It was 1972 and telephone answering machines were all the rage. The answering machine was the iPhone of its day – the cool gadget that everyone had to have. It was a different age, boys and girls, one where people actually liked getting and answering phone calls.
Can you imagine?
They worked this way: A call would come in and a cassette tape would play a pre-recorded message (much the way George’s did on Seinfeld.) The caller would then leave a message and when you got home, you would rewind the tape and play the messages. It was like getting great mail every day.
Longtime readers of this space know that my dad was a carpetman, but he was also a tinkering inventor. Once he invented a machine that would pre-measure and mark rolls of carpet as they rolled out of the carpet mill so his warehousemen wouldn’t have to take time physically doing that for every roll that came into the store.
The invention that ruined your life came a few years later. One day we were listening to our answering machine messages and dad had one of those classic “Eureka!” moments. “What if,” he said, “instead of the machine receiving a call and recording a message, we reversed it – I tape a message and the machine makes a call and plays it?!”
Like all great ideas, this one stuck. Dad couldn’t let go of it. But it was also true that he was not the right kind of inventor for this project; he was the big-think guy, not the in-the-weeds guy. But he had a vision:
“Here’s how it would work, Stevie,” he said. “I would record a message, something like, “Hi! This is Marty Strauss of Banner Carpets. We are having a huge sidewalk sale this weekend. Come on down for great prices!”
“The machine would then dial 879-0000 and play the message. It would then dial 879-0001 and play it again, and then 879-0002, and so on!” He was so damn excited. He knew he had a great idea.
So he hired an electrical engineer he had located somewhere to fabricate the machine. Given the technology of the time, it really wasn’t a huge engineering leap or feat to create a working prototype, and within a few months we had one.
The engineer came over to our house one night for the big reveal. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. He started with a big steel Halliburton-type briefcase filled with foam. Slots were cut out and held the different components of the answering machine – the headset, the cord, the machine.
Then he hit “Play” and lo and behold, the machine dialed a number, played my dad’s message, hung up, and then dialed the next number. It was a miracle! We couldn’t believe it, so excited were we. We tried it again, and again we had success. The engineer, obviously proud of his work, accepted our hearty congratulations. He closed up the prototype, said his goodnights, and slipped out the door into the night.
Never to be seen again.
My dad was heartbroken. He couldn’t believe it. He had no way to track the man. The shop where he had done the work was boarded up the next day. His phone number disconnected. Dad didn’t have any other information about him. That was it. Kaput. Within a few years, we started receiving robocalls. Those were calls dad never liked answering.
Aside from the fact that I should be a billionaire, there are a few other lessons to be learned from my dad’s misfortune:
- The first is, you have to protect your intellectual property as soon as you can. Machines like my dad’s need a patent. Identifying marks like the Nike Swoosh need to be trademarked. Creative works like books and music need copyright protection.
- Second, if you have a big idea, hire a lawyer, pronto. Had dad done this, he very likely would have had more to go on than a flimsy address on Rosecrans boulevard.
- Finally, always use a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) when sharing your Eureka ideas and do a background check regarding the people with whom you will be sharing your ideas and inventions.
And, the next time you receive a robocall, just remember your ‘ol pal Strauss, who slaves away creating great content for you instead of sipping Mai Tais on the beach and counting his robodollars.