South Florida Man Alan Amron Says He Invented the Post-it and Lost Millions
Illustration by Carlo Giambarresi
Alan Amron's living room on Evernia Street in West Palm Beach is barely wider than the white sofa that dominates it. The kitchen is too small to eat in, so a tiny rectangular table is crammed into the living room. It's unclear whether two people can eat there at once. When Amron, who stands about six feet tall and wears his graying hair shorn close to the sides of his bullet-shaped head, meets people, he sometimes prefers to host them in the apartment complex's clubhouse. Problem is, meetings are often interrupted when people walk in from the pool to use the bathroom.
Not exactly the kind of home you'd expect for a guy who says he invented a product that sells an estimated $1 billion a year.
So, yeah, things haven't turned out like Amron hoped. But the 68-year-old is unquestionably a genius. He holds patents on 40 inventions and has come up with scores of others: a battery-operated water gun, a digital photo frame, sprays that dissolve dog poop, a zombie-like doll that walks toward you as if it were Frankenstein, a bubblegum tape dispenser, numerous children's toys, an early version of the TV sleep timer, and a green laser cannon that shoots a first-down line onto football fields.
Before the advent of the Super Soaker, he made wads of cash from his water gun. In 1986, People magazine said he "left the competition all washed up." But then the Soaker's owners won a $10 million judgment that bankrupted him. After a tough decade, his wife, Eileen, walked out too.
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Like many a new-age boom-buster, Amron moved to South Florida eight years ago. He continues to hawk his inventions — his newest is a gizmo that would help the NFL clamp down on ticket scalpers. He hopes to strike gold again one day soon.
But Amron's best hope for a big payday is anchored in claims he invented the Post-it note, one of the bestselling products in American history. He has a trove of documents that back up his story. But unless he wins a $400 million lawsuit against the sticky note's maker, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing — which is one of the nation's largest companies, known informally as 3M — his career will be just another footnote.
"I want my title as 'inventor,'?'' he says. "It's my constitutional right. If the judge looks at all the facts, and weighs all the facts, he'll say, 'Amron is the inventor.'?"
Amron sits in the clubhouse of his West Palm Beach apartment complex.
Photo by Jerry Iannelli
Inventing isn't really a career choice. There's no school for it. Telling your parents you want to be an inventor when you grow up is not really any different from saying that you want to be a genius or that you'd like to be incredibly successful. "Besides good timing and even better luck, it's hard to pinpoint what makes certain inventors successful," Popular Science editor Cliff Ransom wrote in 2015. "They tend to be creative, exceptionally persistent, and tolerant of risk. But beyond that, they are just people, and people come in all stripes."
The National Inventors Hall of Fame is located in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. It's a who's who of the inventing world, but in some ways completely random: There's Thomas Edison, sure, but also Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Gail Borden, Henry Ford, Les Paul, Frank Zamboni, George Washington Carver, Jacques Cousteau, and Ray Kurzweil. Unlike, say, the NBA Hall of Fame, there are no stats to rack up. The only requirement is genius.
The other thing many of its inductees have in common is a willingness to sue people to protect their intellectual property. Isaac Newton once got into a fight with a man named Gottfried Wilhelm Liebnitz over who had invented calculus. After the Wright brothers invented the airplane, they focused most of their energies on suing the bejesus out of anyone who tried to work in the plane industry, especially a man with strong Miami ties named Glenn Curtiss. With virtually every great invention, from the calculator to the iPhone, a wash of people with ideas for similar products has cried foul. Occasionally, those people are right: From 1959 to the mid-1980s, inventor Gordon Gould, who had worked on the Manhattan Project, filed a successful series of lawsuits to prove he was the rightful inventor of the laser. The government had voided Gould's patent rights after he admitted joining the Communist Party of America. After a bitter fight with the U.S. Patent Office, Gould was awarded 48 laser patents. His likeness is now in the Inventors Hall of Fame.
