By Brad Dison
Have you ever heard of an Electric Flowerpot? Akiba Horowitz was born in Minsk, Russia in 1856. At the young age of fifteen, Akiba moved to Berlin, Germany where he studied liquor distillation. In 1891, Akiba immigrated to the United States. Upon entering the country, Akiba changed his name to something more American. He called himself Conrad Hubert. Conrad, now 35 years old, needed to find work immediately. In New York, Conrad operated a cigar store, a boarding house, a restaurant, and a jewelry store. Conrad was not satisfied until he began operating a novelty shop.
All things dealing with electrical power following the invention of the light bulb were in fashion. Conrad was a tinkerer. During his lifetime, Conrad’s patented inventions included “the first automatic electric self-starter for automobiles, …the first exact amount check protector, the autoped,” and an electric gas lighter.
Joshua Lionel Cowen was an inventor as well. Joshua had invented the electric doorbell and the electric fan, both of which initially failed to find a market. People complained about the protracted ring of the doorbell, and the fan produced only the slightest breeze. His most successful product, which was the most popular item Conrad sold in his novelty shop, was his battery-powered light up tie tacks.
Joshua and Conrad had numerous discussions about their ideas for inventions. During one such conversation, Joshua told Conrad about one of his most recent inventions, the electric flowerpot. The contraption was made up of a battery within a paper tube with a light bulb at one end. The tube was mounted in the center of a flowerpot. Once the battery was switched on, the light illuminated the plants in the flowerpot. Joshua had patented his electric flowerpot, but he was unsure of its marketability. Conrad had faith in the invention and convinced Joshua to sell him the patent.
Conrad manufactured a large number of electric flowerpots, added them to his inventory, and began advertising. In the summer of 1894, citizens in Buffalo, New York held a Fourth of July fireworks competition. Among the prizes were American flags, balloons, packages of fireworks, toy cap pistols, small battery-powered lights, and Conrad’s electric flowerpots. Despite his best efforts, the electric flowerpot was a failure.
Conrad had a surplus of electric flowerpots which were in no danger of being sold. David Misell, an employee of Conrad’s novelty shop, tinkered with the electric flowerpot to see if he could help Conrad create something marketable from its parts. David had previously invented a wooden-cased signal light and a bicycle light. David and Conrad separated the tube and bulb from the flowerpot. They lengthened the tube so they could fit three “D” batteries inside it, and added a brass reflector under the light bulb. Finally, they had a product that Conrad thought he could sell. They filed a patent application for the “Electric Device” in March of 1898. The paperwork listed David as the device’s inventor and Conrad as a witness. The patent was awarded in January of 1899. Because David was an employee of Conrad’s, he assigned the patent rights to the device to Conrad’s novelty company. Conrad added the device to the inventory of his novelty shop. The device sold very well, but the public had just one complaint. The “D” batteries would only illuminate the light bulb for a short time before the customer had to replace the batteries. Due to the device’s short battery life, customers said the device could only produce a flash of light. In many English-speaking countries, the device is generally referred to as a torch. In the United States, Conrad’s customers gave the device a nickname that stuck. They called it the Flashlight.
1. Buffalo Courier Express, June 24, 1894, p.15.
2. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 17, 1928, p.2.
3. The Standard Union (Brooklyn, New York), March 18, 1928, p.8.
5. “Stories of Inventors and Their Inventions: Conrad Hubert.” www.linkedin.com. Accessed September 17, 2023. https://www.linkedin.com/