Monkey paw story

Grooved Wedge and Ball Designs

The monkey paw wasn’t the first idea. The first idea was a two part grooved wedge/sphere idea (see below 2/87 notes). I was interested in how it would work with a point load (full sphere), but also if the sphere was shaped.

(Note: this is not part of the Mechanical Advantage series, though there might be mention of it later in the series. This just to get some thoughts and archival info to share.)

The main idea stemmed from the need to adjust to various slots, which rarely had parallel sides.

I shared this idea with Steve Byrne, and that story has already been told but some corrections to misinformation still out here. Mainly, he is in fact the inventor of the “ball thing”, which was acquired by Lowe and now made by Camp and others, as he worked out a way to make them (Steve was a brilliant machinist, his half-ball silver-soldered system was a great solution). But he did use my concept of a ball and grooved wedge which he had initially poo-poo’ed until he saw me working on my design, then later quietly patented it, as well as other inclusions of variants that prevented me from continuing with my design process (according to my Phoenix patent lawyer and the patent office). Even though the patent prevented me from commercializing my new ideas, I did make a few small batches of production Monkey Paws for my friends in 1989.

Steve’s idea was a twist/refinement on what I had been working on—I was still abstracting with various modes of the design, and had thought of various 2-part designs as well, though I was leaning toward the 3-part design as there are no sliding surfaces against the rock with a three-part design. Also, once Steve patented the grooved wedge/ball idea, I couldn’t really keep working on my two-part versions of the design as there was a lot of fanfare about the Lowe acquisition and buzz about Steve’s “ball things”, and about the patent (although the ball nut has its aficionados, it’s never really been a game changer like originally promised, though they have been useful to me at times, and also one of my homemade monkey paws was an essential placement on Abraham—more on that story later).

Anyway, my stuff that’s been in storage for the past 20 years from USA just arrived and below are pics of the same parts I was working on at the time in Steve’s shop, combined with later steel prototypes (I had bought Steve a Bridgeport mill for his shop, so I could work on my hammers, also helped him run the shop for times when he needed a break, like when he rope soloed, without any big wall experience, Mescalito in good time-a gobsmacking start to big wall climbing! His shop was a center for climbers but also lots of different creative projects, as well as producing lots of excellent TCU’s in all sizes).

You can see how I flattened the ball surface on one of the swaged balls as part of my tinkering process —this was going to be taking the load (instead of wedge). I think having the thick load bearing cable attached to ball would probably easier to remove than the current ball/grooved wedge piece commercially made, which are made with the main load on the wedge. The variants to this design have not really been explored, maybe it’s time to have another look. I think the idea of a ball and grooved wedge could be much improved on, based on the limitations of the current versions sometimes considered tricky to place (and remove!).

Thoughts on patents below.

note flattened full strength ball with partially flattened side, with design loading ball (instead of wedge as in “Ball Thing” by Steve.). It might not be as stable but might also be easier to place and remove after being loaded.

I found the optimal angle for the Monkey Paw to be 8.5 degrees, to maximise range but also be easily removable. The two-part angle can be slightly bigger, 10.5 degrees comes to mind from memory.

(Above: This came too. Original closure sign which was bolted on El Cap near the North American Wall. Walt walked right up to it with hammer and chisel and with a few slings crafted a suitable belay seat for our ascent of Zenyatta Mondatta.)

Original ball/grooved wedge notes:

original grooved wedge/ball ideas—2/87 shows similar design/function as subsequent Ball Nut design. In the following months, Steve progressed on the two-part design, while I focused on the three-part version (9/87). At this point I had no idea a patent was being applied for, and was further collaborating with Steve on his design (for example, providing optimal engineered grooved wedge angle based on coefficient of friction testing).

2 PDFs of interest:

1. Open source drawing images as posted on deprecated forum, with specific design details.

2. My later patent application and correspondence for 3-piece monkey paw which was rejected based on Lowe/Byrne patent.

In retrospect, the biggest frustration was not co-innovating better and better stuff. Steve and I came up with quite a few new ideas together, and it would have been fun trying to outdo each other, as well as help eachother, with all the variants. The patent attempt was pretty frustrating too though. We made up on Supertopo and now I remember more the fun wild times we had climbing and soloing. My first hour in Flagstaff, Steve asked me “Do you like to solo?”, and my first climbs were during a Wired Bliss lunch break soloing the Trinity’s (5.10) at the Overlook, jamming smooth Arizona basalt for the first time.

Patent thoughts

Patents suck. They require a hell of a lot of work, legal costs, and the thinking required is the antithesis of creative prototyping. It is a great thing, however, to create a provisional patent, in your own words, exactly what your invention does, and how it can be used (with sketches and drawings!) Then send it in to your friendly neighbourhood patent office with a nominal fee (like $100), and they will send you a dated receipt. The provisional patent helps clarify your thoughts, perhaps generate new ideas or issues, and can also be used along with a non-disclosure if you want to share the idea without crazy friendships jeopardised. Here’s some examples of mine:

Back in the 1980’s, patents were still thought of a way to riches from an idea. And so it was with Steve’s bonus of $10,000 (advanced royalties) from Lowe. That was a lot of money in those days, enough to start a fledgling business and make investments with equipment and people/talent, as we were both doing in Flagstaff at the time. But in reality it was a one-off, Steve got lucky.

Stories of people actually making any money on a patent were rare. Usually the inventor would spend thousands of dollars and huge amounts of time preparing patents and disclosures, with barely time for anything else (like continuing to innovate). Only super geniuses like Mark Blanchard (who invented the Silent Partner) could figure out the arcane language and required drawing formats so expensive lawyers and patent drafters were involved. Also the idea generally evolved quickly into offshoots and improvements, so trying to predict all future developments/variations with the concept generally ends up making a lot of stuff up, that you haven’t really tested in reality. And in the end just have a worthless document from the USPTO. If the idea can be commercialised to bigger markets, and you are ready to be best friends with patent lawyers, then perhaps it might be worth doing the whole nine yards.

Just having a look at Google Patents, you find hundreds of examples of worthless patents, though many have good ideas, and even novel ideas that were later “adopted” by a larger company without ever bothering with royalties (patents only give you the right to sue for infringement, but good luck fighting a large company’s legal team). Patents for the little guy were made even harder and less likely to be of value for small business with corporate-friendly changes in 2011. Tip for searching: find a climbing gear patent in the idea you are interested in, then look at all the patents referenced in that patent—for example, Jardine’s Friend Patent, then look at each of the “Patent Citations” (prior patents) and “Cited by” (current patents) to see dozens of cam designs that went nowhere, as well as some familiar camming device designs.

If you are an inventor, my best advice is this: Just keep out-innovating the bastards!

If it’s a good idea, it will get copied, whether you have a patent or not.

(But do document your ideas…)


john Middendorf