Amron fancies himself as Gould in the flesh. He was born in Maimonides Hospital in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in 1948. Both his father, Herman, and grandfather were butchers. His parents were Jewish, stoic, and somewhat stern. Herman worked long hours and didn't seem to have a creative bone in his body. "I didn't call him 'Dad' — I called him 'Hymie,'?" Amron says. "He called me 'boy.'?" His mother, Gloria, was also quite conservative, as were his two siblings. Ivan, his brother, was a worrier. His sister, Sue, was laid-back. But Alan, out of nowhere, was born with unbridled stores of energy. "Maybe I came from someone else," he says. "Who knows? I was always excited, always talking. My father used to joke that if I stuck my finger in a glass of cold water, it would turn to seltzer."
From an early age, he seemed to understand machines at a near-supernatural level. When he was around 9 years old, the neighbors caught on and began asking him to fix their washing machines, refrigerators, and radios. He'd just crack the items open and fiddle with wires until things worked. "They wouldn't call service people," he says. "They knew I had, like, a magic touch." At age 10, he built a toy laser gun for himself using a plank of wood, a light bulb, and some batteries.
His family moved to tiny Baldwin, New York, on Long Island (population: 24,000), when he was in middle school. His father's butcher shop had blossomed into a chain of self-service meat stores, a precursor to the modern supermarket. After he graduated from Baldwin Senior High School in 1966, he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Reserves to avoid the front lines in Vietnam. After boot camp in Tennessee, he returned to New York and worked as an aviation electrician on a Brooklyn naval base. "We'd fix the black boxes on the helicopters after they came in," Amron says.
He was honorably discharged and enrolled in an engineering program at Miami Dade College. Why? There were no entrance requirements, and the weather was warm year-round. Dissatisfied after two years, he transferred to Memphis State College, having enjoyed Tennessee during boot camp. But he didn't graduate from there either.
"I didn't believe I was learning anything," he says. "Anything they were trying to teach me, I thought I already knew. I don't think they teach you much in college — it's just, 'Read Chapter 73; give me the report tomorrow.' I was never good at testing, I was good at learning and doing. So I figured I could read the books on my own."
He moved back to New York in 1969 and went to work in one of his father's shops. It sat within Trump Village — a mud-colored, Soviet-looking apartment complex near Coney Island, which was owned by Donald Trump's father, Fred.
One Monday, Alan and his dad arrived to find the store a mess. Blood was pooling around the freezers and congealing. The tile was ruined. Just about everything, in fact, seemed destroyed. It turned out the power had gone out over the weekend, and Amron's father had lost thousands of dollars' worth of meat, which had spoiled. "I loved my father, like all kids love their fathers," he says, "and I wanted to figure out a way that that could never happen again."
Staring at the ruined store, he came up with a solution. He soon walked into a refrigeration-supply house and bought some Honeywell thermometers. Then he visited a security-alarm supply store and took home a telephone dialer for each freezer at the market. And he wired the dialers to the thermometers. "My dad never lost money again," he says. After getting wind of the invention, his father's friend, a supermarket owner named Ira Walbaum, paid Amron to install the alarms in his stores. Then Amron did another supermarket, and another.
"I started doing blood banks, hospitals, places where freezers were," he says. "If those freezers broke down, the kidneys would be ruined! Who knew that was a problem? Then I did Navy bases, commissaries for Paris Island in South Carolina, then Guam, all over the world."
Amron relaxes with one of his kids at his Long Island mansion.
Photo courtesy of Alan Amron
The year was 1973, and Amron was alone in his Long Island kitchen. He wanted to leave a note for his wife to tell her where he was headed. He took a memo pad and jotted down his whereabouts. Then he started sorting through kitchen items to see what he could use to stick the note to the fridge. Tape wouldn't work — it would either fall off after a few hours or rip some paint off the appliance. Paste was also a no-go.
As he thought it over, he popped a piece of chewing gum into his mouth. Then he spit it into his hand and smooshed it onto the back of the note. It stuck, but when he tried to press it onto the fridge, the note fell off. "So I took the gum and rolled it in some dust," he says. "And voilà! The note stuck. And I could restick it again too. When I got home, the note was still there."
