Fifty Years an Inventor

(Popular Mechanics, November, 1954)

By Anita K. Clever

The man worried the heel of one glazed rubber boot with the toe of the other. Wherever the toe pressed, thin ice cracked and flipped to the ground.

Thus was born to Lloyd Groff Copeman a million-dollar brainchild, the rubber ice-cube tray for refrigerators. Copeman had been gathering sap “just for the fun of it,” and slush collected and gradually froze on his boots. When he returned from the jaunt he sat down and dreamily regarded his footwear, an act of contemplation, which lead to the ice-cube-tray idea. It was one of the many to be conceived by Copeman which would ease the daily burdens of the house-wife and others.

This is the story behind the important inventions of a man who admits “some of my neighbors are certain I’m balmy.” A distinguished-looking, white-haired man from Metamora, Michigan, Copeman’s memory at 71 is one of his outstanding traits.

Immediately after the tray idea came to him, Copeman told his attorney to prepare patent applications for three types of rubber trays—one for a complete rubber tray, one for a tray with just rubber section separators and one with individual, removable cube holders. That night Copeman traveled to New York City on other business, and asked the use of his hotel’s refrigerator in which he put small rubber caps filled with water. Next morning, after amusing himself by flipping the cubes out of them, he elatedly wired his attorney to submit the application for the all-rubber tray.

The nation’s ice-cube consumers avidly accepted Copeman’s tray idea and the invention proceeded to gross more than a million dollars in royalties.

Copeman’s inventions range from items indispensable to the modern housewife as the electric stove to a process used throughout the world for greasing automobile bearings.

The electric stove evolved from a thermostat he had invented which provided automatic warnings when transformer stations for high-tension wires were about to burn out.

In those days of 1906, some women practiced the art of cooking in what was known as a “fireless cooker.” This was an awkward wooden box which enclosed heated soapstones over which pans of food were placed. Copeman applied the idea of his transformer thermostat to a fireless cooker and substituted electrical units for the soapstones.

A few years later, Copeman and the late J.D. Dort, automotive pioneer, established in Flint, Michigan, the Copeman Electric Stove Company. It began in 1912 with 22 stockholders and was a $500,000 enterprise.

Residents of the carriage-manufacturing town of Flint may have been favorably impressed with Copeman’s stove—not so the rest of the country. The electric range, unlike the rubber tray, was not swiftly fastened upon by the housewife.

One day he sat glumly alone in a booth at a Philadelphia convention where various manufacturers were demonstrating their products before potential distributors. He had been undisturbed all day by a single distributor. But now, approaching before his almost unbelieving eyes, was a handsome, elderly gentleman, who stopped and expressed interest in Copeman’s stove.

“And how are you doing with your product, young man?” the gentleman inquired of the inventor.

“Well, we’ve got a good product, but darned poor sales organization—that’s me.” Copeman said.

“We have a good sales organization and no likely cooking product.” The man replied. He was president of Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

In a few days, a deal was made in which Westinghouse absorbed the Copeman Stove Company. The year was 1918.

One of the inventor’s first moneymaking products was developed in 1900. It was a cauterizing instrument for surgery. Another invention which never amounted to much financially, but which certainly has a practical value, is his flexible-rubber clothesline for indoors. The clothesline is about a foot long and is of three strands of braided tube rubber. This stretches to eight feet and articles of clothing are clamped between the strands until they dry.

A number of his inventions were born as a result of his having spent most of his life in one of the biggest centers of automobile centers of automobile production in the world. Some of them died there, too. One which thrived and is used today throughout the world is a high pressure system for forcing grease into automobile bearings. This idea was sold in its infancy for $178,000.

Another ingenious and work-saving device that Copeman invented was the result of an idea born, quite naturally, with the help of his wife. The two were indow shopping and she spotted a toaster.

“Why don’t you invent a toaster that turns the toast automatically?” she asked casually.

So he did. He employed a know and rack device which turned the bread without making it necessary to touch it. This was the first automatic toaster, forerunner of the pop-up toaster of today.

One of Copeman’s ideas, which has been extremely valuable to his fellowmen and in use in countless ways, is his application of latex, as acquired in its liquid form from trees. Copeman discovered that this product, when applied to paper, forms a cold, strong adhesive, which sticks to itself but to nothing else.

Copeman is presently awaiting word on the value of latex as used in a possible tamperproof envelope for the government. The envelope cannot be opened without tearing the message. Another use of latex is a protective paper covering for auto parts in shipment.

Among his other patented inventions is a refrigeration process used by mean delivery trucks. In this, Dry Ice is melted in a nonfreezing-liquid bath and the resulting gas forces the chilled liquid through tubes in the truck. He also dreamed up a paint can hood to keep the top of the can clean so the cover can be fastened tightly after using only part of the paint. This one is not yet in production.

Copeman has many more inventions up his ingenious sleeves. After all, he figures you can’t let the neighbors down.

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