The Republic, Columbus, Indiana
Safe reveals boy inventor's story
By Harry McCawley - The Republic (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published: 3/4/11 9:36 am EST
Updated: 3/4/11 10:08 am EST
Steve Henry has opened his share of old safes over the years. It's what he does for a living. The owner of Steve's Lock and Safe carries a CJS after his name. I kid you not … it stands for Certified Journeyman Safecracker. But he also collects old safes.
"I've got more than 40 in my shop," he said earlier this week. "One of them was made in 1850." He added another to his collection recently, one that once had been housed at the former Irwin Union Bank and Trust Co. The safe is sort of non-descript and apparently has little in historical value. It's what he found inside that turned out to be truly fascinating.
The autobiography of Columbus' Boy Inventor -- Ernest Patrick. As autobiographies go, the one about Ernest was pretty short. It only covered three handwritten pages of notepaper. The brevity was understandable. Ernest noted on the first page that he had been born in Barren County, Ky., in 1911. The heading at the top of the first page was dated December 1928. The boy inventor would have been all of 17 years old. The papers were folded neatly inside the A to Bee section of the World Book set. That was one of 10 books in the safe -- a complete set of encyclopedias. Folded in with the short autobiography was an old newspaper clipping dated July 19, 1930, from The Columbus Evening Republican. '$1 million offer' The headline screamed out: "Edinburgh boy reports offer of millions for his 'television' idea." Below that the first paragraph of the story reported that "an offer of $1 million cash and $500,000 per year for the rest of his life has been received by Ernest Patrick, world famous radio-television genius who lives near here from the Crosley Radio Corp. of Cincinnati, Ohio."
I smiled as I read through Steve's clipping. I recognized it. A copy is in the "Patrick" envelope in the clippings archive of the newspaper's library. So are a lot of other clippings about Ernest Patrick.
I had written about Ernest back in 2000, when Columbus resident Kevin Greenlee came across a 1932 copy of a newspaper from Greensburg, Tenn. One of the stories on its pages was about a young boy in Indiana who reportedly had invented a tubeless radio -- more than 13 years after the first patent for such a device was granted. The young inventor was Ernest Patrick. That led me on a search for information about Ernest. I hit paydirt in our own archives. After reading through the 1930 clipping about his television invention, I came across a much shorter clipping that appeared in The Evening Republican three days later. Under the brief (and small) heading "Crosley writes," The Evening Republican reported that its office had received a letter from a secretary to Crosley Radio Corp. president Powel Crosley Jr., who wrote that the company had never heard of Ernest's project. The letter also noted that Crosley had been contacted by the inventor, who said he had no idea of how the story started in the first place.
Later, Patrick said the million dollar offer was the result of a misunderstanding between him and the newspaper reporter. The television was only one of Patrick's "inventions." He also claimed to have invented a wireless garage door opener and even demonstrated it for a group of Columbus residents at his home on Lafayette Avenue.
I wasn't surprised to find that a reporter from The Evening Republican had been invited to the demonstration. So was Virgil Taylor, who at the time was a young man about to go into the construction business with his father.
Virgil, who died in 2006, recalled that the demonstration was indeed successful. The group had been invited by Patrick to join him at a point two blocks from his house, when he pressed a button on a remote control device and the door seemed to miraculously open. Since this was the early '30s all were truly impressed, but Virgil had his doubts.
"I thought it was pretty suspicious that his wife stayed behind at the house when we all trooped off to watch him push the button," the former contractor said. "I suspect she actually lifted the door by hand."
The other clippings in the Patrick envelope seemed to give credence to Virgil's doubts. In 1940 after he had moved from Columbus to Indianapolis he was accused of violating the state securities law by attempting to sell unregistered securities in Patrick Electronic Research Laboratories Inc. The charges were later dismissed in a Marion County criminal court, when a judge ruled that the sales were private transactions.
Ernest's company advertised that it had created a device to diagnose and treat 100 diseases.
Ten years later -- 1950 -- Ernest was in the news again. This time he filed for bankruptcy. The straw that broke his back was another invention -- a toy radio with plastic earphones. It apparently worked, but documents filed in the bankruptcy petition noted that he was selling it for less than it cost to produce.
To Finish High School
The autobiography Steve came across offered nothing in the way of describing his creative skills. Instead he spent most of the space talking about the family's travels, which took him to 29 states, "just traveling and visiting relatives." Although he did express pride in the fact that at a young age (17) he had "seen more sights and great wonders than the average American boy or girl." Still, his main goal at that time was to complete his high school education. He closed by noting that he hoped to live to a "happy old age."
I don't know that that happened. The only clippings for Ernest Patrick after 1950 had to do with the deaths of relatives -- his father John who lived on South Cherry Street and died in 1973 and his brother Hezzie, a former Bartholomew County Highway employee who died in 1980. In both obituary notices, Ernest was reported to be living in Florida. In 1980 he would have been 69 years old. Maybe he did live to an old age.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or by e-mail at email@example.com.