So into his brain popped the Magic Touch Press-On Memo: a restickable notepad, an invention so dumb and simple he was sure it would sell. Soon this will be in every office in America, he thought. That was if he could make another one. More than anything else in his first 25 years, this was a life-changing event.
By then, he'd become smitten with a smiling, round-cheeked girl he had met at a cousin's wedding. He and Eileen married that year. "From that day forward, we were together forever," he says. "It wasn't like I went home — I practically moved into her house over the next few days." They spent most of their time bowling.
Three years after getting married, his mind filled with thoughts of the note on the refrigerator. On November 14, 1973, he asked a chemist for a series of glues to try out. He then hunkered down in a tiny, unventilated room in his basement with a six-by-four-foot workbench. For days he mixed different kinds of glue in buckets and cups. He sprayed the glue onto notepads until the fumes made him dizzy.
Some notes fell right off. Others stuck permanently to the wall. But eventually, through months of trial-and-error, he concocted a formula that would stick, he says. "I would make the pads by hand. They'd come ten at a time."
He then fashioned some marketing materials — "Presto!" one of the pamphlets read. A rabbit in a top hat stood holding a magic wand. "It's practical, attractive, easy to handle. Just jot down your memo, tear off, place anywhere." He incorporated a company, Press-On Memo Ltd., in New York July 24, 1974.
That year, he says, he set up a ten-by-ten-foot booth at a trade show at the Americana Hotel in Times Square, Manhattan. Amron claims two men in suits walked up to him and handed him business cards. The cards had 3M logos in color. "In 1974, color was like, 'Oh my God!'?" Amron recalls. "I thought that was it. My life was set." (Amron claims the cards have since been lost.)
Even back then, 3M was one of the nation's largest businesses. The company, which employed droves of chemists and engineers in proto-Google "product-development" departments, had invented masking tape in 1923 and then Scotch tape in 1930. Amron says the 3M representatives took the samples of his memos and left. Weeks later, he hadn't heard anything and wondered what was up with 3M. So he called the number on the cards he'd been given.
He says the men told him mass-producing the notes was impossible. "Nobody thinks you can 'print' glue," he claims a 3M representative told him. "You can print ink and then clean the machine, but you can't print glue."
"That made so much sense to me then,"
So he tried selling his handmade notes in public for $9 a pad. He mailed flyers to stationery stores and says he sold about $60,000 worth of notes. "But then I got tired of getting glue all over my hair and arms," he says. So he stopped, and, he figured, the sticky note died that day. Federal law then dictated that inventors had only 12 months to patent their ideas. Amron claims time had run out before he understood how the statute worked.
But unbeknownst to him, 3M's inventors came up with what they said was their own sticky note just months later. After chemist Sheldon Silver invented the glue in 1968, colleague Art Fry says he began using it to stick bookmarks into his church choir songbooks.
Silver and Fry declined to speak to New Times directly, though Fry sent a note claiming the invention was theirs: "[Amron's] sticky note... had no role in my work on developing 3M's Post-it note." The pair wrote a first-person account of the lucky accidents that led to their Post-it invention in the Financial Times in 2010. In the piece, Silver said he was assigned to a team of five people researching new types of adhesives at 3M.
After Fry heard about what his colleague had invented, he spent years pondering what to do with the glue. "Then, one day, I was writing a report and cut out a bit of bookmark, wrote a question on it, and stuck it on the front," Fry wrote. The year was 1974. "My supervisor wrote his answer on the same paper, stuck it back on the front, and returned it to me. It was a eureka, head-flapping moment — I can still feel the excitement. I had my product: a sticky note." Fry's license plate reportedly read "POSTIT" at one time.
3M's Press and Peel Memo debuted in 1977. In 1980, the company began calling the product the Post-it note. It's estimated about $1 billion of Post-its are sold each year. A photo of Fry, now a grandfatherly figure with wry eyes, a white beard, and half-moon "Dumbledore" glasses, sits in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He is surrounded by Post-it notes in virtually every photograph.
