An old box of colorful glass reflectors revealed one Memphian’s inventive nature.
At a garage sale I purchased an old case filled with glass-topped disks. On the back you can read “Clyde Washburn, Memphis, TN” and there’s a patent number. Who was Washburn, and what are these things?
Dear S.W.: Perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, but Memphis is world-famous for its innovators and entrepreneurs. Why, we’ve even established a Society of Entrepreneurs to recognize the creative geniuses in so many fields, and any schoolchild can recite the success stories of Clarence Saunders, Kemmons Wilson, Fred Smith, and at least a half-dozen Lauderdales.
But those are the giants. Living among us over the years have been many inventors and dreamers, who ponder a problem and create a solution. I’ve told their stories before: the fellow who designed a children’s shoe store in the shape of a giant boot. Roy Noe, who developed an “Xcercisor” that (so he says) brought him back from the brink of the grave. And now we can add to that list Clyde Washburn, who in 1931 invented a better way to attach license plates to cars.
Okay, maybe that’s not quite on the same level as creating FedEx, but just pay attention here and you may appreciate his efforts.
I can’t say I know much about Washburn’s personal life, since I never met the fellow; the Lauderdales and Washburns didn’t run around in the same social circles. What I do know is that he first shows up in Memphis city directories in 1919, as president of the Exclusive Distributors Corporation — what, exactly, he distributed wasn’t specified. For a few years, he rented rooms at The Peabody, The Chisca, and at various houses around Midtown. By the mid-1920s, he was the proprietor of the Hassler South-East Company, a vaguely named firm that sold shock absorbers for cars. So now we understand his connection with automobiles, and this may be when he first started thinking about license plates.
In 1928, he apparently married, because the next year’s city directories list a Daisy Washburn living with him at 186 East Parkway South. But here’s something interesting: In 1930 — just one year before he patented his license plate device — he left the car business. He started working for Motley Brothers Sign Company, and he and Daisy moved into the Parkview Hotel. Motley, by the way, specialized in “electric” signs, presumably meaning neon and lighted signs; I wonder if any of these have survived around town?
Washburn’s original patent drawing for his “License Plate Fastener” provided plenty of options for the locking device.
And now we come to 1931, the year when Washburn thought he would make his great fortune with his clever invention, and in fact he had moved up in the world. No longer selling shock absorbers, he became sales manager for a business marketing company called Woods & Faulkner. In his spare time, I can see him tweaking the design of his little device, and scribbling away on his patent application.
Here’s what it’s all about. Then as now, thieves would steal license plates so they could — well, I don’t want to give bad guys any ideas. Washburn thought he had a solution to this problem, so he came up with his “License Plate Fastener.” The basic principle of his invention — and pretty much the extent of his entire patent — was a special ratcheting screw, which once fastened, could not be unscrewed. So after you bolted a license plate to your car, no sneak thief carrying a screwdriver could steal it. The only way to remove it was to smash the glass front, to reach a locking tab inside.
The patent, as I said, focuses on this locking aspect, in typical Patent Office lingo:
“The objects of this invention are to provide means for securing a license tag to the holder therefore and protecting means in connection therewith which must be destroyed in order to permit release and removal of the securing means. A further object is to provide a protecting means which is easily and readily identifiable so that it may be possible to detect, even in the case of a swiftly approaching or receding vehicle, whether the securing device has been tampered with.”
Okay — whew — so it’s basically a gadget that is hard to remove, and anyone (even in a “receding vehicle”) can tell if it’s been removed. I get that.
But what’s curious is that the wordy patent doesn’t discuss the other, more interesting (to me, at least) aspects of this device. First of all, it was more than just a locking bolt. As you can see, it came with colored glass covers. Washburn explains that this “fragile cover, preferably of glass or porcelain, may be distinctly colored so that by daylight it may be readily seen, and so that by reflection by headlight of another vehicle at night will also be distinctly visible.” But he didn’t think to incorporate actual reflectors; the tops are just colored glass.
And that, to me, is the fatal flaw of his invention; you have to break it to use it: “To remove the license plate fastener it is necessary to entirely destroy the fragile glass cover,” he says, “thereby making the locking spring tongues readily accessible and permitting their disengagement from the bolt.” I’m sorry, Clyde, but even the Lauderdales, with their unlimited funds, would be reluctant to smash these things every year, and then buy a set of new ones, when we needed to install a new license plate.
But it seems Washburn thought his invention would be more popular if it served still another purpose, and if you look carefully at the paper label beneath the glass, it is clearly (sorry for the pun) designed to indicate that the vehicle’s brakes had passed inspection.
But even this baffles me. Maybe in the 1930s all car inspectors did was check the brakes. But putting the tiny “BRAKES TESTED” notice inside the glass-covered license-plate holder makes little sense because: 1) it’s not that easy to read through the colored glass, and 2) how would the inspector put the inspection or expiration date inside it? The sturdy metal backing on the fasteners is crimped around the base of the glass dome. After all, that was the whole point — you had to smash the glass to get inside.
And here’s something else I can’t figure out. Molded into the glass are the large letters “N.O.” (with periods), or if you turn it upside-down it says “O.N.” I haven’t the slightest idea what that could mean, and Washburn didn’t mention any of this in his patent. Were the ones found in the old case specifically designed for use in New Orleans? Was he hoping this device would be used in every city in America?
Despite all the hard work that Washburn evidently put into this, fame and fortune were, sadly, just beyond his grasp. Patent #1855931 was approved on April 26, 1932, and … nothing came of it. Now listed in the old phone books as a salesman, he continued to live in the Parkview with Daisy, until his death on March 19, 1940. He died in Mt. Carmel, Illinois when he was only 54, so it’s possible he was still making sales calls, still trying to peddle his invention. Daisy lived on for more than three decades, passing away here in 1973.
In a way, it’s a sad story, because we have proof of this man’s inventive nature, but as far as I can tell, nothing came of it, and all that remains is a box of his old reflectors. But you know what? I’m going to mount some of them on the Lauderdale limousine. I think they will look quite dashing, and I’ll think of Clyde every time I drive around town.
Got a question for vance?
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine,
460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103