My grandfather, inventor of obscure and necessary things

Allmon F. Segrest

My maternal grandfather Allmon Franklin Segrest, Jr. was born in 1909 in Kirbyville, Texas to a sawmill operator and a housewife. Frank—or “Papaw” as those few of his grandchildren who knew him called him—grew up hard. His father and namesake was murdered when junior was just four months old. His mother, Avie (Ellis) Segrest remarried less than a year later to W.M. Hopson. And then she died just before Frank’s fourteenth birthday, leaving whatever inheritance he had from his father blowing like sawdust in the wind. Frank also had an older half-brother, Jesse, who by this time was in his early twenties.

Frank also had contracted polio as a little boy. Bad luck!

So, at age 14, in the year 1923, Frank Segrest was an orphan and, in the parlance of the day, a cripple. Family lore holds that he rode the rails with Jesse for a while, but I wonder how he would have leapt up into a moving boxcar. But somehow, Frank, despite his severe limp, managed to acquire vast knowledge of oilfield chemistry during his travels by whatever means throughout Texas and neighboring states. The 1920s were a boom time for the petroleum industry in Texas as well as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana—all states in which Frank Segrest would eventually reside throughout his life (plus Illinois).

Frank married my grandmother, Cora Belle Hawthorne, in 1936, in Henderson, Texas, where, just six years before, a wildcatter discovered the then-largest oil reserve known in the world. By 1940, Frank and Cora were living in western Texas with their two girls (one of them would become my mother); his occupation was listed in the U.S. Census as “chemical engineer.” As Frank and Cora grew their family in the coming years, they moved around Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, he working in various jobs, she making clothes for their children and running the household. During this time, Frank worked intermittently for himself, and also for various oil companies.

I had always heard from my mother that Papaw had invented a piece of oilfield equipment called a “treater-heater.” It had something to do with processing the crude oil as it came out of the ground. He had made some innovation to the way the device was shaped, apparently. It was one of those stories that, to a young person, was interesting but vague, a tale of another time and place, and not extremely revelatory about the man’s story or character.

And then Google Patents happened. The searchable database contains over 7 million U.S. patent records dating back to 1790, as well as records from European Patent Office (EPO), and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) back to 1978. Through this tool, I was able to uncover not just one, but three inventions that my grandfather patented, and thus add to my understanding and appreciation of this very interesting man.

The treater-heater of family lore was called an “Oil and Gas Separator,” U.S. Patent No. 2777533. It’s difficult to get excited about a device that is “a novel spherical separator of such design as will provide maximum open liquid surface to accommodate separation of gas from the liquid.” But essentially, the invention separates the gas that comes out of an oil well with the crude oil more efficiently by allowing the crude to spread out over a larger surface. He filed the patent application in 1955 and it was granted in 1957. Since he worked for the Graver Tank & Manufacturing Company at the time, and the company was the patent assignee, I guess it had rights to any monies that would be made from this invention. (Graver was defendant in a Supreme Court patent case in 1950, in which the company was found to have infringed on another’s patent.)

Of particular interest is that over the next 40 years, about 13 other patents would cite my grandfather’s invention in their patent applications. Innovation builds upon innovation.

Frank wasn’t done with just an “oil and gas separator.” In April 1961, this husband and father of four (two girls, two boys) then residing in Lafayette, Louisiana, filed a patent—granted two years later (No. 3090979)—for a “Quick float life preserver.” The invention related to “life preservers which can be comfortably worn deflated by the user and which automatically inflate when the user is in the water with provision for manual actuation of the inflating device by the user.” A life jacket that would automatically inflate but be worn comfortably when not needed!

The need for this marvelous invention, made possible by a novel type of actuated valve, is articulated plainly in the patent application:

More and more people are spending their leisure time in boats, swimming, water skiing, fishing and the like with a steadily mounting death toll due to drownings. It is therefore imperative that a life preserver be provided which is absolutely dependable in use and which can be worn in perfect comfort by the user.

I don’t know who wrote this florid and alarmist prose. Maybe my grandfather, maybe the attorney who helped file the patent. The beauty of the device was the “almost instantaneous inflation of the life preserver when submerged in water.” No blowing into a tub or pulling a tab.

The quick float life preserver was never manufactured, to my knowledge. Between 1964 and 2010, this patent was referred to 17 times in other patent applications.

A third and final patent filed by Frank Segrest in 1964 was simply a modification of the inflation device of the earlier invention. Among its objectives was “to provide an improved inflating device for floatation equipment which provides a foolproof means for testing the charge of a compressed gas cartridge.” He (or whoever wrote the application) added another urgent justification to the earlier cited litany:

The increase in aquatic activity as a means of relaxation has unfortunately resulted in a steadily mounting death toll due to drowning and a considerable financial loss to boat owners whose boats are often lost by sinking.

Financial loss to boat owners! “It is therefore most desirable,” the prose continued, “that flotation equipment be provided which is absolutely dependable in use and which is not subject to failure due to malfunctioning of parts or loss of the charge of the compressed gas cartridge.”

Frank Segrest, my grandfather, never made any money that I know of from these three inventions. The salient matter here is not money. Rather, the citations he made in his filings, and the citations in other patents to his inventions, places him in the tradition of strivers, garage inventors, men and women who were part of a long line of innovation and ideas that, for some, produced a marketable, and bankable, invention. But these are always built on the foundation erected by earlier breakthroughs.

– Fred Dews

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