his grandson, Kent L. Copeman
My grandfather’s business was inventing. From the time he invented
a device installed in a schoolhouse privy that allowed him to give a
remote-controlled whack to the unsuspecting to his death in 1956 his
mind never stilled. Lloyd Groff Copeman had, by his count, nearly 700
patents to his name. He once told me that he could walk into any store
and find one of his inventions.
In his youth, Lloyd grew up on the family farm located in Farmers Creek,
Michigan. The village is twenty miles east of Flint where he later moved
and became well know as an entrepreneur in his own right. Another leader
in Flint’s growth, E. W. Atwood, formed the laboratories to nurture
his inventions. The Laboratories were located on the upper floor of one
of Durant’s old carriage factories on Water Street in what is now
known as Carriage Town. In later years this building was burned to the
ground by arsonist. Later on, he moved back to Farmers Creek and built
a permanent home by remodeling his summerhouse. The home included a workshop
in the basement where he worked on his ideas. After the idea became a
reality he took it to Flint and turned it over to the detail people at
the Copeman Laboratories for final development.
My grandfather was a person most of us have never heard of but who’s
inventions still touch our daily lives. The three that most often come
to mind are the electric stove, the rubber ice cube tray, and the automatic
electric toaster. Actually, there were hundreds of other inventions,
some which reached the market and many more that did not.
Natural gas reigned supreme in the early nineteen hundreds and electricity
was slowly making itself known as a major contender for use in the home.
Even so, many homes had no more than bare electric bulbs hanging from
the ceiling and few, if any, wall outlets. The main use for electricity
in the home was for illumination and the electric iron that was promoted
early on to free the housewife of the drudgery of doing the weekly ironing
with sad irons.
Copeman invented a thermostat that provided warning when transformer
stations for high-tension wires were about to burn out. This led to patent
number 932,966 being granted to him in 1909 for the Electro thermostatic
heat regulator. The thermostat now meant that the amount of heat generated
by a heating element could be controlled. When he told J. Dallas Dort,
the automotive pioneer, about the idea of an electric stove he grabbed
a telephone and recruited stockholders then and there. He and a limited
number of 22 stockholders raised $500,000 to form the Copeman Electric
Stove Company in 1912. It was located in Flint, Michigan in what was
referred to in later years as the Copeman Building.
The first electric stoves produced by the company had the appearance
of an old-fashioned heavily insulated oak clad icebox. Removable
round hot plates were plugged into outlets located on the top and inside
the small ovens. The new stoves were referred to as the “fireless
cooker” in the advertising literature. This reflects the cooking
methods of that day. Cookers were on the market that used heated
soapstones to cook the meals. Copeman substituted the heated soapstones
with electric heating elements. The early “ice-box” look
quickly took on a more modern cooking range appearance by moving the
oven to eye height and making the burners more convenient for the homemaker.
Many variations of the stoves were available including simple hotplates.
By the time the company was sold to Westinghouse Electric in 1918 the
appliance was very conventional in appearance.
An article in Popular Mechanics Magazine, which was written from a personal
interview with my grandfather explains the sale of the Copeman Electric
Stove Company this way: He was alone in a booth at a Philadelphia convention
where various manufacturers were demonstrating their products before
potential distributors. An elderly gentleman stopped and expressed interest
in Copeman’s stove.
“And how are you doing with your product, young man?” the
gentleman inquired to the inventor.
“Well, we’ve got a good product, but darned poor sales
organization -- that’s me.” Copeman said.
“We have a good sales organization and no likely cooking products.” the
man replied. He was president of Westinghouse Electric Corporation.
In a few days, a deal was made in which Westinghouse absorbed the Copeman
Electric Stove Company. The year was 1918.
The Copeman Electric Stove Company produced more than stoves. Lloyd
and his wife, Hazel, were window-shopping and they were looking
at an electric toaster displayed in a show window. The normal way
a toaster worked at the time was to place the bread on a rack facing
the heated electric coils. When the bread was toasted on one side, it
was flipped by hand for the toasting of the other side. The story goes
that my grandmother, Hazel, turned to her husband and said, “Lloyd,
you invent a toaster that would automatically turn the toast?” In
fact, family oral history continues to say that she made a model
of the toaster using hairpins. There must be some truth to this
as the toaster patent was issued to Hazel B. Copeman in 1914. This was
the first toaster that allowed the toast to be “turned” without
touching the bread. It was called the “Automatic ” toaster.
As with the electric stove, the first Westinghouse toasters were identical
in every way other than carrying the Westinghouse name and the words “Copeman
Patents” on the nameplate.
