A few decades ago, Americans were joining an estimated 600 inventor organizations. "Now I think there's less than 40," said Jake Van der Meide, West Jordan, acting president of the Intermountain Society of Inventors and Designers when it folded in January 1997.
The society was one of oldest inventor/designer groups in the country. Its demise is typical of what has happened to the backyard inventor as a species. Most have given up on the idea of making great discoveries through tinkering in their garage workshops.Van der Meide, who still works hard on his inventions, says most would-be Edisons had "the realization that the dream isn't particularly true that if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. You also have to manufacture it, you have to supply it to the public, you have to market it."
There is still demand for that mousetrap, he adds - "if it's really that much better."
But the basic mousetrap and most of its practical variations were designed long ago. What's left uninvented may be too expensive or too complex to be worth patenting.
Even when a patent is issued, an inventor's travails are only starting.
"What has happened is that 40 percent of all patents issued to independent inventors are allowed to expire, become no longer enforceable, by the first payment of the maintenance fee." Maintenance fees are expenses paid to the government every three or four years. They are only about $300 or $400, he said.
But they're not paid for nearly half the inventions that are patented, so the patents lapse. "And this is after they (inventors and backers) have expended in the range of $10,500" to get that far.
It costs money to build the prototype, launch a patent search and actually obtain the patent.
"Most of it is attorney's fees," Van der Meide said. "Attorneys always make money off inventions."
Why abandon something in which a person has invested so much time and money? It's because the inventor has discovered something "that makes it so they can't sell the darn thing."
As he sees it, the expense isn't the worst problem. "The real problem is they probably don't have an idea that was worth patenting in the first place. And if they do, they possibly are unable to gather the resources . . . to develop it into a product."
If the inventor does have enough financial support from friends or credit cards - or, in rare cases, investors - he may be able to develop the product. But then he faces "the enormous expense to manufacture it."
Inventors are their own worst enemies, he said. Naturally, they believe in their brainchildren. That faith makes them easy marks.
"They've been convinced by unscrupulous invention development firms that advertise on TV and late-night radio that industry is just waiting to hear of their new idea," he said.
"Everybody wants to sell your invention. Nobody wants to make it, because of the initial expenses and enormous risks that are involved."
An inventor may lose $6,000 to some firm promising to discover a market for his device. The company will go through the motions of filing for design patent or possibly even a utility patent. It may carry out "market surveys" by mailing form letters.
The company may go to a trade show with the invention - a set of plans or displays in a computer that sits on a table at the show.
Then nobody invests in the device, he said.
Of course, some products do much better. Yet, even if an invention is marketed and goes onto store shelves, that doesn't mean it will succeed. It may score some first orders, perhaps because it's a novelty.
"What's hard is to get the second orders.
"And meanwhile, you've spent $50,000 on molds, packaging, printing and numerous other expenses that keep piling up, piling up." Altogether, he said, investors put $200,000 into it.
After all that, the invention may fail financially.
Van der Meide remembers a telephone call he got from an elderly man who lived on his Social Security checks in a rural part of Utah. Invention developers had obtained a patent for him, and they needed another $2,000 to find a manufacturer.
The inventor mortgaged his home, thinking the profit soon would roll in. He believed he'd see the cash within a month or two "because they were going to find a manufacturer immediately and he would get up-front money."
Van der Meide told him the truth: He probably would make no money. Devastated, the man asked, "I just lost my home, didn't I?" and Van der Meide sadly agreed.
Utah needs a law like California's requiring invention development firms to disclose their success rates, he said. They should be forced to tell how many inventors got more back than they paid the firms.
"Unfortunately, people hear about the 2 percent that are successful, that are lucky, that do make it to the marketplace and the person becomes, somehow, famous or wealthy."
Luck like that does happen, Van der Meide acknowledges. "But, dang it, it doesn't happen to me."
Not that he's without hope.
To take just one of his ideas, for the past 2 1/2 years he's been working on a home machine that will make soft ice cream like the kind you get at a drive-in. This isn't a canister you throw in the freezer or an ice bucket, he says, but a real dispenser of soft ice cream and other frozen delights.
"I build prototypes, everywhere and anywhere. In the house, on the kitchen table, out in the garage, in the backyard."
He owns many of the tools he needs. "What I don't have I borrow and beg from friends." He uses a machine shop owned by friends at the former Tooele Army Depot.
Meanwhile, Van der Meide works at an equipment recycling outfit.
"Don't give up your day job," he cautions inventors. "Don't give up your day job until one year after your invention has gotten onto the store shelves and is selling."