Amron keeps copies of the proof of his invention in piles and filing cabinets near his desk in his apartment. He still has many of the documents from back then. He has the sticky notes themselves, which are white and about double the size of a standard Post-it. He has a letter from his chemist dated November 29, 1973. There's also his 1974 certificate of incorporation from the state of New York. He has copies of the fliers he made, stationery postmarked July 22, 1974. He has sworn affidavits from two men — Jeffrey Brown, an early investor, and Michael Solomon, one of his lawyers — supporting his case.
Amron also has a letter from the managers of a trade show in 1975. It's addressed to "Press-On Memo Ltd."
Amron and Muhammad Ali struck up a friendship in the 1970s.
Photo courtesy of Alan Amron
In 1976, Amron took a vacation from Long Island to Miami Beach. Strolling along Collins Avenue, he ducked into a greasy spoon to grab some breakfast. Improbably, Muhammad Ali, then the greatest boxer on the planet, sat in a booth in the middle of the restaurant, tearing his way through a stack of pancakes. Amron, ever the opportunist, walked up to Ali's table.
"Excuse me, sir," he began, "but I'm trying to re-form the Beatles. Would you like to help?"
Ali, Amron recalls, sat up straight.
"The Beatles?" the boxer replied. "I love the Beatles!" Ali then shoved one of his massive hands into his pocket and fished out his wallet. He handed Amron a business card. "This is the number to my manager," Ali said. "Call him and tell him I want to do this with you."
Just like that, Amron had walked into his new life of managing the stars.
A few months before that meeting, Amron had been at home on Long Island, watching a newsreel with Eileen. It described how the Beatles had broken up at the height of their fame in 1970. When the news item concluded, Eileen turned to him and said, "If the Beatles ever got back together, I'd wait in any line to see them again."
"I knew that meant a lot to her, because my wife wouldn't wait a second for anything," Amron recalls.
So he sat and stewed on the idea for a bit. On May 31, 1976, at age 28, he took out an ad in the Village Voice. "I asked everyone in the world to give me a dollar," he says. In black-and-white, the ad showed a pair of hands shaking under the words "Let it be!" in bubble letters to echo the name of the band's final album.
Rolling Stone, impressed with Amron's boldness, reprinted his ad for free in July, with the headline "Advancing Beatlemania."
"And that blew me out," Amron says. Each morning, he'd walk to his mailbox on Long Island to find it crammed with envelopes from Europe, Asia, Africa, and other countries. "I was in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, every magazine in the world."
By then, Amron had also invented the product that would soon send him rocketing to the top of the toy business: what he says was the world's first battery-operated water gun, which he patented in 1977. During college in Tennessee, he'd gotten into a water-gun fight with a few friends and hated the experience. "You're just squeezing and squeezing the trigger with your hand," he says. So he ran into a garage, ripped a motor from an old toy he had lying around, and rigged it so the trigger would fire over and over again, in bursts. The product would eventually make him a millionaire.
By the mid-'70s, the press had taken a liking to him. "If you asked someone about me, he'd say, 'That Alan Amron, he's a natural promoter," Amron told the New York Daily News' Stan Mieses.
"True," Mieses then wrote, "nearly every venture he's attempted, and every 'invention,' as he calls them, since he was 17 has been successful."
After his initial meeting with Ali at the Miami Beach diner, Amron flew out to the boxer's home in Chicago. Jabir Herbert Muhammad, Ali's manager and spiritual adviser, met the duo at the house, along with a photographer from Life magazine. In pictures, Amron and Ali sit on a grand staircase, deep in conversation.
"We need someone like you," Muhammad the manager told Amron at lunch that day. "When people see me, they get sort of scared, sort of upset." Muhammad was also a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam. "We need a nice Jewish kid like you to represent Ali in movie deals, TV deals, that sort of thing. I'll tell you what to say, and you go out and do it."
