The Inventive Career
Lloyd Groff Copeman

An original manuscript by Marsha J. Davenport, edited by Kent L. Copeman

Born in the rural village of Farmers Creek, Michigan [Hadley Township] in 1881, Lloyd Groff Copeman was by circumstances and inclination led to become an inventor of national and undoubtedly even international importance. Yet, the mention of the name Lloyd G. Copeman usually receives only looks of indifference or simple curiosity aroused by hearing the name of some unknown person. It is interesting then, by history buffs, to take a close look at the remarkable productive inventive career of an important local figure.

As a child, he attended the one-room school in Farmers Creek, Lapeer Senior High School, and finally Michigan State University where he pursued a course in study in Mechanical Engineering. According to his youngest daughter Betty (Elizabeth Jane) Copeman Gerlach, he was summarily expelled from each school he attended. (1) In later years though, MSU offered him an honorary doctorate which he refused stating: “When the degree would have done me some good you wouldn’t give it to me. Now I have little desire to accept it.” (2)

Copeman was a precocious child and exhibited his inventive tendencies at an early age by inviting a mechanism that ran on a clock-like instrument which turned his father’s grindstone “automatically” for about half an hour, thereby allowing the 10 year old Lloyd to divert his attention from his assigned chores to more important things like swimming and fishing. (3) There is some contention as to this being his first actual invention. Another, perhaps folklorist school of recollection has it that Copeman’s first invention was really a remote controlled paddle attached to a strategic place in the school house privy which would deliver an unexpected blow to the unsuspecting occupant.(4) Which was truly Lloyd’s first invention is difficult to ascertain however. His daughter Betty described him as “a character from one end to the other...”(5) thus both items are probable products of the inventive genius of Lloyd Copeman.

Prior to the advent of his inventive career proper, Mr. Copeman was employed at Baldwin Locomotive Works as a mechanist apprentice. From there he went to work in rapid succession for the Philadelphia Edison Electrical Company, the Washington Power Company of Spokane, the Detroit Edison Company and Consumer’s Power Company. It was in Washington state that Lloyd married his sweetheart of school days, Hazel Berger, (whom he had followed out west), in September of 1904. It was in 1906 while working for the Washington Power Co. That Lloyd divined the mechanics for his first truly remarkable invention - the electric stove. The idea for the electric stove was based in a principle relative to Copeman’s development of a thermostat he had invented (for the power company) which gave automatic warning when high-tension wire transformer stations were about to burn out. Copeman merely replaced the soap-stones from the widely used “fireless cooker” with electrical units which were thermostatically controlled.(6)

In various states, the Lloyd G. Copeman family moved back to Michigan settling in Flint. In 1901 he was granted his first patent on an instrument for cauterizing wounds during surgery.(7) After this initial inventive venture, he seemed to invent things in series or stages and his first major stage was inventing high-pressure and various other greasing systems for automobiles, which in effect are still in use today. One could say that Copeman was an inventor of circumstances by observing the emergence of his inventions relative to his personal associations: the electric stove with the several power companies; and the automobile greasing systems with his friends and business acquaintances.

Copeman was, by his daughter Betty’s account, “practically a charter member of the Detroit Athletic Club..., this was in the days when everything was hopping down there. He knew Edison, Ford, and he knew the Fisher boys and the Dodge boys. ...”(8) Not only did he have these noted associates, but he was also closely associated with J. D. Dort, C. S. Mott, and E. Atwood of Flint. This, Copeman was very familiar with those persons around whom the infant automobile manufacturing industry developed. Not surprising then is the fact that the bulk of his 600 or so inventions during the first 15 - 20 years of the 20th century dealt with the automobile.

It was his acquaintance especially with J. D. Dort and E. Atwood that gave Copeman the boost he required to establish his first independent concern - The Copeman Electric Stove Company. Dallas Dort was the primary financier of this venture but also influenced others favorably to invest in the project. Dort and some 22 stockholders exhibited a great deal of faith in the inventive genius of Copeman by investing $500,000. in the enterprise.(9)

The Copeman Electric Stove Company was established in 1912 and produced not only the Copeman electric stove, but also the “toaster that turns toast,”(10) the Copeman version of the electric toaster which had an attachment by which the toast was turned without having to be touched; the fore-runner of the pop-up version. However, as the company name implied, the major product that was turned out was electric stoves.

