Masters of Invention 

The stories behind five of Missoula's most brilliant and bizarre patent applications

Page 3 of 4

Patent No.: D522914

Product: "Homunculus constructed from common rubberbands"

Stretching to make Rubber Rubberband Man a success

A-ha moments hit inventors at all sorts of unexpected times. Shunpei Yamazaki, a Japanese researcher believed to be the most prolific inventor in the world with more than 1,800 patents, reportedly finds his inspiration after he naps. Thomas Edison, the most famous American inventor, made a key improvement to the light bulb—carbonized bamboo filament—after using a bamboo rod during a fishing trip in what's now Wyoming. And former Missoula resident S. Matt Read—better know as simply "Smatt"—discovered his most famous invention after hours of largely failing at making a simple ball of rubber bands.

"To say it was an accident would be an understatement," admits Smatt.

That fateful day at the University of Texas ended with Smatt creating a rubber band sculpture in the shape of a person. Aside from having something cool to show to his dorm mates, it went absolutely nowhere. Years later, Smatt revived the idea of his rubber band man and gave one each to his nieces and nephew for Christmas. They stopped playing with the elastic toy by lunch. But with those gifts Smatt unintentionally created a focus group, and when he heard about the rubber band men becoming hits at various show-and-tells months later, Smatt recognized an opportunity.

click to enlarge The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office finally approved S. Matt Read’s patent for a rubber band figurine in 2006. After years of trying to peddle the toy, the former Missoula inventor is now trying something new: He’s hiking the perimeter of Texas.
  • The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office finally approved S. Matt Read’s patent for a rubber band figurine in 2006. After years of trying to peddle the toy, the former Missoula inventor is now trying something new: He’s hiking the perimeter of Texas.

According to the patent application, Smatt was ready to peddle a "Homunculus constructed from common rubberbands" to the masses. Forget SpongeBob and Elmo; Smatt and his brother, Charlie, envisioned children playing with Homunculi—the word, by the way, means "diminutive human beings without any deformity of physiology"—in family rooms across the country. Okay, maybe it wasn't going to be for "the masses" or a staple in "family rooms across the country," but the brothers had hope. Their patent was approved in 2006, nearly two years after it was first submitted. Smatt streamlined the production of the figurines. The brothers created a company, Smattworks Inc., with a base in Smatt's new hometown, Missoula. And they came up with a marketable name for the toy: Rubber Rubberband Man.

"There wasn't any honeymoon period," recalls Smatt. "From the moment we decided to do this, it was all work. We're not professional toy manufacturers and knew almost nothing about the industry or retail in general. We had to work really hard."

For the next few years, Rubber Rubberband Man consumed a lot of Charlie and Smatt's time. They attended tradeshows, worked on distribution deals and promoted the heck out of the toy. Smatt successfully applied for a second patent for a "canine figurine constructed from common rubber bands." And their book, Rubb-Origami: The Art of Creating Rubber Band Sculptures, helped spur sales and eventually rivaled the elastic men and dogs in popularity. Charlie, who writes software in Palo Alto, Calif., and handles the company's logistics, estimates they sold more than 1,000 copies of the 60-page book worldwide.

"We certainly didn't profit off of any of it," Charlie says, "but any time we took it to the streets or to a tradeshow, the interest was high and sales were good."

Yet Rubber Rubberband Man's lifespan didn't stretch quite as long as the toy itself. Eventually, sales hit a plateau. Different projects cropped up. Smatt, who worked numerous jobs in Missoula to make ends meet, including writing a games column for the Missoulian, moved away in 2007. Charlie kept up with orders and tried to generate more publicity, but things petered out by last year.

"I see failure as a positive thing," Smatt says. "It means you had the guts to try. With my Rubber Rubberband Man, my patent application got rejected a few times...Failure is an education. What you do with that is up to you."

For Smatt, it meant moving on to a new, equally different project: He's currently hiking the perimeter of his native Texas. When the Indy caught up with him to talk about his patents, he had been resting at Caprock Canyons State Park south of Amarillo, detouring a bit to the state's interior. Through 173 days, Smatt estimates he's trekked just more than 1,000 miles of the roughly 3,000-mile journey. He hopes to be done sometime next year.

"No one thought this was a good idea," he says. "My family and friends—the majority did not support this."

Undeterred, Smatt's set on reacquainting himself with his home state. He's paying for the trip in part by writing a syndicated column about his travels; local papers like the Texarkana Gazette and Brownfield News run him regularly. (You can also find his blog at texasperimeterhike.blogspot.com.) At night, he camps by the side of the road, crashes with friends (new and old) or rides "the couch-surfing network." On the road, he eats a lot of peanut butter, raisins and bread. Naturally, he's traveling light, which means no Rubber Rubberband Man to keep him company. But that doesn't mean he's done with the creation. In fact, during his stay at Caprock, he made a modified version as a gift for a park employee.

"I haven't given up on him as a concept," Smatt says. "I still keep him in mind as a fictional character. I wouldn't say he's destined for greatness, but I'm not done with him yet."

—Skylar Browning

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