So Amron became Ali's manager. Through Amron, Ali met Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington. As Ali filmed his 1977 movie The Greatest, Amron hung out on-set, helping the boxer manage a deluge of business deals. "We thought about creating a fast-food place like McDonald's," Amron says. "We were going to call it Champ's Chicken."
"Alan was a very close friend," Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the boxer's ex-wife, tells New Times. "He and Ali were firecrackers. If you saw them together, you wouldn't believe it — he and Ali could never stop talking."
Amron parlayed his skills with Ali into managing other celebrities, such as actress Kristy McNichol (one of the biggest child stars of the '70s) and actor Robert Guillaume (who played Benson on the TV shows Soap and Benson and later voiced Rafiki in the Disney movie The Lion King.)
One night, before Ali fought Alfredo Evangelista in May 1977, Amron sat next to the boxer on a hotel couch. "There were tons of people outside, but it was just him and I in the room," Amron says. Ali started doing some magic tricks to keep his mind occupied. Amron recalls staring directly into Ali's eyes and realizing that if he ran his mouth long enough, he could get anything he wanted.
"Over the course of life, I've learned to just do things," he says. Camacho-Ali says she encouraged him to continue inventing, and Amron began cranking out toy after toy after toy. He devised a dispenser for what would become Bubble Tape gum. He concocted a futuristic batting tee that made a ball hover in the air. But the experience with Ali had shaped him into a cunning businessman. "If I want to go see somebody, I let nothing get in my way," he says.
He didn't know that philosophy would soon come back to haunt him.
Spencer Silver (left) and Art Fry with a Post-it note pad at a 3M facility.
Photo courtesy of 3M
In 1994, Amron sat in the middle of a Pennsylvania courtroom while the rest of the occupants filed out. The jury and onlookers stared at him gravely, as if his father had just died. But Amron remained there until the room was empty. His face was ashen, his chest tight. He'd just lost $10 million. In an instant, he'd gone from king of the toy business — and Hollywood Svengali — to down and out.
By the mid-'80s, Amron had made millions from licensing his water gun to myriad companies, including one called the Larami Corporation. But after Larami began selling a product called the Power Drencher on its own, Amron embarked on a quest to get a cut of his major competitor's business. At the time, he says, he had a $900,000 mortgage on a home in Long Island.
In 1991, Amron messaged the company and said he owned the trademark to the word "Drencher." The company then changed the toy's name to "Super Soaker," court records show. But Larami wouldn't go away.
At the time,
Court documents contradict some of Amron's claims: In 1995, a federal judge from Pennsylvania, Lowell Reed, wrote during an appeal that Amron had sought out Esposito's patent in order to sink Super Soaker's business. The judge said when Amron tried to call Esposito in Indiana, Esposito thought the call was a prank. Amron then flew to meet the inventor at his home. By the end of the day, Esposito had agreed to license the patent to Amron. That's when Amron began messaging Larami and many of its vendors, like the Sharper Image, claiming the Super Soaker was infringing upon his newly acquired patent.
So the court decided Amron's patent was not binding. (Amron claims he lost on a legal technicality.) Larami then sued him for defamation in 1992 and won. Amron was ordered to pay the company $10 million, $3 million more than Larami had even requested. One of the jurors said outside the courtroom the award was meant to "send a message" to Amron, according to Judge Reed's order. Though Amron said an insurance company picked up the financial damages, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1995. The ordeal left him devastated.
"I was just numb for two years," he says. "I didn't talk to anyone. I didn't go anywhere. And I definitely didn't work for an entire year."
With no money coming in, Amron was forced to sell his home, a massive estate with a tennis court and white grand piano. He became unreachable, and his marriage fell apart. By the time his children were teenagers, he and Eileen hadn't been in love for years. "We made an agreement to stay together until the kids got out of school, and by then we had just grown into two separate people," he says.
