FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 2

I continue from last week’s post FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1 with Bill’s very unexpected description of my Grandmother, Margaux Alain, at work in her salon.  Notice the use of the Prussian Frau Landlady as a foil:

The French dressmaker was a constant revelation to Frau Landlady. In the coldest days of winter, the dressmaker would be bitching up a storm about the lack of heat when the landlady would come tramping down the stairs lit by a fifteen-watt bulb, her body covered with heavy wooly underwear and layers of sweaters, bearing a huge thermometer in her fist to prove to the French madame that there was ample heat. When the landlady would tap at the door, she always got the shock of her life to find the French madame running around on ten-degree-cold days with just a bra and panties. She couldn’t design fully clothed; she found inspiration only flowed to her fingers when she was almost naked. Of course, the landlady would hit the ceiling, wildly screaming, scaring my customers out of their wits.

I remember my Grandmother at her sewing machine, cigarette in mouth, wearing a bathrobe with, I guess, nothing else on but just a bra and panties. Now I know that she didn’t bother to wear that bathrobe when I wasn’t around.

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THE NEW BUSINESS OF PATENT ANNUITIES

Above: Lincoln’s Inn as seen from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.

Up for today is my Harvard Business School (“the charm school on the Charles”) case study about the industry my Dad created — international patent renewals!

As the 1960s progressed, Dad’s new business quickly subsumed his “normal” patent practice. He did keep working for some select inventors who intrigued him but spent most of his time promoting his new renewal business as a modern, computerized clerical operation.

Corporate patent owners were delighted and sought him out.  On the other hand, foreign patent law firms worldwide were scandalized! The renewal work for them was heretofore easy money; it was a simple annual reminder operation that brought in huge fees for little work. They accused Dad of skimming the cream off their businesses. Many fought back, in some cases by petitioning their local patent offices NOT to accept such payment schedules sent in from foreign offices in New York. However, some savvy patent law offices quietly became clients, preferring to take advantage of the lower fees and passing them along to their clients to curry favor.

SYMPATHY FOR THE YAK, PART 1

The Central Park Zoo in the mid-to-late 1960s barely resembles today’s facility.  The centerpiece, the Sea Lion Pool, which remains pretty much as it was (with the addition of plexiglass walls, so you can see the seals swimming underwater). But the rest of it, which resembled a prison for animals, has been dramatically remodeled to be the more “naturalistic” habitat seen today.

CP Zoo2

For one thing, back then you could tell when you were close to the Zoo by the strong smell of excrement. Today, the smell is gone, with one exception: the Penguin room which has a fairly strong scent of guano. Well, they do have a lot of water birds paddling around in the simulated Antarctic environment; the main attraction is their own indoor  large plexiglass pool where the aquatic acrobats can be admired while “flying” through the water.  According to the penguin keeper, they love it when the keepers “turn the rain on.”

Zoo Pengies.jpg

Back in the mid-1960s, I remember a row of cells behind the Sea Lion pool, where incarcerated animals could be seen behind two rows of bars. There was a gorilla, a leopard, and several other inmates. They either sat at the bars looking out sullenly, or paced back and forth endlessly.

THE AUTOMAT

From the hall of ersatz messages, we walked around the corner to the authentic original temple of modern dining, the Automat.

Long before McDonald’s and Burger King moved from strip mall paradises out on Highway 50 in Orlando to urban centers near Grand Central, Horn & Hardart had reigned supreme as America’s original fast food restaurant. Like the post office, the walls were covered with tiny glass windows displaying Salisbury steak, sandwiches, macaroni & cheese, pudding, or slices of cherry pie, all fed by kitchen staff behind the wall. After inserting either coin or token into the slot and turning the handle, you could raise the window and take out the delicacy.

There was also a cafeteria line if you had more time to wait.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Around 5 PM on an early summer’s day in the mid-1960s, Dad finished up his workday in his small suite in the Pan Am Building, towering above 42nd Street in mid-town Manhattan.  I stared at him. It was the end of the day, and Lenny, Dad’s Pall Mall chain-smoking secretary, was long out the door.

I was hungry and ready for my supper. But, typically, Dad had just one more thing to do before Miller time (for him, not me). It was always a letter that had to be mailed, a thick fat one. Stuffed full of papers, the envelope sat on Lenny’s desk, already addressed to a foreign patent office. The zip code was an indecipherable jumble of numbers and letters. Festooned with large denomination stamps, the likes of which I had never seen before, this package of computer print-outs and a foreign currency bank draft was destined for the post office. And then some foreign patent office out in the big, wide world beyond!

THE BIGGER IDEA (AND ME AS WINGBOY)

Everyone has a shining moment. My Dad’s bears repeating. He really slayed it!

So Dad got the idea for a fantastic business related to patent filings and infringements, kind of an amalgam between legal and IT but not a legal practice, strictly speaking. As I am able to remember it, he had become friendly with Ed Greer, who was head patent counsel for the Union Carbide Corporation. Union Carbide was one of the biggest chemical corporations of the day and was headquartered in their own magnificent skyscraper two blocks up Park Avenue from the Pan Am Building.

It was a probably a simple matter for Dad to put it together that large corporate patent owners could benefit from some form of computer calendaring.
Keep in mind that a large company like Union Carbide owned a large portfolio of patents. They would initially file patent applications in the home country, USA for Union Carbide. And as they were a large multinational corporation selling their wares everywhere, once the patent applications were accepted here at home, they would then engage in an international filing program elsewhere, typically the largest 15 countries in Western Europe and then Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and maybe Brazil and South Africa to boot.

THE THIRD EYE

One winter’s night in the late 1960s my Dad, Bernard Olcott, walked home from his office in the Pan Am Building. He stopped at the Gristede’s on the North East corner of Park Avenue South and 41st Street (long since gone). It was a hard place to pass up as the odor of rotisserie chickens graced the corner, even in the cold. Dad hunted down a cooked bird, dripping wet in roasted fat. He hauled his kill back to the Peter Cooper Hotel on 38th and Lexington, wolfed it down, and then passed out in his richly appointed studio.

That night he had a dream. He saw himself reading through a 6 page letter from one of his clients. The first page was a dry cover letter instructing him to add 150 new patents to his payment system. There were 5 other pages attached, with a dizzying array of patent data. The last page was different than the rest; it was a one line item, a patent with some kind of inconsistency. Dad detached the last page from the others and laid it on the mountainous pile on his desk. The others he gave to his secretary so she could complete data entry sheets to be used by keypunchers at the PSI Computing Center. In this way, all items were to be entered into the Bernard Olcott & Associates patent renewal payment system – the forerunner of today’s Olcott International.

That is, all items, except for the one that got away on the last page.