Sales of this innovative product did not go to well though. In a letter written to his father on November 21, 1913 Lloyd conveyed the message that, “Everything is moving along fine here now that our difficulties have at last been adjusted, and we expect to be in the market now within a very short time with our new stoves.”(11) Copeman was optimistic; unfortunately the sales figures for the stove were not.

The reasons for such poor initial sales are not clear but there are a number of factors which undoubtedly played a large role in the sales stagnation. Perhaps the primary concern was that electricity was a new thing in 1913 and the average house was not sufficiently wired, if indeed it was wired at all, and most householders were most apprehensive about electricity as well they might have been. Wooden frame houses were the order of the days and most people were loath to add yet another potentially dangerous element to their homes - namely electricity.

At a Philadelphia manufacturers demonstration in 1918, Copeman was representing his product and company. He had gone undisturbed by a single distributor for the entire day when a gentleman approached him expressing some interest in the stove. After viewing a complete demonstration of the stove the man asked, “And how are you doing with your product young man?”

“ ‘Well, we’ve got a good product, but darned poor sales organization - that’s me,’ “was Copeman’s reply.

“ ‘We have a good sales organization and no likely product,’ the man answered.”(12) The man was the president of Westinghouse (a national products company), who later in the year bought the Copeman Electric Stove Company. (Betty Gerlach adds that from that time on, all appliances in the Copeman household were strictly Westinghouse).(13) Westinghouse succeeded where Copeman failed due to the extensive nature of the larger company’s marketing range. This was an era of the gas stove and only a company of the magnitude of Westinghouse could be successfully sell a product that truly was before its time.

It was in this same year that the stove company was sold, 1918, that E. W. Atwood helped Copeman establish the Copeman Laboratory, a means by which the inventor could develop his ideas. It was in Copeman Laboratory’s located in Flint, that Lloyd did the bulk of his work.

At this juncture, it is interesting to contemplate just exactly why Lloyd G. Copeman chose to be an inventor - to be a “professional” inventor. In many cases the primary motivation for inventing is the monetary advantage. The question thus, is does this seem to be the case with Lloyd Copeman? The evidence seems to suggest that this is not the case. While it is true that Mr. Copeman made a sizable income from patent royalties, the majority of his inventions were the result of his personal acquaintances, past experience, suggestions, or mere flukes of fate.

His high-pressure greasing system [The Copeman Lubricating System], for example, would certainly be evidence of invention by association. His familiarity with the early automotive geniuses like Henry Ford, the Fishers, Dodges, and J. D. Dort would definitely lend validity to this idea. Undoubtedly these men, when they gathered, would discuss the latest automotive innovations and whatever problems they were encountering. It seems logical to conclude, therefore, that as personal acquaintances, these men were a positive force in directing Copeman’s inventive endeavors.

The electric stove was a product which directly resulted from Copeman’s work with the electrical power companies. His experience and experiments with transformers, and heating and lighting elements which were thermostatically controlled led him to the idea of replacing “soapstones” which were previous heating units for fireless cookers with the heat element connected to a thermostat. This work experience was surely also helpful in Copeman’s extensive work later on with refrigeration.

Mrs. Hazel Copeman was the motivation behind Lloyd’s invention of the “flip-flop” toaster. The story is told that while shopping one day, Mrs. Copeman pointed to an electric toaster in a store window and asked her husband why he didn’t invent a toaster that would allow one to turn the toast without touching it.(15) Mr. Copeman went home and did precisely that, thus inventing the first electric toaster, forerunner of the pop-up toaster of today. [The actual patent credits Hazel Copeman as the inventor.]

Copeman’s most lucrative patent and the one, which, perhaps more than any others was a result of unadulterated fate, was the patent for rubber ice cube trays. Getting cold, hard ice out of a cold metal tray was next to impossible yet the solution, today, seems so obvious. The most widely noted account of how Copeman got the idea for the rubber ice tray is this: While he was out collecting maple sap in the sugar bush one cold February day, the ice and slush began to collect and freeze on Copeman’s rubber boots. He sat down and contemplatively worked the toe of his rubber boots. He watched somewhat disinterestedly at first as the ice cracked and flew off the boots. “Oh my god, a rubber ice tray,”(16) exclaimed Copeman, and so was born the biggest money making patent (the royalties from the rubber ice tray alone netted better than $1 million),(17) of Copeman’s career. The patent was a “basic” patent that covered freezing ice in any form.

Another of Copeman’s major inventions was the result of his attempt to deal with a health problem his wife suffered. Hazel endured seasonal asthma and in order to relieve her problems caused by the pollen and heat, in the summer home he rigged up two different room cooling systems. The first was a network of plumbing pipes which ran around the room. These pipes were filled with water which was pumped up from the basement, circulated through the pipes in the walls and consequently cooled the room.

