Shown below are sample chapters for The Perfectionist: Peter Kilham and the Birds.
This is the story about Peter Kilham who constantly sought perfection to bring beauty and function to the public through his nature records and bird feeders. His son Larry reveals their many conversations about life and creativity. Peter’s ultimate revelation is that nature is the greatest creator and it is up to the dedicated artist and inventor to reveal nature’s beauty.
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My father was an independent inventor and manufacturer, and he had his company on a hill overlooking the farm. He received more than forty patents but rarely made money.
I remember him then when he was in the summer of life. He was self-assured and apparently unaware of the harsher seasons to come. His hair was mostly there but had turned white. He retained his bright eyes. My father, always known to everyone simply as Peter, had given up dressing for effect. In the summer he wore cotton shirts with paint stains and the sleeves cut off. In the winter, he switched to bright-red plaid woolen shirts. His pants for all seasons were basic tan khakis with his pipe stem secured behind his ageless dark leather belt.
His shirt pocket always held several Muffets cereal box separators. These were postcard-sized separators between the layers of round shredded wheat. Whenever he had new product ideas, he’d pull one of these out and make a careful drawing of the design concept. When describing something to me, he would sketch illustrations as he went along.
Sometime in the late 1950s when I was sitting with him in his small company building he said, “My best times were during the Great Depression.” He was reflective, puffing on his pipe, and looking out of his office picture window over his farm fields. “I was just starting out, cars were cheap, and wealthy people were buying my custom-designed furniture. I did special designs for the Rockefellers.”
He went on, “My furniture was modern design with interesting combinations of solid aluminum, brass, and Lucite. My company’s name, Tekton, reflected this design philosophy. My machine shop was in our home on Beacon Hill in Boston and included the South Bend lathe you see over there.”
“Well, why aren’t you making this furniture today?” I asked.
“The depression was the beginning of the end of Old Money. They had many faults, but they understood and were happy to pay for quality and craftsmanship.”
“I think your metal bending machines are great,” I said, trying to be encouraging about his current products made in the name of his company, Curvit Corporation.
“They are,” my father answered, “and I have important patents on them. Nobody seems to know about it, but my steel tubing bending machines were used at Pratt & Whitney to form jet engine parts. Other customers were Chevrolet, Ford, and Chrysler. All of Sears, Roebuck’s baby carriages had parts bent on my machines. But the business took so much time that there was none left for development.”
Then he handed me a brochure of a lawn chair made of aluminum tubing and colorful plastic webbing. He winced. “Now my machines are sold at about cost to manufacturers who produce cheap consumer goods like tubular lawn furniture, and I have no interest in that.”
That was the crux of it. Peter Kilham wanted to make the highest quality products. He had to create works of art that his customers would admire and would make them happy. He had to satisfy himself that he had achieved perfection.
Margie the bookkeeper appeared and asked if there was anything more for her to do. “No,” my father said. “There were no orders today. Save the bills until Monday. Take the mail to the post office and have a nice weekend.” Another slow day. He stood up, knocked out his pipe, and said, “Let’s lock this place up and go home for lunch.”
Home was a fifteen-minute walk across a few hilly fields. It was a hot August day and we walked through tall field grass that needed cutting. We passed an old orchard with wormy apples and a slowly collapsing weather-beaten shed. My ever-present dog Axle, a cross between a German shepherd and a Doberman, trotted along sniffing out mysterious spots of interest.
We went right to the kitchen where mother had lunch on the table. Warmed up leftovers from yesterday’s dinner. “Did you get any orders today?” she asked with some edge in her voice. Silence. “No? Well, I guess I can sell some eggs tomorrow.” If the apocalypse ever came, mother would always have her chickens and eggs.
The kitchen was where mother was her warmest. She always was smiling when cutting up the deep dish apple pie she had just baked. She loved to make her own bread from scratch. It smelled so indescribably good when it was just out of the oven.
Mother had met my father at art school where she was a student and he an instructor. She always admired his art but was much more down to earth about financial matters. She had come from a wealthy western family and really wanted to enjoy a financially comfortable lifestyle. Her father was an inventor with over one hundred patents for oil burners used in home furnaces and other applications. My father came from a prosperous Boston family. His father was a prominent architect and his mother an accomplished artist. Nevertheless, he seemed to care little for the comforts that money brings to life.
