What's a Muleskinner, anyway?

My name is Deke Dickerson. I'm a full-time musician, with lots of interests. One of those interests is writing. I write for guitar magazines such as Guitar Player, Fretboard Journal, and Vintage Guitar. I also write music articles, liner notes, and books that accompany box sets.

Once, a long time ago, I thought it was weird to have your own web site. Then, I thought that myspace and Facebook were immature (turns out I was right about that one, but I'm on them anyway). When I heard the word "blog," I decried I would never have one. And yet, here I am. Enjoy...

Friday, November 5, 2010

FUN WITH PATENTS, Installment Number 1


If you're a guitar geek, undoubtedly you have a lot of time alone, by yourself, "between girlfriends," whatever you want to call it.  The good news is that there is literally a whole new world waiting for you to discover, and it's all free and online.  I'm talking about the wild world of U.S Patents, which can be found online at www.google.com/patents.

America's love affair with inventing things goes back to the beginning of this country. The Constitution states in Article 1, Section 8 to guarantee "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries".

Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of your "valuable" time can be spent researching decades of musical related inventions, from the early 1800's until the present day.  Guitarists might be interested to know that the vibrato arm originated on the banjo in the late 1800's.  The early era of the electric guitar showcases a whole host of interesting patents, including an early system by Arnold Lesti (Pat. #Re20,070, produced as 'Volu-Tone' instruments) that didn't use permanent magnets for their pickups.  Their solution?  Before each gig, you ran a "charge" of super high-voltage through the strings from a "charge" plug in the amp to magnetize the strings themselves.  Oops, don't touch the strings while you're running hundreds of volts through the guitar!  I'm still waiting to find the newspaper from the 1930's with the headline "Man killed by electric guitar."

One of the things that I love while scrolling through these old patents, listed immediately after the name of the invention or design being patented, are the names and addresses of the inventors.   When I see evocative names and locales such as "Ronald E. Dearth, Lima, Ohio" or "Carl Temple Schrickel, St. Louis, Missouri," I picture these people, these beautiful dreamers, hunched over workbenches, tinkering with their inventions, working out their ideas.  Some of them were nuts, some of them were geniuses, but the main thing that comes to mind while scrolling through these thousands of patents is realizing how few of these inventions ever made it to production, and even fewer that were successes.  Back in the day, and even today, it was a time-consuming and expensive process to apply for and receive a patent, so when I realize that "Bert Irie Gibbons, Fort Worth, Texas" likely invested his life's savings on a "One Man Band Apparatus" that never caught on, or was commercially produced, it has a double meaning for me. 

On one hand, it's sad to think that these people put so much of themselves into patenting a device that never made them rich or famous.  Bert Irie Gibbons, of the One Man Band Apparatus, suffered the ignoble fate of registering not one hit on google decades later beyond his patent and one vital record (a difficult feat).  On the other, a sense of pride swells inside knowing that no matter how gridlocked this country might be, no matter how deep a morass we find ourselves in, dammit, you don't see anybody in Norway or Japan or Brazil inventing things as simultaneously genius and stupid as Bert Irie Gibbons' "One Man Band Apparatus."

America, for all it's faults, is a land of beautiful dreamers.  The one thing the world still relies on America for are our ideas.  The collective brain power that invented things like the Internet and Air Conditioning came from a culture that also bred Perpetual Motion Machines, the Toilet Snorkel and Bert Irie Gibbons' One Man Band Apparatus.  Knowing that, perusing these thousands of American Patents reassures me that somewhere, in a garage workshop in Kansas or a computer hacker's bedroom in Florida, somewhere somebody is trying to invent something.  The cure for cancer, or at least a Sealed Crustless Sandwich, is undoubtedly right around the corner.

Gibbons' One Man Band Apparatus?  It appears to be two guitar necks mounted vertically that one plays by bicycling with the right foot to keep the strumming going, and changing the position on the necks with levers operated by your left foot and your chin.  I sure wish that googling Gibbons' name had turned up a youtube video.

More Fun With Patents to come--there's an endless supply of great material to write about.

Deke Dickerson

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