Invention Dimensions

January 27, 2002
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When a light bulb goes off in your head, patent the idea.



The Totem Pole.
While surveying in some dense woods, Kevan Newman, a crew chief with 17 years in surveying, had an idea he thought would be beneficial in his work and the work of other surveyors. He jotted down his idea for an improved prism pole and coined the name of the Totem Pole.

“It kind of popped in my head. It’s like working your way to the top of the totem pole,” Newman says of his product’s name. “It’s good to be chief!” The Totem Pole prism pole Newman invented has the ability to adjust the prism to any stage along the pole.

“I thought it kind of fit,” he says.

Now Newman hopes other surveyors will find that the Totem Pole fits into their work.

The Need for a New Tool

Newman’s job frequently takes him into dense Michigan woods, an area of challenge for many surveyors.

“Surveying in dense woods makes it difficult to see the pole and prism,” Newman says. “You plumb over the point to get the distance as best you can. It is the operating policy at the company to get the distance that way. I never felt it was that accurate to guess at the center point of the prism.”

Surveyors, being resourceful and innovative when presented with obstacles, often come up with techniques to overcome line of sight problems. Newman claims his pole eliminates the need to use various “tricks,” such as leaning the prism into a horizontal position and dropping a plumb bob from it to the measuring point.

Newman hopes his invention will provide surveyors and others with the ideal prism pole, one with graduated measurement markings and precise adjustment.

“My design is more of a precision type instrument,” Newman says. “It’s not something you jam in the ground; you keep it in adjustment.”

An improvement over today’s prism pole, the Totem Pole features a bracket or grooved sleeve that allows the prism to ride on the pole. The side of the unit (excluding the tip) features an axially oriented square rail on which the actual prism moves. The unit has a threaded hole that allows the prism to be locked at various heights through the use of a knob-handled set screw. These improvements, Newman believes, will allow the surveyor to acquire measurements within any sight zone more quickly, accurately and efficiently. It can also reduce the number of readings that must be taken.

“Manufacturers often come out with simple variations of the same thing everyone has been using,” Newman says. “Mine is different.”

Building the Totem Pole

With his solution in mind, Newman set out to put his dream onto paper and get a patent sticker attached. He called on the Invention Submission Corporation (ISC), America’s largest inventor service company, whose advertisement he saw on television.

Many inventors choose to purchase ISC services rather than patent on their own for the same reasons consumers buy any service: convenience and cost. ISC offers inventors the convenience of one-stop shopping. For comparable services, an inventor would have to obtain general information and research, hire a graphic illustrator, write text for materials and have them printed, pay for mailings, develop a database of companies to which ideas could be confidentially submitted, develop a list of publications, travel to trade shows and employ a patent attorney.

ISC then took the reins for Newman and hooked him up with a patent attorney from Sioux Falls, S.D.

“At first there were a lot of phone calls,” Newman reports. After that, most of the patenting process was completed by mail. ISC and the patent attorney sent and revised all the necessary documents, forwarding them to Newman for approval. Newman designed initial diagrams and sketches, turning them over to ISC CAD experts and the patent attorney.

This was a smart step to take, according to Isaac P. Espy, surveyor and patent attorney from Tuscaloosa, Ala. One of the first things a new inventor should do, Espy says, is to “get a patent attorney that has a good track record and isn’t too busy to handle a claim.”

The inventor must also be willing to furnish the patent attorney with anything he needs at any time, Espy says.

Newman estimates he has put roughly $7,000 into the investment and between two and three years from conception to patent approval. Average time and money commitments for patents runs substantially less, according to Espy. He says a good median for inventions is between one and one and a half years at $4,000 minimum.

“It depends on the complexity [of the invention],” Espy says. “Inventions are divided into art groups. Each one has its own staff. At any particular time, the staff can be extremely busy. My experience is the quickest you can do one is eight to 12 months.”

The preparation of an application for a patent requires the knowledge of patent law and rules, office practice and procedures, as well as knowledge of the scientific or technical matters involved in the particular invention.

Inventors may prepare their own applications and conduct the proceedings themselves, but unless they are familiar with these matters, they may get into considerable difficulty. Skilled agents know what it takes to adequately protect an invention.

Most inventors employ the services of registered patent attorneys or patent agents. Persons who are not recognized by the USPTO are not permitted by law to represent inventors before the USPTO. The USPTO registers both attorneys at law (called patent attorneys) and people who are not attorneys at law (called patent agents).

The Sit and Wait Period

Turning an idea into a reality carries ups and downs, however.

“While it’s going on, it’s somewhat exciting,” Newman says. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t need a product like the one I invented. It’s kind of cool.”

And although the patent has been awarded on Newman’s invention, he hasn’t seen anything more come to fruition. He doesn’t exude extreme bitterness, though.

“It was a pretty substantial investment,” he says. “It was kind of something that for a time I kind of washed off as taking a chance in life. Just lately, I’ve heard of interest in the product.” Newman says he did a little marketing on his own by contacting SECO, SMI and Chicago Steel Tape. “But I haven’t heard anything back.”

New things do take time, though, and an actual model of the Totem Pole may be the next step for Newman.

“I’ve been thinking more and more of getting a prototype and using it at my workplace,” Newman says, referring to Gordie Frasier & Associates in Traverse City, Mich.

He also proposes to try going through ISC for help in getting a prototype made. According to Newman, the Totem Pole could be invaluable to anyone using field measurements when coordinating geometry to establish X, Y and Z datum on a given point, for the purpose of figuring earthwork, volumes and grading. The Totem Pole would consist of a 5' high by .20' pole made of aluminum or a composite material. An additional pole could be attached to bring the total height of the device up to 10'.

To Seek Help or Not To Seek Help

Newman has one bit of advice for potential inventors: “The more they can do on their own, the better.” Espy disagrees.

“The process is highly stylized with lots of steel traps and time deadlines,” Espy warns, adding that it is unlikely for anyone to complete the patent process on his or her own.

“It’s the width and breadth of the patent that matters. To just get a patent doesn’t mean you’re successful; it’s the protection that goes with it,” he says. “The only person that can deal with the patent office is the patent attorney.”

Newman retains his hope that surveyors and manufacturers everywhere will soon recognize the importance of the Totem Pole. “I wish something would happen with it,” he says.

Quick Patent Facts

  • The examination of patents is done by examining technology centers (TC). The examiners review applications for patents and determine whether patents can be granted, taking into consideration other inventions, dual inventors and the like.
  • The USPTO has over 6,000 employees, of whom about half are examiners and others with technical and legal training.
  • Patent applications are received at the rate of over 300,000 per year.
  • The office receives over five million pieces of mail each year.
  • Approximately I in 102 clients license their idea through ISC efforts. A much smaller number receive more money than they have paid ISC.


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