Many companies who wished to produce electric toasters were forced to
pay royalties to Copeman or find a different way to “turn the toast”.
Some swung the toast around in little baskets. Another toaster carried
the bread past the heating elements on a little conveyer belt, toasting
it as it traveled along. Toastmaster ended the long search for a better
way to toast bread with the advent of the “pop-up” toaster.
The rubber ice cube tray, later sold to General Motors Corporation,
came to Copeman while he was gathering sap to make maple syrup. Slush
collected and froze on his rubber boots. He noted how easy it was to
bend the rubber boot and have the ice flake off. Copeman had his patent
attorney prepare patent applications for three types of trays. One was
for a complete rubber tray, one with just rubber section separators and
the third with individual, removable cube holders. The final patent was
for a rubber tray divided into sections. This invention, alone, proceeded
to gross about a half million dollars in royalties for Copeman and his
associates. We now have the same type of trays but they are made out
Copeman never thought of the past but was always looking towards the
future. How could life be made better for the housewife, the farmer or
the industrialist? Many of his inventions that did reach the market never
became household words. While traveling he found the need of a flexible
clothesline. He invented and patented a flexible clothesline made from
braiding rubber surgical tubing and called it Flexo-Line. It stretched
to seven feet. Articles of clothing were held in place between the rubber
strands until they were dry. This product is still being marketed in
My grandfather saw a market for a garden rake cleaner and formed a company
to manufacture such a product. The result was a gadget that was mounted
on the handle of a standard garden rake. By pulling a metal handle, a
loop around the tines would push the debris off the rake. I don’t
know how many of these were sold but it certainly made the cleaning of
the rake easier.
Wildlife, including birds, was of interest to Copeman. In 1939 or 1940
he formed Cope-Craft Products by issuing $50,000 worth of stock. This
was a mail-order company for which he developed a complete line of birdhouses,
feeders and suet cakes. The birdhouses looked like sections of logs and
were made from a heavy tarpaper covered with a dark, brown paper that
gave them the appearance of bark. They were very eye appealing and were
shipped flat and assembled by the purchaser. As Copeman found success
with his Cope-Craft line of bird products, he turned his mind to other
uses for die-cut products. Using the cardboard covered with wood grain
patterns he designed waste paper baskets of various shapes, a more advanced
line of bird feeders, a fly swatter and a berry box that could be quickly
assembled via machine. Although the ideas had potential, the world had
moved on to plastics, leaving paper and cardboard products for generations
Many of Copeman’s patents reflect the problems of the day. He
and others thought that natural rubber or latex could be used in
a variety of ways. Several of his patents suggest that coating
automobile steel body stampings with latex would keep them from
rusting while being shipped to various locations for assembly. There
is much correspondence between General motors and Copeman Laboratories
about the process but nothing came of it. Copeman also developed a method
of using latex for keeping woman’s nylon stocking from running.
The ladies of the Copeman household had vivid memories of having to wear
nylons that were thick, heavy and that could not breathe. Eventually
a workable stocking was developed but it, too, never reached the
market. A product that Copeman was sure would be a marketable item was
Brown wrapping paper was coated with latex and allowed to dry.
An item was placed within the envelope and all the sides were pressed
down, forming a tamper proof seal. The irony was that Copeman sent
the sealed package to a friend of his at Michigan State University
to be evaluated. When the envelope was returned, it contained the following
$10,000 I will tell you how I did it”. So much for the “tamper
proof” envelope! Today we find this same technology at use on
the self-sealing envelopes that we use when we send our film out
Copeman found that the dripping can of paint was just as much a nuisance
then as it is today. He went to work and developed a rim made of spun
aluminum that fit in the pail rim that caught the drips and kept the
rim clean for resealing. This never was patented but this product, too,
can be purchased, made of plastic in paint stores today.
Greasing automobiles bearings and other mechanical equipment was a dirty,
messy job. Grease cups of the day were removed, filled with grease and
then screwed down, forcing the grease into the bearings. Copeman invented
and patented a cup that used a pre-filled paper cup that made the process
quicker and cleaner. This was marketed as the Copeman Lubricating System
or Copeman Lubi-Caps and was later sold to Alemite in its infancy for
$178,800. It was further developed into a high-pressure system used for
It had been suggested to Copeman that the U.S. Army would be interested
in a wagon that could turn a 45-degree corner. He made a small, scale
model out of brass that he drew behind a scale model farm tractor. When
he felt he had the problem licked, he used a farm wagon to make a full
size prototype. The front and rear wheels turned in opposite directions
similar to todays all wheel steering. Although he spent much time on
the possibilities of a tight turning wagon he was never able to get the
idea to become a reality.
