Article: From the Collections--The Small, but Significant, Inventions of John Vasquez :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Alison Oswald, Lemelson Center Archivist

John Vasquez with prototypes of two inventions--magnetic retainer and ashtray, undated. From the John George Vasquez Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Opening a kitchen cabinet is a daily occurrence for most of us, and the familiar "click" of the magnet in the latch is something we take for granted. But where did this idea originate? This small, but significant, invention known as a "Magnetic Retainer" (U.S. Patent 2,521,885, issued in 1950) is the work of an independent inventor named John G. Vasquez. Working in relative anonymity, Vasquez had also patented a "Multiple Compartment Handbag" in 1947 (U.S. Patent 2,429,856), and a "Combined Ash Tray and Holder for Smokers' Articles" in 1945 (U.S. Design Patent D142,753).

John George Vasquez (1916-2006) was born to Italian immigrants John and Sebastiana (Larosa) Vasquez in Meriden, Connecticut. In the late 1920s, he apprenticed as a barber, which became a favorite lifelong hobby. He graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1934 and attended the University of Connecticut. In 1941 he married Lillia B. Schultz of Wilmington, Vermont. Vasquez had a successful thirty-year career as a toolmaker at Pratt & Whitney Tool and Die Company of West Hartford.

One of John Vasquez's notebooks. From the John George Vasquez Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Sketches spanning the years 1942 to 2005 and small pocket notebooks from the 1960s to 1970s constitute the majority of the Vasquez Papers and capture Vasquez's thoughts, dreams, ideas, and inventions. He typically kept one file folder per invention or idea, gave each a title, and included signed and dated sketches and/or notes in the folder. Like most inventors, Vasquez sketched multiple ideas on one piece of paper and repurposed envelopes and correspondence. Some of his ideas for inventions include a last-confession penance-prayer enumerator to help Catholics remember their last confession; alphabetical playing cards; a transparent shoebox; and a combination ballpoint pen and nail file.

Vasquez often sought assistance in evaluating his inventions and in attempting to obtain funding to bring them to production and the marketplace. For example, in 1980 he sent his "Air-Gen Scoop" invention, along with a "Record of Invention" disclosure that included drawings and a narrative description, to the Affiliated Inventors Foundation in Colorado; he also sent the invention to the U.S. Department of Energy Appropriate Technology Small Grants Program. The Air-Gen was designed to generate electricity by mounting it on a vehicle and utilizing the wind power created when the vehicle was in motion. The electricity generated was stored in batteries for later use.

Vasquez started keeping "lists" of ideas in 1996, many of which were "improvements" to existing products. For example, he notes that retrieving items from high shelves in the grocery store would be better handled with a telescoping rod (that could be carried in a man's pocket or a woman's purse) with a rubber tip. Or, a stirrup for horseracing jockeys that permits easy movement in and out of the stirrup. Games, energy devices, tools, and essentially anything that would assist someone who had arthritis are represented in these invention lists. In the random-ideas folder there is letterhead titled "John G. Vasquez, inventor, designer of practical ideas for improved living."

Vasquez's U.S. Patent 2,521,885 for a magnetic retainer, issued September 12, 1950. Courtesy U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The pocket notebooks Vasquez maintained were supplied by his employer Pratt & Whitney and were aptly titled "Jot It Down." These small notebooks reveal yet another dimension to his inventing. Scattered among his work-related notes, instructions, and lists of tools for operating machinery are: ideas and sketches, statistics, telephone numbers, titles of books to read, measurements, and motivational sayings such as "success = hard work" and "you must make an active effort, you can't sit back and relax."

The John G. Vasquez Papers document the work of this wide-ranging independent inventor through his drawings, sketches, correspondence, notebooks, photographs, and prototypes for two of his inventions--the magnetic retainer and the combined ashtray and holder for smokers' articles. For more information about Vasquez and his inventive life, see: http://invention.smithsonian.org/resources/fa_vasquez_index.aspx

From Prototype, August 2010

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