New York court records show that Eileen Amron had filed a temporary restraining order against her ex-husband. (When New Times attempted to contact her for this article, an anonymous man responded, saying, "It's best she not comment.") Amron admits things became heated during their divorce, and in a fit of rage, he threatened her life. "She made accusations, like women always do, that I threatened to kill her," he says. "In divorce, you yell at people, but she told it to a judge, and he put a restraining order against it. Obviously, she was just upset. Maybe I did tell her I would kill her, but I certainly didn't mean it."
(Their legal fight dragged on until 2015. Their son, Scott, also hasn't spoken to him since the two divorced. Scott, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, has his father's eyes and chin. He is also an inventor and has been featured in the New York Times, Wired, and Fast Company.)
Amron stopped trusting lawyers after his bankruptcy. He now files all of his cases pro se and writes his own legal briefs often using rambling, first-person prose. "I would have liked to have been a lawyer," he says. "I like the neatness; I like the organization of it all."
Business partner Richard Grobman says, "Alan goes full force on everything, anything he's involved in. He's 110 percent, nonstop."
In 1997, Amron sued 3M to try to dissolve the firm's patents on the Post-it. He submitted all the items left from his Press-On Memo days. One of his earliest investors, Jeffrey E. Brown, gave a sworn statement supporting him: "I am without doubt or prejudice that Alan Amron was the originator and creator/inventor of the product that 3M calls 'Post-it Notes,'?" he said. In 1998, 3M paid Amron $12,000 to settle the case, and Amron agreed to absolve 3M of any future claims relating to the Post-it trademark.
In the years since, Amron says, he has made a modest income from a digital photo frame he invented for camera company Nikon. His other inventions haven't exactly blown up the market.
Two inventions for the NFL briefly showed some promise. His First Down Laser Line attaches to a stadium's orange first-down markers and projects a beam of green laser light onto the field. ePass, which he's patented, is an app that refreshes a ticket's barcode every minute, thus preventing ticket scalping. About a decade ago, some friends in the book-publishing industry introduced Amron to well-known sports announcer Pat Summerall, and the pair sank years into Amron's inventions. They remained friends until Summerall's death in 2013. "When Pat used to go with me to the meetings, that would bring the commissioner into the room," Amron says. With Summerall gone, that doesn't happen as much anymore.
So, with few options left, Amron sued 3M again, this past January. He's asking a judge to finally declare him the rightful inventor of the Post-it. Amron now claims 3M's inventors are defaming him. In a 492-word statement inventor Arthur Fry provided to New Times, Fry says Amron is the one doing the defaming. 3M maintains that Amron's sticky note had nothing to do with the company's.
"Anyone can put glue on a piece of paper and call it a sticky note," Fry said in his statement. "People have been doing that for years. What made the Post-it Note so new and different, what makes it work so well, and what made it such a big success, are the unique properties of the patented 3M microsphere adhesive I used to create the product and that it still uses to this day. In short, Post-it Notes are a completely different product from the sticky note that Amron claims he invented."
Amron agrees he had nothing to do with the "Post-it" trademark, but he wants credit for coming up with the sticky note before Fry. Given the 1998 settlement, though, that may be difficult.
Twelve years ago, Amron met Iveta Saksone — a woman with olive skin, a chin that comes to a defined point, and a brown bob haircut — at New York City's Hudson Hotel. The pair began dating and now live together. "She was 17 years younger than me, she was cute, and my wife and I had just separated. When I fell in love with her, my life turned around."
She has invigorated him spiritually — a tiny icon of Buddha sits on their kitchen table. Otherwise, their home is starkly decorated, save for scores of yellow sticky notes stuck on the kitchen table, the fridge, and near the sink. Some are just reminders to call people. He uses others to keep track of his lawsuit due dates. There's one tacked above his kitchen table with a Woody Allen quote scrawled on it. "Death should not be seen as the end," it says, "but as a very effective way to cut down on expenses."
Correction: A previous version of this misstated facts including the color of Alan Amron’s couch, which is white, the shape of his table, which is rectangular, his relationship with Richard Grobman, who is a current business partner, and the area where Amron sometimes meets guests — a clubhouse. It also misstated where he sat with Muhammad Ali, which was on a couch.
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