INVENTORS & INVENTIONS
From the August 31, 2001 print edition
Inventor for Life
by Benno Groeneveld
Patrick McNaughton, 36, never patented his most famous invention: the neon
blackboard used to post restaurant specials. McNaughton came up with that
idea 15 years ago when he tended bar and waited tables to put himself
through college. While working yet another job, producing a mail catalog
with products for bars and restaurants, McNaughton noticed that regular
blackboards were a very popular item. "But people complained that
they were always the same thing. They wanted something different,
something that would draw more attention," he said.
McNaughton had seen pictures of the glass or acrylic boards, drawn on with
grease pens, that are used by the military to keep track of troop or ship
"But the military didn't use any backing for these boards, so you
could look right through them, which was very distracting,"
McNaughton said. So he put a backing on his boards, added lights, and an
item was born that is still very popular today.
McNaughton never took out a patent on this invention. "Because it was
used by the army, I thought it could not be patented," he said.
However, looking back he regrets that he let his attorney talk him out of
applying for one.
After the first neon blackboards came out, imitators started flooding the
market. "Rather than fight with the vultures," he said, "I
started designing and selling special versions of the blackboards."
For example, he created one with numbers already etched in to indicate
rankings of the most popular movies in video stores. All the store needed
to do was add the titles.
McNaughton no longer is in the neon blackboard business. But he still
keeps on inventing, partly because he needs to make money ("people
just think all inventors are rich"); partly because he can't help
himself -- inventing is in his blood.
His company, McNaughton Inc., Minneapolis, designs, manufactures and
markets premium items for the consumer goods market. Popular items,
McNaughton said, are a strainer for cans of food and Gas Guard, a device
that protects a car's paint from spills when one fills the gas tank.
McNaughton invents about 80 percent of the products himself and markets
items from other inventors. "Sometimes we license them, sometimes we
manufacture the products or we just distribute them," McNaughton
The invention he is most proud of is a special buckle that prevents
children from taking their seat belts off in the car. "It is nice to
know that you make something that keeps children safe," he said.
McNaughton also has a personal reason for liking the device. He and his
wife had twins last November and they plan to use that buckle when their
children grow old enough.