Yet another system was devised by this ingenuous man who achieved the same goal with the added function of air purification. This system was a bit more bizarre and created a stir among Copeman’s neighbors.(18) In order both to cool the room and filter the air, Copeman installed four lawn sprinklers on the roof of the house, one at each end and two in the middle. The water flowing over the house not only cooled it, but it also removed the irritating particles in the air which caused his wife’s respiratory distress.(19)

The results of both of these rather unusual cooling devices was a large number of inventions and patents dealing with refrigeration. His first patent for refrigerating apparatus was issued in November, 1921, and for the next decade, all patents issued to Copeman from the United States Patent Office dealt solely with the inner mechanics, diverse features, and exterior construction of electric refrigerators.(20) This is an obvious example of the stereo-typical inventor obsessed with an idea, who keeps improving on it until he gets it right. All of the patents granted to Copeman relating to refrigeration were assigned to E. W. Atwood, all products of the Copeman Laboratory and all results of the generosity of Atwood and the genius of Copeman.

There was another area in which Copeman was obsessed; rubber latex. His work with latex covered a great many years and yielded an enormous variety on inventions from non-run silk stockings to rust proofing automobiles, to filter cigarettes, to tamper proof and water proof envelopes and packages. Though he patented all ideas with the exception of automobile rust proofing, not much came of the effort and personal sacrifice; effort on Copeman’s part, personal sacrifice on his family’s part.

His daughter as well as the Flint Journal give an account of how all the ladies in the Copeman family and their friends, and even the women who owned the Christie Shop in Flint where the Copeman women bought their clothes, wore insufferable hot, heavy sticky and unbending silk stockings which Copeman had treated with latex to prevent them from running. Only through their long suffering and suggestions was Copeman able to bring the process to a point at which the stockings were both run-proof and comfortable.

In an attempt to produce a means by which to rustproof automobiles, the Copeman family was again used as “guinea pigs.” After buying his wife a new car [Chevrolet business coup] for Christmas, Copeman proceeded to cover the exterior with a coating of rubber latex, cutting the latex out of the windows. For the life of that car, it went everywhere with the mud colored coating of latex.(21) Perhaps it was due to the unseemly appearance the latex lent to the automobile that the process never received a patent, but for whatever reason, this was one of Copeman’s inventive ideas whose time had not yet come, due perhaps to inadequate technology.

Undoubtedly, the most noteworthy idea of Copeman’s whose time had not come was his attempt to drill natural gas wells in various places in Lapeer County. In 1935, Copeman and a group of his associates spent $100,000 in the development of the wells. Said Copeman, “I believe Lapeer County holds a vast treasure in this natural resource and am confident that when the story is fully told the so called Thumb of Michigan, including Lapeer County will rank with any section of the state in this respect.”(22) Copeman was certainly correct in his statement; unfortunately he and his colleagues were unable, with their equipment, to reach the stratum which would produce a heavy flow of Antrim level gas. The wells that were dug flowed gas slightly and then flowed water. For all his hard work and large capital investment, what Lloyd Copeman had when the project was completed was a number of artesian wells. Though this particular venture may have failed, it demonstrated definite far sightedness on Copeman’s - as fifty years later, natural gas is being discovered in large quantities in Lapeer County.

Until his death in 1956, Lloyd G. Copeman continued to invent various things. During World War II, he was consulted by the government concerning his latex, tamper and waterproof packages. Copeman improved his idea to a plausible point and it was used by the government extensively for a number of years. The mechanics behind the idea was to wrap the object (for waterproofing) in a paper wrapper and then coat that wrapper with latex and wrap the package again with yet another piece of latex coated paper. The latex would not only adhere to itself, but would also produce a moisture impervious seal.(23) The tamper-proof envelope was on the order of the self-adhesive envelopes used today. Two strips of latex were applied to the flaps on the envelope and pressed together to seal it. The only way to open the envelope then was in some way tear it, and thus, if the envelope were torn it had been tampered with.(24)

Copeman credited the success of his career to J. D. Dort, E .W. Atwood and to John M. Kisselle, his patent attorney from Detroit. Copeman and Kisselle developed a deep personal friendship which lasted until the death of Copeman. Mr. Kisselle’s work as Copeman’s patent attorney was vital to Copeman’s success. “If you have spent money, time, and energy developing an idea that had merit, don’t jeopardize your chances for success by employing a second-rate or advertising firm of patent attorneys. They usually obtain a patent but it is worthless.”(25)

