Look closely at the front of Bill Truitt’s car.
Like the Rolls Royce emblem, the claim the license plate makes — America’s first air car — is a lie.
Truitt’s Buick ran on gasoline, but he claimed he invented a way to run cars entirely on air power. He once ran a car for “maybe 3,000 miles” without stopping at a gas station, he told The Pittsburgh Press in 1978.
In 1973, Truitt said he lacked the money and equipment to fully develop the car, so he turned over plans and a scale model to then-U.S. Rep. John Heinz III to guard any patent rights and direct the plans to the appropriate government agency. Though the Press articles about the inventor never directly call him crazy, Truitt — who had successfully patented a distilled water coffee pot and an electric fishing rod — is portrayed as a “muttering man who tinkers with gadgets and gizmos for hours.”
That description of the public perception of an inventor comes from another story in the same newspaper in 1976, titled “Inventors: They didn’t know it was impossible.” It’s a feel-good story about “Joe Jones and Mary Smiths out invent[ing] the brightest think tanks and hired brains.”
Inventor stories seem to largely fall into two categories — the muttering man and the hardworking underdog — and both result in entertaining stories about people and technology.
File Edward Wright Sr.’s story under the hardworking underdog category. The retired engineer invented a pump that helped his granddaughter, Jennifer, who had a rare form of lymphedema. Watching as the hospital treated Jennifer with a single compression pump, Ed saw the flaw and invented a better pump. Jennifer’s improvement was almost immediate.
First told in The Pittsburgh Press, the story gained national attention — in part because Ed was legally blind when he invented the pump. Months later, he ended up talking with a Florida man who purchased the pump for his daughter. In your everyday experimental-medical-device-coincidence, the man had the same eye disease as Edward and had just heard of new experimental eyeglasses. When he returned from Florida with the glasses, Ed was able to write a letter for the first time in four years.
That’s the face of a man who was scammed out of $8,500 and still couldn’t sell his coffee table.
Countless amateur inventors have seen their dreams crushed and wallets drained by companies that charge a lot and do very little, as a 1992 front-page Sunday story in The Pittsburgh Press exposed, and three of the largest scammers had Pittsburgh roots.
Peter Kunz was one of many who fell victim to TLCI, then the third or fourth largest invention marketing firm in the country. TLCI told Kunz about companies it had contacted about his invention, but Kunz did his research and found that many of them didn’t actually exist.
Wayne Martin might be “a vanishing American,” The Pittsburgh Press warned in 1982. American ingenuity was declining, but the U.S. Steel designer continued pumping out inventions. The warning wasn’t wrong — foreign applications for U.S. patents have begun to eclipse domestic applications in recent years.
Though American patent dominance is no longer reality, the number of U.S. patent applications, from both Americans and non-Americans, has increased almost every year since the 80s.
Click through these photos to see more Pittsburghers who contributed to those numbers.