One rainy day, my father was looking out of a window at a bird feeder swinging in the breeze. It had no birds on it. It was a design, popular at the time, where there was a small rustic round wooden log, about two inches in diameter and about a foot long. Eight one-inch diameter holes were drilled into the log, where peanut butter or suet bird food could be placed. At the time, these feeders were very popular with people, but they were not especially popular with the birds.
I knew my father was thinking about a bird feeder design to replace the wooden log suet feeder so I looked out with him, and asked, “How’s your design coming along?”
He turned and looked at me and startled me with the remark, “Did you know that bird feeder sales tend to be opposite of the health of the economy?”
“What do you mean?”
“When people are down on their luck and have less money, they seek solace and joy from things like the feeders with their perky, colorful birds.”
He smiled knowingly and added, “On Wall Street, they call this a ‘counter-cyclical play.’”
I wasn’t sure that what my father said about bird feeder sales was true, but he was talking himself into investing time, money and energy into his bird feeder development project. He wanted my support, and I thought a better bird feeder was much more promising financially than his records, so I agreed with him. But I knew that the tooling costs would be astronomical, and I said to myself, Dear God, please make this a home run!
Peter Kilham was starting out again at the age of 63. He was as usual almost broke at an age when most people are thinking about retiring.
My father began to think about designing a bird feeder that would be mass-produced yet also be a hit with the birds. The basic idea in the existing design of the vertical feeders was that peanut butter or suet would be troweled into the holes in the wooden log. He observed that a greater variety of interesting birds preferred seeds to peanut butter or suet. His first breakthrough was to think of the feeder as a hollow tube holding seeds instead of a log with holes drilled in it.
My father found that the vertical tube design, with perches at feed holes, was a better starting point than the log. If the feeder could be made of clear plastic tubing, moreover, the birds could see the seeds in it. The feeder could also be easily filled by pouring the seeds in through the top. Shiny metal caps on top and bottom and metal perches would make the bird feeder both stylish and easily manufacturable.
Also, the owner could easily remove these caps to make cleaning the feeder simple and quick. This turned out to be an important sales point.
Still, the question that had to be answered was: “What will the birds think of the new feeder?” My father hung several bird feeders outside of his kitchen window to find out. He was determined to keep experimenting, after studying the birds’ reactions to each design change. He had that twinkle in his eyes when he told me: “When they’re dissatisfied the birds scold; when they’re pleased their notes almost sound like applause.”
My father tried all sorts of things to please the birds. His choice of metal instead of plastic for the perch rods was important for mechanical engineering reasons. But would the birds freeze their little feet on the perch rods on cold winter days? There was a lot of discussions, worry, and experimentation about this. After experimentation and observation, my father concluded that the birds’ feet would not stick to the metal perches even on the coldest days. More recent bird feeders designs do have plastic perches, however.
I was a consultant to a plastics products company at the time, so my expertise was called upon to deal with another problem. We needed to select a plastic for the clear tube serving as the bird feeder’s body. First, I recommended polystyrene. This was an obvious choice because it is a low-cost basic industrial plastic, available in crystal clear grades, such as those used for disposable safety glasses. However, we found that after a few weeks in the sun the polystyrene was ruined. The ultraviolet energy of the sunlight broke down the plastic causing it to “craze” all over. We tried polystyrene with special additives to prevent this but nothing helped. The same thing happened when we tried acrylic.
Butyrate, a plastic made from cellulose, was the next candidate. It was not as readily available as the other plastics we had tried, but it seemed more stable in our outdoor tests. Then there was a jolting discovery: the squirrels loved it! They chewed it up like candy, probably savoring the salt in it.
Finally, we turned our attention to polycarbonate, often known by one of its trade names, Lexan®. Actually, we were aware of Lexan from the beginning, but we were dragging our feet in trying it because it was over twice the cost of the other common plastics, and it was more difficult to process. The company I managed at the time manufactured plastics machinery, so I knew how the Lexan should be extruded into tubing. The process required much higher temperatures and pressures than most other common plastics. But there was no getting around it. The Lexan worked beautifully. It was crystal clear, did not scratch easily, was not affected by the sun, and seemed distasteful to the squirrels.