Not all of my grandfather’s life involved his passion for thinking
up ideas to help his fellowman. His country estate was a jewel, located
in Farmers Creek, south of Lapeer, in the midst of prime farming country.
For its time, the nineteen thirty’s and forty’s, the family
home was one of the finer homes in the area. It was at this location
that he installed the first in-ground concrete pool in Michigan. It was
built in 1929 and measured 60 feet by 20 feet and was 10 feet deep at
the diving end and 3 feet at the shallow end. It held 100,000 gallons
of water. He bought the diving board from the Detroit Athletic Club where
he was a charter member. The pool is still in use today. His well produced
enough water to allow most of the local residents to became part of his
private water system. During the depression he raised angora rabbits,
which generated work for the local women who would knit baby mittens,
and other accessories that were offered for sale. Copeman also founded
the Hunt Club Poultry Farms that marketed eggs and cottage cheese. This
income also added to the local economy.
Always looking for an opportunity, Copeman leased much of the land in
and around Lapeer County in hopes of finding natural gas. In 1935, he
drilled and found gas just south of Lapeer. His crew found just enough
gas to cook a meal of bacon and eggs before the well turned to water.
The amount of water flowing from the well drained some of the local wells
and produced a swamp that is there today. He estimated his loss at $60,000
which in 1935 money, was a bundle!
Many of the patents reflected Lloyd’s interest in refrigeration.
As refrigeration was new, methods of containing it was of special interest
to him. Several patents were issued that involved providing a cabinet
that was formed using a special concrete mixture that acted as its own
insulation. As one might imagine, this idea ended up becoming a very
In his early years Copeman was an avid hunter. His mind was motivated
to make the hunter’s lot easier. One invention that did not even
make it to the patent application stage was a chair/seat that was
attached to the hunter’s backside. It was designed so that when
the hunter wanted to sit, he would bend, as to sit, and the seat would
automatically fold out to accommodate him. The family motto for this
product was “Rig
Your Rear With Copeman’s Gear”.
In the later years of my grandfather’s life, income from patents
had come to an end but he still intended to live the “good life”.
One day he told me “I will sell whatever I need to, to keep my
income at $10,000 a year.” This was when a middle class income
was around $5,000 a year. Accumulating money was never my grandfather’s
goal. He continually invested in developing his new ideas and obtaining
patents. By the time Copeman died in 1957 he had sold the family
farm and had accepted the fact that he would need to apply for
Social Security benefits.
My grandfather always had domestic help. Even at the end he had a housekeeper
who did light housekeeping and cooked his meals. He had a gardener and
handyman who handled routine chores, cared for the yard and did the gardening.
When his wife, Hazel, was bedridden, there was a live-in nurse to care
for her. As residential air conditioning was not readily available, he
mounted sprinklers on the roof of the house and pumped cold water through
them to cool the shingles therefore lowering the temperature in the room.
Later, he designed a system of pipes in her room for the cold water to
run through. By putting an electric fan behind the pipes, he developed
an early form of air conditioning to make her more comfortable. Upon
his death, his total estate was valued at approximately $100,000.
My grandfather had an attitude about driving. I remember two particular
instances. Returning to his car, that he had parked in an angle
parking space he found that someone had parked a little close to
him. As he started to back out, his car began scraping the side
of the other car. “Lloyd,
(we always called him by his first name as he didn’t like “Grandpa”)
you’re hitting the other car.” “He parked too damn
close to me” was his only reply and kept right on backing out,
damaging both cars. Another time he was stopped at a red light.
After waiting for what he considered enough time he started to
go through it. “Lloyd,” I
shouted, “the light is red! I ’ve waited here long enough,” he
said and off he went. When one rode with Lloyd, white knuckles
were the norm.
I had never thought of attending college but one day my art teacher
suggested the idea to me. “I don’t have that kind of money,” I
told him. “Why don’t you ask your grandfather if he would
help you?” was his suggestion.
I thought it over for a day or two and then stopped in to see my grandfather
and told him that I might be interested in attending college but would
need a little help.
“I will help you if your mother will also help,” he replied.
When I graduated from high school I started college and, true to his
word, my grandfather helped me financially through the first year. During
the second year he died leaving my mother and I to finish the job. What
a way to get out of a deal!
It took a half-dozen diseases and several years to extinguish the flame
of life that had brought forth so many ideas, inventions and patents
that had benefited so many people.