Aug 20, 2007

Uncle Stencil's blacksmith shop

Last week I went to a reunion of my mother’s side of my family. The blog was neglected. I didn’t think the family stories and songfests had yielded any lean observations, but I was in for a surprise.

Mom’s family, the Hytreks, had been homesteaders in The-middle-of-nowhere, Nebraska, in the 1880s. Her father, John, was first-generation American, and carried on the family farm. John’s brother Stanislaus, called Stencil for no apparent reason, moved to town to care for their mother who needed to be nearer the doctor.

Reminiscing about when they were kids on the farm, my mother and her sister and brothers talked about a haystacker their uncle had invented and patented. They remembered the machine, and my uncle Andy, who still lives on the original farm, said that there was a model of it in a spare room in his house.

Stencil worked as a blacksmith in town, and worked on the farm when he could. When the brothers were in their mid-20s in 1916, there were not enough children yet to help with the farm work, and no ready supply of hired labor. Horses were about their only power source, and they had no fancy equipment or money to buy it. They needed to increase productivity. Stencil had no more than a few years of education, but had an understanding of how machines worked. His tinkering in the blacksmith shop yielded some important labor-saving devices.

I thought I’d see how easy it would be to look up the patents, so I plugged “patent search” into Google, and what do you know? Google has a beta patent search engine now. All I had to do was search on “Hytrek” and found three patents, with full downloadable PDFs available for free.

In August 1916, Stencil submitted a patent application for a wagon loader, not a haystacker. Clearly, the men were getting tired of lifting hay into a wagon, or manure into a spreader. With Stencil’s invention, all you had to do was to get it onto a ground-level platform, then a chain-driven lift would pick up the platform, and tip it over into the wagon.

Pictured: The improved loader

But you still had to get the stuff to the platform. Stencil now invented a “scraper,” with tines that would get under whatever had to be moved and push it along to the loader. When the scraper came near the platform, its tines would be lowered slightly, dig into the ground and allow the rest of the load to be levered up and dropped on the loader platform. A patent application for the scraper was submitted in November of 1916.

Stencil still wasn’t satisfied, and submitted a third application in 1917 with improvements to the loader that made it easier to adjust it to different wagon heights and easier to dump. All three patents were granted, #1,196,364, #1,206,709, and #1,249,100. He seems to have hired a draftsman and an attorney to create the applications. I doubt he earned any big money, but he did make an improvement in his family’s ability to produce hay and fertilize the fields.

He said in the applications that the devices were meant to be simple, and easy and inexpensive to manufacture, yet efficient and durable in use. Remember, he was going to have to make as well as use this device, and there wasn’t going to be much money around for materials and production equipment.

Well, there is a point to this story. You don’t need a big-time engineer to develop a simple and useful machine to improve productivity on the farm or in the plant. Someone with a basic education, the patience to understand a problem, can also come up with a solution. It might be better with a team – I imagine John and Stencil discussing the problems of getting hay harvested and in from the field and tossing ideas around for a way to do it better.

You might just need the equivalent of Uncle Stencil’s blacksmith shop, where employees can go to prototype and fabricate devices to load and unload machines, mistake-proof processes, and make work easier. Toyota uses simple, adaptable machines, often devised by the plant-floor folks, and has proved the value of the practice. Think about it.

Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm