Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, Jan. 7, 2002
Local inventor enjoys success after eight years of persistence
By Lynda Jensen
Few Howard Lake residents may know that a modern-day inventor lives in their midst.
Jan Gilmer, 57, who lives on a quiet street on the south side of town, is an honest-to-goodness real life inventor, with several patents registered at the U.S. Patents Office in his name.
Many know Gilmer as the former owner of Gilmer Monuments for more than 20 years, which he sold in 1984.
Gilmer is just starting to taste success from one of his ideas, a thermostat light.
The inspiration for the light came to him in a dream nearly eight years ago, Gilmer said.
He went to his workshop behind his house and came up with a working prototype of a light that fits over a regular round thermostat.
That was the easy part.
The hard part was spending thousands of his own dollars and time, selling his idea to a distributor that could make his idea take flight, Gilmer said.
"He's just like a Timex watch," commented his longtime companion, Patricia Salmela of Cokato. "He's persistence and patient," she said.
After years of that persistence, Gilmer finally caught up with Garrity, the second largest flashlight producer in the nation.
Garrity, which is based out of Madison, Conn., distributes Gilmer's idea at Menards, Home Depot, Bed, Bath and Beyond stores, some Wal-marts (although none local), as well as drug stores.
The product is also available in downtown Howard Lake at Joe's Sport Shop and Hardware Hank.
Currently, production is at 150,000 per year of his thermostat lights, but this is heading toward a half million per year, Gilmer said.
Gilmer conducted a great deal of research to build a market analysis of his idea, as he was applying for his patent.
His research unearthed surprising information.
For example, most thermostats are located in darkened hallways - and when people are unable to see the thermostat, they have a habit of turning it up too high to get the furnace to kick in, Gilmer said.
This wastes a great deal of energy, since it takes about half an hour for the thermostat to match the degrees in the room when it is corrected, Gilmer said.
In fact, if millions of homes do this regularly, the amount of energy wasted amounts to a substantial number of thermal units.
Gilmer's idea prevents this from happening, since a simple touch of the button illuminates the dial.
In fact, the device doubles up as an emergency light and illuminates a room 14 foot x 14 foot, Gilmer said. It is powered by two AAA batteries.
There are more than 70 million circular thermostats being used in households right now. The round design is actually patented by Honeywell.
Gilmer's designs include anything but round, since the thermostat lights come in heart shapes, ovals and other designs. He also features many different colors.
Gilmer approached Honeywell with his idea, however it turned him down, most likely because the idea was not conceived in-house, Gilmer said.
Perseverance pays off
One year ago to the month is when Gilmer's thermostat lights started rolling off the production lines.
However, the road he traveled to get there was long, and full of a few bumps.
The first thing Gilmer did after he conceived of his invention was to contact a patent attorney to start his application for the patent.
The paper work filled about five four-drawer cabinets, he said.
Armed with his market analysis, Gilmer traveled the nation, visiting the new product divisions of several businesses, including such big names as Presto, and Ray O Vac.
He almost received a contract with Garrity, but a sudden turnover put him back at square one again.
People from Presto also expressed keen interest in the product idea at an inventors' expo in Redwood Falls in 1998.
Gilmer created a number of "beautiful" prototypes to show at the expo, which caught the eye the CEO at Presto, Gilmer said.
However, Gilmer continued his search for a distributor after waiting too long for Presto to act, he said.
Another business interested in his device was the Salton Company in Chicago, via a friend of Gilmer's who invented the George Foreman grill.
Although the CEO liked the product, he told Gilmer to go ahead with his own pursuits since Salton was not able to pursue the concept at the time.
After nearly four years of false starts and dead ends, Gilmer decided to start manufacturing the thermostat light himself.
He actually started to purchase the equipment he needed to do this, and planned to set up a manufacturing plant in Cokato.
This ended when Garrity called again - this time for good.
This was the second time that Garrity offered a contract to Gilmer. A few years before, Garrity had the product ready to go before it signed the contract with Gilmer, he said.
He had to stop Garrity, to ensure that everything was in order with his contract first, he said.
This was a wise move on his part, since it would take Garrity another few years following a corporate turnover before he would see the fruit of his labor.
When it finally did happen, it was the culmination of so much time and energy, Gilmer said.
Gilmer will be renewing a continuation on his patent soon. Most patents last 20 years, he said.
He owns four design patents, one mechanical utility patent, and one patent in Canada associated with the thermostat light. Gilmer has 50 claims at the patent office, Salmela said.
Howard Lake-Waverly Herald & Winsted-Lester Prairie