The research done by Kisselle’s firm for the latex patents alone cost $10,000, but it was worth it to Copeman. Mr. Robert A. Choate, an associate of Mr. Kisselle’s, recalled an incident where Copeman came to Kisselle with an idea and asked Kisselle to do a novelty search (to check if there was some other item like his already patented). The novelty search came up indeed with another patent on the same idea, only the patent had been granted to Copeman a number of years earlier.(26) None of Copeman’s patents have ever been involved in litigation, however, he did have some problems prior to his engagement of Mr. Kisselle. To devious Philadelphia lawyers who were involved with his patent on the surgical instrument sold the “rights” to it three or four times without Copeman’s knowledge rendering the patent which Copeman had paid for worthless.(27)

Lloyd Copeman’s life was not without its paradoxes. Robert Choate describes Copeman as a great outdoors man, hunter, and fisherman. Mr. Choate as well as one newspaper account tell a vastly different story about how Lloyd came across his rubber ice tray idea. These two accounts describe Copeman as being on a fishing trip with some of his Detroit associates in Canada. Upon rising one late-winter morning, Copeman found some water had frozen on his wading boots. As he cracked the ice the idea of rubber ice trays sprang to mind.(28) Whichever is the true case (this account or the one usually given and also given by Copeman’s daughter Betty), the result was the same fortunately for us.

For several years preceding his death, Copeman had no inventions patented by the U. S. Patent Office but did have several patents issued after his death to an executor. In later years, his inventions dealt with the still practical but more recreational items such as bird houses [Cope-Craft Product, Flint, Michigan] bird feeders, beer coolers, clotheslines [Flex-O-Line], and such.(29) Copeman was called a devoted family man and he had a great respect for Michigan’s natural resources. Some have labeled Copeman a genius, equating his creativity with that of Thomas A. Edison, and upon study of Copeman’s inventive career, it seems evident that this is a fair comparison, so that his obscurity in view of the magnitude of his inventions is surprising.

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1) Interview with Elizabeth Jane (Betty) Copeman Gerlach, Farmers Creek, MI, 21 September, 1982.

2) Lloyd G. Copeman quoted in J. Dee Ellis, Pioneer Families and History of Lapeer County, Michigan (Lapeer, MI: By the author, 3034 W. Oregon Road, 1978), p. 106

3) Lapeer County Press, 3 April 1952.

4) Ibid.; Ellis, p. 106.

5) E. J. (Betty) Gerlach, 21 September 1982

6) Anita Clever, “Fifty Years an Inventor,” Popular Mechanics (November 1954): 109.

7) E. J. (Betty) Gerlach, 21 September 1982; Ellis, p. 106

8) E. J. (Betty) Gerlach, 21 September 1982.

9) Clever, Popular Mechanics, p.109.

10) Kent L. Copeman, Editor Historical Scrapbook of Hadley Township (Hadley, MI: Hadley Friends of the Library, 1977, p. 58.

11) Lloyd G. Copeman, Flint MI., 21 November 1913, personal letter to his father John Wesley Copeman, Metamora, MI.

12) Flint Journal, 13 September 1953

13) E. J. (Betty) Gerlach, 21 September 1982.

14) Ibid.

15) Clever, Popular Mechanics, p. 110.

16) E. J. (Betty) Gerlach, 22 September 1982

17) Ellis, p. 106; Flint Journal, 13 September 1953, Clever, Popular Mechanics p. 109.

18) E. J. (Betty) Gerlach, 21 September 1982.

19) Ibid.

20) U. S. Patent Office, Index of Patents Issued from the U. S. patent Office, published annually, 1921-1930 issues.

21) E. J. (Betty) Gerlach, 21 September 1982.

22) Lapeer County Press, 1935 exact date unknown.

23) Interview with Robert A. Choate, Patent Attorney, Detroit, Michigan, 4 October 1982; Flint Journal 13 September 1953; E. J. (Betty) Gerlach, 21 September 1982.

24) Ibid.

25) Lloyd G. Copeman as quoted in the Lapeer County Press, 23 April 1953.

26) Robert A. Choate, 4 October 1982.

27) Lapeer County Press, 23 April 1953.

28) Robert A. Choate, 4 October 1982; Flint News, 15 May 1936.

29) U. S. Patent Office Listing, published annually, 1930-1956.

[ ] = Editor’s notes