The inventor Peter Schlumbohm could be called a geek’s geek: smart, opinionated, with a wicked sense of humour and a love of clever tinkering. His Chemex coffeemaker appeared on the cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Useful Objects in Wartime” bulletin, and his inventions were objects of design beauty.
The following article on Schlumbohm appeared in the July 18, 1949 edition of Life Magazine, written by Herbert Brean and celebrating the Americanisation of a scientific icon.
Upon meeting someone for the first time, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm is fond of explaining that his last name is pronounced “Slum-bum.”Announcing this with the resonance of a bass drum, Dr. Schlumbohm will look at his auditor expectantly and then, like as not, beat him to the laugh. He laughs a great deal. Indeed he says his greatest characteristic is “how I am always laughing my way through this world.”This is a gross misstatement. Dr. Schlumbohm’s greatest characteristic is that he is something most people at one time or another dream of being: a successful inventor. More than that, he is a man with a well-formulated system for inventing, and he has the patents, inventions and bank account to prove his system works. He holds patents on some 300 inventions, ranging from a propane-fuelled motor to a conical garbage can, and he has developed about a dozen into successful products.
The best-known and most lucrative of the Schlumbohm inventions is the Chemex coffee-maker, which brings coffee and hot water together and then filters the result through a cone of chemical filter paper. Well over one million dollars’ worth have been sold in the last five years. The Chemex, currently on sale in 3,000 U.S. stores at $6 for the one-quart size, is a typical bit of Schlumbohmiana since it is handsome (the Museum of Modern Art displayed it as one of the best-designed products in 1943), if makes excellent coffee and consists essentially of chemical laboratory equipment—a chemist’s flask, a glass filter and a piece of filter paper. This is not surprising, considering that Schlumbohm spent many years studying chemistry, particularly refrigeration. His most recent invention, which went on sale in New York last month and proved an early success, is a cigaret holder which delivers the smoke only after it has passed through cleansing filter paper.
Schlumbohm, who has a fondness for odd names and a certain flair for inventing descriptive ones, applies the trade name Fahrenheitor to many of his inventions. To some of them he has given names like Tubadipdrip, Tempot and Minnehaha cocktail shaker, as well as such relatively prosaic names as glass water kettle and bottle cooler. The Tubadipdrip is a tube which both dips and drips in another tube to make tea, coffee, cocktails and other beverages. Minnehaha is a cocktail shaker whose great features, aside from its name (Schlumbohm likes to point out that Minnehaha means laughing water), are that its cork stopper is leak-proof, yet comes off easily, and that its stirrer is a polo ball on a stick—for no other reason than that Schlumbohm was able to get a good price on polo balls, which are ideally suited to the purpose. The Tempot is a heavily insulated 4½-gallon jar containing three covered aluminum dishes which rest on top of each other. It is, among other things, an unmechanical washing machine (Dr. Schlumbohm says that clothes soaked overnight in it at constant temperature practically clean themselves), an ice-cube vault, a humidifier, hot-food preserver and foot bath. Since it retailed at $125, only 20 Tempots were made, and they are no longer in production. “They were too expensive,” says their inventor airily. “I looked upon it all as just a little design of joy.”
There is one thing that all Schlumbohm designs, joyous or not, have in common: they are extraordinarily handsome, endowed with something of the pure mathematical beauty of the laboratory flask. An example is the Schlumbohm water kettle, unconventional yet completely functional, and pleasing to the eye.
Ideas come at 3 a.m.
The author of all these marvels is a self-confessed “vertical trust” who, from the very first glimmering of an idea through all its tests and development into the final commercial product, controls everything. Dr. Schlumbohm is not the inspired type of inventor, to whom a new idea reveals itself in one blinding flash, nor the patient tinkerer who works away in a backyard workshop. He is the kind who perceives a problem and logically sets about finding a solution that will be efficient, handsome and profitable. Occasionally these solutions occur at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning as he broods over a late bottle of champagne in a favorite restaurant. At such times he has no compunction about going to the phone and routing out an executive of one of the several companies which do his manufacturing to discuss the possibility of blowing a new glass design. More often, however, Schlumbohm first supplies some workman with a rough sketch of what he has in mind, gets one made up and then tinkers with it in his small bachelor apartment in New York’s Murray Hill area.
This is a pleasantly unconventional place where everything of importance is neatly filed away in a filing cabinet— shirts in one drawer, burgundy in another, phonograph records in another. Here Schlumbohm ponders his ideas, usually with a slide rule. When a design proves itself and looks right, he has a draftsman draw up blueprints. He farms out the manufacture of the various components to such companies as Alcoa and Corning Glass. They are then assembled by eight strong backed women in a small factory in lower Manhattan. Dr. Schlumbohm does all his own selling, writes his own advertisements, direction leaflets and brochures and even types out his own patent applications—one draft only, since he refuses to make a mistake.
This sounds like a very busy life. It is really a leisurely one. Dr. Schlumbohm rises late and, when he has no business appointment, spends the first part of his day in his apartment, sometimes working at a new invention. He greatly dislikes ordinary office work, so he seldom goes to his “factory” before 5:00 in the afternoon, when he reads his mail and answers it. He occasionally works into the evening, but more often he departs for dinner at 6 or 7, another day’s work done. Since he weighs 225 pounds and eats a light lunch, dinner is something of a rite—New York’s restaurants, in fact, are one of the things that drew him to the U.S. and eventual U.S. citizenship. Schlumbohm was born in Kiel in 1896, the son of a well-to-do German chemical manufacturer. He returned from World War I, in which he became an artillery captain, suffering from the universal postwar malaise and, his father
having died, made an agreement with the other beneficiaries of the family estate to waive his claims on it, provided that it support him for as long as he wished to continue his education. There followed eight pleasant years at the University of Berlin, which were terminated only when Schlumbohm somewhat absentmindedly permitted himself to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry, thus concluding his education and putting an end to his income.
Never one to work himself into a breakdown, it seemed to him that a life of inventing was far more attractive than the regular hours and small pay of a laboratory job. “What,” he asked himself, “can humanity not do without?” He presently concluded that humanity could not do without a nitrate of ammonia champagne cooler, and he straightway invented one. It sold by the carload. Other inventions and patents, many involving propane gas and dry ice, followed. So did prosperity.
Pleasant patent laws
But in 1931, attracted by America’s patent laws, which he regards as the pleasantest in the world from the inventor’s point of view, Schlumbohm came to this country. Before coming over, he wrote an American friend of his intention and was sternly warned that there was no money to be made in depression-struck America. On the way over a man on the Europa earnestly begged him to take the boat back as soon as it docked. Six weeks later Schlumbohm showed his American adviser checks totaling $7,000 which he had received for new vacuum bottle designs from the American Thermos Bottle Company.
After 22 years of inventing, Schlumbohm has come to certain conclusions about it. He feels that just seeing the problem to be solved is 20% of the inventive process. Finding a patentable idea that solves it is 40%. Good design (“Eliminate everything that’s wrong, and what’s left will be right”) is 30%, and merchandising is the remaining 10%.
Schlumbohm has found most of his own patentable ideas among the more commonplace items in a chemical lab. He likes to believe, perhaps with some reason, that his various adaptations of these to home use are the talk of an envious chemistry profession.
“They were furious when they saw my Chemex coffee-maker,” says he of his colleagues. “After all, the filter is one of the most familiar things in a chemical laboratory. They have had five years to think it over, and they still have not thought of my Fahrenheitor cigaret holder. ‘My God!’ they will say, ‘that Schlumbohm! What will he do next?’ ”