But at its heart this is a participatory game. Some weekend inventors fly solo. Many others now join inventor clubs to share lessons and tactics, gaining group-rate access to patent services. Surprisingly - in what one might imagine is an inherently secretive world - many even talk over specific ideas with peers, and the ideas flow.
Last year the US Patent and Trademark Office granted more than 164,000 "utility" patents - patents for inventions, as opposed to designs and processes. Most went to the IBMs and Matsushitas of the world; the US government scored 800-plus. But more than 16,500 went to small, private inventors. A patent is no guarantee of marketplace success. Simplicity helps. That's reflected in the Waterbury array: a golf-tee dispenser, a fishing-pole holster, a hat with a pocket, a wrist-wrapping cellphone sleeve. "Those types of inventions tend to have a greater chance of being successful than something that you've got to convince Boeing to do," says Stephen Nipper, a patent attorney with Dykas, Shaver & Nipper in Boise, Idaho. "[The best is] something you can make in your garage, then sell or license to somebody who can get it into Wal-Mart."
Fifteen years ago, single mother Lisa Lloyd devised a barrette to keep her hair under control at the Arizona office where she earned $14,000 a year. With her mother's help she developed the "French Twister" device, then licensed it to hair-products giant Scünci. She made, she says, about $28 million in 10 years.