Column: Local inventions that didnt quite connect

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 6, 2006

Ed Shannon, Ed Shannon

One of those irritating TV commercials designed to sell something is sponsored by a company appealing to inventors. This particular commercial shows in part a caveman creating a wheel out of stone. From this questionable example those viewers who have invented some gadget they sincerely hope will result in future riches are supposed to contact this company. For a fee a patent can be obtained for the inventor by this company. And for another fee this company will supposedly contact a firm, which will manufacture and sell this particular gadget or device and pay a royalty to the inventor.

Now with this TV commercial as the inspiration for another column and to give this invention topic a local connection, Kevin Savick has given me copies of an old ad and two news items from the Tribune.

A short news item in the July 7, 1932, issue of the Tribune said, &8220;A new business has recently started in Albert Lea for the manufacture of sanitary tooth brush cabinets for homes. The cabinet is the invention of a local dentist and two local dental technicians. They feel that an article of this kind should be in much demand as it fills a long felt need in this field. This business will furnish employment to several local men and women. The Tribune has not learned the particulars.&8221;

With this news item was an ad for the Ritson Cabinet Co. Their motto was &8220;A Clean toothbrush &8212; A Clean Mouth.&8221; Within this ad was this notation, &8220;Our agent will call at your home within the next few days. Give him a few minutes of your time to demonstrate this necessary article.&8221;

I checked the available city directories and telephone books for this era and could find no listing for the Ritson firm. However, the names of two of the three men involved with this invention were mentioned in a Tribune news article on March 30, 1934. It said:


F. Tomson and Walter I. Fritz of Albert Lea were granted a patent … (which)

relates to a cabinet for toothbrushes. This cabinet maybe secured to a wall, and has a flat rear wall to which is secured a hollow rectangular bottom portion for containing a disinfectant means and for containing the brush ends of toothbrushes. The rear wall is provided with side walls and a top to which is hinged a depending cover adapted to close the open front of the cabinet. A clip on the rear wall engages the handles of the toothbrushes to hold them standing vertically within the cabinet.&8221;

Tomson is listed in several city directories of that era as a dental lab worker and Fritz is listed as living on James Street (then the legal address on city maps) with no occupation given. I never did find the name of the dentist who helped to invent this cabinet.

Another invention mentioned in the 1934 news article was a special crank to help start automobiles. That part of the article said:

&8220;Mahlon P. Howe of Albert Lea was granted a patent In the United States Patent Office, according to a report from Robert M. Dunning, (St. Paul) patent attorney … The patent was Issued on March 13, 1934.

&8220;Mr. Howe&8217;s patent, which was issued as No. 1,950,797, discloses a novel type of automobile crank. This crank is so devised that if the automobile should backfire, the crank handle is released, permitting the operator much greater safety when it is necessary to crank a car.

&8220;The crank of Mr. Howe&8217;s design is provided with a shaft engagement with the crank receiving member of the engine. An arm is secured radically to the outer end of the crank, and to this arm is detachably secured a crank handle, having an arm for engagement with the arm on the arm of the crank. A connection between the arm of the handle and the arm of the crank is such that a sudden rotation of the shaft in a counterclockwise direction will release the handle.&8221;

Howe, incidentally, was an insurance agent at that time. He was likely also a person who tinkered with automobiles.

When I read this part of the article about Howe, an old saying came to mind. It&8217;s based on the concept of &8220;a day late and a dollar short.&8221; Right about this time the electric starter was being installed in vehicles and the sometimes hazardous use of cranks to start auto motors soon faded away.

By the way, are there any of these Albert Lea created cabinets and/or cranks still existing in the area?

(Ed Shannon&8217;s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.)