Lloyd Groff Copeman

by 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, couldn’t 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 of plastic.

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 travel catalogs.

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 past.

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 the “tamper proof” envelope. 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 note: “for $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 for processing.

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 lubricating automobiles.

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 heavy refrigerator.

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.

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