Hurley Smith's Pocket Protector

[pocket protector patent drawing]
Pocket protector patent drawing

When we think of inventions, we may think more about big breakthroughs that change our society and our lives, but inventions can also be small and personal, and can make the day-to-day a little easier. So it was for Hurley Smith’s invention.

Born in 1908 in Michigan, Mr. Smith had little formal education as a child and completed high school by correspondence. He came to Queen’s in the late 1920s as a mature student. There is remarkably little trace of his Queen’s years — no graduation portrait, no page in the Tricolor and no mention in alumni news. He graduated from electrical engineering in 1933, the year when Depression-era unemployment was at its worst. Desperate for work, he took a job marketing Popsicles, invented just a few years before, to Ontario retailers.

Finally, Mr. Smith got a job in his field with a Buffalo, NY company that manufactured electrical transformers, but this didn’t last long. When Mr. Smith realized that his company was selling used transformers as new, he blew the whistle and was promptly fired. Now unemployed with a family to support, Smith fortunately had a flash of inspiration. Engineers in those days were expected to dress professionally. White shirt and tie were essential. But every evening when Smith returned home, his wife complained that his shirt pocket was smudged by greasy fingerprints. Over time, the pocket’s lip became frayed from the repeated clipping of pens, shortening its lifespan.

Mr. Smith devised a solution. Why not line the pocket with something that would serve as a barrier, protecting the pocket from grease and pens alike? He took some clear, pliable plastic and employed a letter-folding machine to crimp it into an envelope trimmed to the size of a shirt pocket. Then he used an iron to bond the two sides of the envelope. This was the dawning of the age of plastic when people were finding all sorts of applications for the new material.

Smith imagined that blue-collar workers would love the invention. They did, but so did professional engineers who saw the “pocket shield or protector” as a way of preserving their professional crispness.

In 1947, Mr. Smith obtained a U.S. patent for his pocket protector. He put his product into production and prospered. Advertisers liked the protector because they could stamp company names and messages on them. Soon, however, imitators began to invade his market and rival claims for inventing the protector arose. Mr. Smith did little to protect his patent and his business slipped away. His product, however, went on to install itself in American culture as a somewhat nerdy, but very useful, accessory.

[NASA scientists wearing pocket protectors]
NASA scientists wearing pocket protectors