by employees.
But the modern American system of litigation, expensive, time-consuming and with each side paying its own legal fees, frequently allows big companies to not only abuse the patent system, but also to illegitimately coerce former employees, forcing them to not engage in perfectly legitimate competition by the bogus threat of lawsuits that the employee cannot afford. Only one major state refuses to enforce non-competition agreements: California. While that state has its problems and its own brand of silliness, this strikes me as entirely correct—and certainly employers there don’t seem to be hurting as a result. As far as I’m concerned, this practice should be extended to all fifty states. In a small way, I practice what I preach—as a matter of principle, I refuse to have any non-competition agreements at my businesses.
Other stories here (there are fifteen total) cover topics as diverse as the Svalbard seed vault (recently in the news for flooding, from rain, not global warming, having entered its entrance); to the scrap metal industry (focusing on the rollup by Metal Management, with which I was tangentially connected as a lawyer); to Will Wright, inventor of the computer game Sim City and its successors. In the nature of the genre of “interesting magazine articles” (all these were originally published in The New Yorker), no story is exhaustive, and many, I think, have been superseded by events. More is known about the Antikythera Mechanism today, for example, than in 2007. And we still don’t have a commercial tomato that tastes anything like one from the home garden, genetic tinkering or not, though one of the stories heralds its then supposedly imminent arrival.
Of the stories, the one I found most fascinating might not be the one to which most people would gravitate. It’s the story of Chuck and Carolyn Hoberman, inventors, marketers and popularizers of the “Hoberman Sphere.” You may not know it by that name, but you’ve seen them—the colorful plastic framework balls that expand into a much larger sphere. Chuck Hoberman designed the “three-dimensional scissors hinge” (technically, a “Doubly-Curved Truss Structure”) that makes the transformation possible. Here, unlike with Bob Kearns, the focus is not on patents, but on marketing, and the challenges of growing a business from scratch (which is why it interested me, since that is my background as well).
Originally, Chuck Hoberman thought of his device as a utilitarian one—but his wife conceived that it could be a new kind of toy, and drove the conception forward. And that is why you see them everywhere now, from museum gift shops to mall toy stores. On the other hand, I just went to the company’s website, and it not only looks like it’s stuck in 2003 (the date of the original article), but many of the internal links on the site are broken. So what happened? It is hard to tell. Seabrook notes that non-toy projects “didn’t earn Chuck much money, but they did bring him artistic credibility, and that was what he really wanted.” He appears to run a separate design company called “Hoberman Associates” and teach intermittently at Harvard. My guess is that the business has declined—perhaps the original patents have expired and no new ones with a marketable angle have replaced them. Or maybe the Hobermans simply made enough money and moved on—not everyone wants to get richer, or richer (although I certainly do). Or maybe, since the Internet tells me they’re now divorced, Chuck needed Carolyn to captain the business, and it foundered without her. But she now lives in Jersey City and runs a small toy store, so either she loves toys and New Jersey, or whatever money the Sphere made has gone. Either way, it is unclear whether this story ultimately had a happy ending—but I still found it fascinating. In fact, I found all the stories in this book fascinating, and while I’m not sure you should run out and buy a copy, you can do worse than spend your time reading this book if you run across it and have some idle time.