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Published: Tuesday, 6/13/2006

Where are today's innovators to help Toledo prosper anew?

Could it be that Ohioans aren't as inventive as they once were?

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland suggests that when Ohio was a leader in patent creation, its residents' income ranked near the top of the list nationally, but now that its patent production has shrunk, so has its income.

It seems clear that we need a lot more inventors like Toledoans Michael J. Owens, Harold McMaster, and the DeVilbiss family, who are among the innovators who created many thousands of jobs in this region.

In its recently released 2005 annual report, the Cleveland Fed included a 17-page study that concluded a number of states benefited greatly by large numbers of patents, a high percentage of college graduates, and industrial specialization that resulted in a highly skilled work force.

Insulation made of fiberglass, a material that led to the founding of Owens Corning, rolls off a production line. Insulation made of fiberglass, a material that led to the founding of Owens Corning, rolls off a production line.
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Ohio, and the rest of the Fed's Fourth District - western Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky, and part of West Virginia - came up short in nearly every aspect.

For starters, from the 1930s to the new millennium, U.S. population grew 139 percent, and even though Ohio did the best among the states in its district, with an increase of 72 percent, that paled in comparison to California's 528 percent population explosion.

And, during that seven-decade period, patents in the four states barely budged, according to the authors, Paul Bauer and Mark Schweitzer, Fed economists, and Scott Shane, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

They noted that patents in those states totaled 7,643 in 1930, nearly 20 percent of all U.S. patents that year. By 2004, those states accounted for 7,216 patents, about the same as 74 years previously but less than 8 percent of the U.S. total.

And Ohio's production of patents slipped from 566 per million of population in 1930 to 299 by 2004.

Meanwhile, Ohio has slipped in income relative to other states. As recently as the 1970s, the state was 13th in per capita income but fell to 26th in 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economics Analysis.

Patents are only one reason for the difference, but they're an important difference, the Fed researchers contend. Patents represent a sort of "proxy for success at commercialization of technology," the Cleveland Fed says.

The Fed report points out that "the Fourth District has been the birthplace of many of our nation's inventions [including] the vacuum cleaner, aluminum, and the Ferris wheel, to name a few."

It did not name any Toledo inventions, but they contributed mightily to Ohio's economy over the years. For example, Michael J. Owens' name appeared on 49 patents, including several for the automatic bottle-blowing machine (modern versions can produce up to a million bottles per machine per day).

The late Harold McMaster had more than 100 patents, including many for glass-bending machinery and for solar panels. Various members of the DeVilbiss family held dozens of patents for devices including spray-painting equipment, atomizers, and automatic computing scales (sadly, the famed Toledo Scale, which resulted from their inventions, is no longer made here).

Toledo inventors also gave us automobile headlights, improved transmissions, safety glass, carburetors, power-window mechanisms, and much of the design of the famed World War II Jeep (which, of course, led to the civilian version that is still made in Toledo).

Some Toledo inventions led to entirely new industries. In that category is fiberglass, a joint project of Toledo's Owens-Illinois Inc. and the Corning Glass Works, of Corning, N.Y. As a result of that invention - which led to the formation of Owens Corning, three of the O-I research team are now in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron: Dale Kleist, Russell Games Slayter, and John "Jack" Thomas.

Let's hope that there's another generation of innovators out there who can re-create the magic that created thousands of jobs - and lots of income for Ohioans - in the past.



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