The most persistent problem of the new bird feeder design was the squirrels. They could shinny up the slick support poles planted in the ground to hold the feeder. They could drop down from swaying tree branches. They could leap over from almost anywhere. Peter and Dorothy tried everything to keep them off the feeder. One solution which worked was to put an old black phonograph record above the feeder for hanging feeders or below the feeder for pole-mounted feeders. The birds didn't mind the records. In fact, they seemed pleased that the squirrels were not stealing their meal. Later there were specially designed molded polycarbonate squirrel guards, but Dorothy and I thought that the records worked best.
My father invented a number of bird feeders. They all used clear Lexan. He started by imagining himself to be a bird on the perch. Then he envisioned the geometry that would be most accommodating to the bird. Only after the birds were satisfied did he select the materials and manufacturing processes to make an attractive and economical product.
Imagination and creativity are highly focused in the invention process. When an inventor comes up with a truly novel idea, they have been exploring relationships, patterns, and associations until a productive interplay of ideas, images, and data of all kinds is found. That encouragement signals the brain that the chase is on. The mind is to be captivated in a little world encompassed by this project. I call this world imagination space. I know this is what happens because I have done it many times in developing my three patented inventions. On a number of occasions, my father spoke to me of projecting himself into imagination space.
My father’s persistence in perfecting a product has been an inspiration to me. His work taught me that even something of apparent simplicity, like a bird feeder, is worth the full development effort. Peter always thought that the greatest error inventors make is falling in love with their design. He always was his own severest critic.
At last came the time to apply for a patent. My father was very good at this, having received over 40 patents. Several drawings are made of the invention. They are usually in several views and cross sections or details of components. All details in the drawings are numbered. Then the applicant writes a description of the invention and its novel details, referring to numbers in the drawings. This is in patent office language like the following excerpt from my father’s first bird feeder patent application:
In order to prevent bird seed from flowing out of apertures 32, baffle means are provided inside tubing 12. One form of the baffle means is shown in FIGS. 3 and 4 and it will be seen that the baffle comprises a tube 38 that extends diametrically across the tubular housing 12 from the aperture 32 to the other aperture 32 that is diametrically opposed thereto.
This baffle description goes on for almost an entire page. Actually, it is a key part of the patentable novelty of the invention. In lay language, a semicircular roof between opposite feed holes keeps the seed from spilling outside. The feed levels at each pair of feeding holes are automatically maintained and consequently, the feeder is self-metering.
The patent was issued in 1971, just two years after it was applied for. This is at least a year less than normal. It would be key to the great success of Droll Yankees and my father.
In 1968 my father and helpers hand-made sample feeders to send to prospective wholesale customers. One was the mail order house Johnny Appleseed’s. They were excited and ordered three gross (432) feeders. They also solved a serious problem he was facing: financing the tooling estimated to cost of $8,000 (about $49,000 in 2018 dollars).They extended to him a loan for the tooling but at a very high interest rate. He was already borrowing the most possible from the bank, and no stockholders or directors came forward to help at this critical time.
Johnny Apple Seed’s introduced Peter to Schieren Associates in New Jersey who as my father said, “Sells anything connected with birds, or with a picture of a bird on it, to the best gift shops.” Schieren immediately put the feeder in the New York Gift Show, and by the end of 1969 had ordered 1,700 feeders.
Meanwhile, my father contracted with a manufacturer in Connecticut who specialized in plastic products to make an initial run of 10,000 feeders. It was easy to find several potential contract manufacturers because he had designed a product that was mass-producible at low cost using a minimum of machinery and employees.
Peter sold directly to the National Audubon Society who stocked his feeders in all their stores. Unfortunately, only a tiny minority of the shopping public visited these stores but in a few months, bird experts, who tended to associate with Audubon, pronounced the feeders technically sound and bird-friendly. Their enthusiastic endorsements were priceless.
My father remarked to me over a cold beer at the end of a long day, “Do you remember those sweet little old ladies we visited at the Audubon centers? Now they’re pressuring the big-wigs in the national organization for our feeders. Always be nice to them. They can move mountains!”
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Larry Kilham is an award-winning author who has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and four novels with an AI theme. He looks forward to hearing from readers at email@example.com.