“The farm,” as we called it, seemed to be my father’s dream. He had accumulated savings from design projects during the second world war. He bought the land after the war when it was cheap, and he could hire returning veterans at low pay to clear the fields, build fences, and make paths through the woods.
The farm was in Plainville, Massachusetts, between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island. We had eighty acres of woods, ponds, and fields. To keep us busy, we also had a dozen or so sheep, about thirty chickens, and a few horses.
My father thought the farm would be perfect for my mother who loved to ride horses and who enjoyed the country life. My father saw it for himself as a recreation of his idyllic childhood often spent in rural New Hampshire. My mother looked after the chickens and farm animals when she wasn’t working in the town library.
My two sisters, brother, and I grew up in this wondrous outdoor existence. As children on a farm, we knew the totality of creation. We gazed at life in a pond and watched butterflies flapping over the meadows. I thought life is forever and we are happy to the end.
After it was sold, all of the family farm was turned into subdivisions, where people all get up at the same time and head off to Boston and Providence.
Much of my practical education took place at home. My father taught me the use of the metal-working tools in his shop. As I grew up I became skillful in working sheet metal, operating the lathe and milling machine, and making metal products. One of my first creations was a brass fishing lure that I sold to the local fishermen. It worked better than anything else on the market. I was proud of my accomplishment and thus motivated to venture into more evolved and complicated inventions.
Electronics became an obsession for me. I built small radios from mail-order kits and learned basic electronics on my own through trial and error. I began to design my own circuits and build my radio equipment from scratch. I connected to ham radio operators in the United States and many exotic places around the world. As the years passed, I accumulated a collection of strange-looking radio antennas, connected from tree to tree, pole to building, and even as tall towers. When the ionospheric conditions were right, I could talk all day to other ham radio operators all over the world.
After digging deeper into the mysteries of electronics, I decided to study electrical engineering. Among many projects that absorbed my time and energy, I rebuilt a radar set. I worked with an ultrasensitive radio receiver that listened to stars light-years away and I programmed computers. I researched electronics that might at some point assume human intelligence. I managed to cover most of my college costs by writing software for some of my professors, and felt assured that my future would be purposeful and perhaps brilliant.
My days were important to my success, however. My father instilled in me the spirit and basics of product design and entrepreneurship. My projects in electronics gave me a solid technical background. My mother encouraged me to think of other people and how to communicate with them, so I feel my home education was solid and balanced. She also said that I should start thinking about getting out of the small town environment and go to boarding school to prepare for college. I had never thought in those terms.
Despite the apparent utopia of his farm and workshop, my father harbored an inner tension that had his sense of perfection driving him forward while straining against a constant need for approval. I don’t know if mother provided the approval he craved. He remarked to me from time to time, “No one understands me.”
He was looking for perfection in everything he did and he would gladly point out that no one could do better what he did. On the other hand, he was constantly asking me—and I imagine other people—if I thought he was making the best things I had ever seen. You could think of it as a championship golfer constantly asking his caddy if his last drive was the best he had ever seen.
This routine was okay in small doses. It can build up a rapport and professional partnership. But I found it tiring at first and then exasperating.
In our walk back to the shop from the house, my father stopped to point out where a new fence post would be placed. Then he described in detail about the preparation and installation of the post. The diameter of the hole should be a precise ratio to the diameter of the post. He detailed several steps of filling in with large stones of a particular size, then smaller stones, then sand. The conversation wasn’t really about fenceposts or me. I saw it as a statement about him.
My father’s nemesis was the horses. He was constantly making fence gate latches that he intended to be horseproof. With his engineering and machining skills, he would devise latches where various levers and catches had to be actuated in a particular sequence in order to open the gate. Even though he had no fingers, our smartest horse, Harry, always found a way to open any horse-proof gate with his nose.
I was uncomfortable because I, the judge, always knew less about what I was supposed to be judging than did the Perfectionist. My father might say, apropos of nothing, “Lawrence, isn’t this a perfect drawing?” pointing to an India ink on vellum drawing he did of a machine part. A machinist would accept a less artful and perfect drawing in order to machine the part, but if the drawing was part of the process, in my father’s view, it too should be perfect.
I would try to be intelligently responsive, answering, “Well, couldn’t that curved surface have some more shading?”
But he wasn’t listening. He just wanted support for his creative ego.
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!”