How I Invented a Two-Way Valve for Flush Toilets and Almost Made Millions

The author realized equipping flush toilets with a two-way valve would save the U.S. billions of gallons of fresh water. He'd make millions if only he could patent the idea first.
By Paul Hogan
July/August 1981
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A two-way valve for flush toilets was such a novel, brilliant idea the author feared to run afoul of patent thieves.

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I knew that saving a couple of billion gallons of water a day wouldn't be an easy task, but the present world water shortage—compounded by the problems of disposal, pollution, and humankind's generally wasteful habits—caused me to set my brilliant mind to work. Surely, I thought, I could find a solution, save America ... and (ahem!) maybe make a few bucks in the bargain!

I must have flushed my toilet—a device that I know is a legendary water waster—a hundred times in one day while researching the problem. Then one day my poor well gave a hollow echo as it dried up from overuse. Just as the last droplets dribbled slowly into the tank, my own sudden water shortage provided inspiration. I had the answer! My idea was, in fact, so simple that I wondered why no one had ever thought of it before. Since only about a third of a tank is necessary to flush away liquid waste efficiently, why do modern commodes use a whole tankful of water to do so? What's needed, I figured, is a two-way valve for flush toilets: Turn it one way for solid waste and the opposite way for liquid waste!

In order to get a rough notion of the worth of such a device, I contacted the Philadelphia Water Department, which informed me that it costs almost $500 to purify and then dispose of one million gallons of "used" water. By my own estimate, I calculated that each American flushes five times a day: twice for solid wastes and three times for liquids. (I didn't even count those folks who use five gallons of pure water to get rid of cigarette butts. I also left out about 25 million little children, people with outhouses, and an assortment of other nonflushers.)

On the basis of those figures, I quickly recognized that a two-way valve could save ten gallons per person daily. Then, by multiplying that amount by an estimated 200 million people in the U.S. who use conventional commodes, I concluded that two billion gallons of pure drinking water per day wouldn't need to be taken from our streams and wells, wouldn't have to be treated with chemicals, and wouldn't eventually be dumped into our rivers. Furthermore, at an average processing cost of $500 per million gallons, the dollars saved each day would total a nice round million or $365 million a year. If I got only a 5% royalty on the money saved by my invention, I'd be in the megabucks, earning over $18 million a year.

But wait! Aside from asking for a commission on the water conserved, I'd naturally expect a 10% cut on the sales of the valve itself. At $20 a unit times 100 million, my take would be a round $200 million! The figures were so astronomical that I became afraid to tell anyone about my invention. Just consider: how could I be sure the patent lawyer wouldn't have me erased when I explained my idea? How could I even trust my best friend with the concept? How could I get a manufacturer to develop the valve without the risk of being measured for a new pair of concrete shoes while he or she prepared to rake in my money?

Despite such fears, I forced myself to take a train to Washington, D.C. and the Metro over to Crystal City in Alexandria, Virginia to the home of the U.S. Patent Office. The people there were most cordial—too cordial for my liking—and I immediately became suspicious: After all, why were they working at the patent office if not to steal people's ideas? I was assigned to a smooth-talking, shifty-looking assistant who immediately asked me about my invention.

"Hold on!" I told him. "I want help, but I don't want to tell you anything about my idea. I don't trust anybody' "

He grinned an all-knowing smile and sat back, seemingly willing to wait as long as necessary for me to resolve the stalemate.

After a minute or two of electrically charged silence, I tried an oblique approach and mentioned that I was interested in conservation. He sat up—fairly twitching with eagerness—and inquired whether I wanted to save land, trees, people, buildings, food, or water. I gave a start when he mentioned water, and he smirked to himself.

"So, you want to save water, do you?" the assistant asked, with the manner of a stalking puma. "Is it in garden hoses? No. Perhaps a new kind of dam system that no one has ever thought of before?" His eyes burned into mine as I sat transfixed in the chair, too shocked to move or even talk. The inquisitor went on to reel off a string of possible ways to conserve water. "Do you want to spread a thin sheet of oil on the oceans to control evaporation? No, I guess not. I suppose you might want to save water in waste disposal." (I just about fell off my seat. I hadn't said a word for ten minutes. It was the slickest interrogation I'd seen.)

"Well, in that case," he went on, "I imagine you're interested in some sort of two-way valve for flush toilets. They're all on file on the second floor, third rack from the elevator. Here's the classification number. If I remember rightly, the first two-way valve was invented around the turn of the century. Now if you have any more questions, or if I can help you in any way, please come back to my office. Perhaps we can have a cup of coffee and talk about your particular application."

I gave the man a bewildered nod, thanked him dully, staggered from his office, found the second floor and the third bank from the elevator, and dazedly shuffled through a veritable mountain of two-way flush patents. A further search on the computer turned up 30 more designs that were first cousins to my idea. Still in shock, I photostated a half-dozen at random, stuffed them into my (now unchained) briefcase, and stopped to thank the assistant.

As I finished my coffee and rose to leave, the patent aide said, "You know, I've always wondered why the government never did anything with two-way valves. Especially now, with today's water shortages and expensive waste treatment. Why, if Uncle Sam mandated that all federal buildings and federally financed construction install such devices, we could probably save a billion gallons of water a day. Maybe even two billion! Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, and if you have any more ideas, you hurry on back, hear?"

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5/1/2013 6:08:43 PM

When this article was written in 1981, there were few choices outside of visiting the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. for researching patents.  There was the Sunnyvale Patent Library in Sunnyvale, California, and some large firms had their own patent archives.  Nowadays the information is just a few keystrokes and mouse clicks away, wherever you can connect to the Internet.

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