During World War I, the U.S. Navy began a Beneficial Suggestion Program that encouraged its civilian employees to propose workplace improvements in exchange for cash awards. An expanded version of this program continues today. In 1948, Alexander M. Wellens (1905-98), an employee of the Naval Station in Seattle, Washington, proposed under the suggestion program that the gangways or brows used to load ships at the station's piers could be improved if they were made in telescoping sections. "Gangplanks commonly in use are hazardous to persons using them at either high tide or low tide," Wellens wrote, "because at these tidal conditions the gangplank is inclined at either a very large or very small angle...and the gangplank steps are unlevel and unsafe. Also the gangplank at low tide, if fastened at its upper end to a ship, extends over a large portion of the dock and interferes with dock operations...." Although others had thought to make gangways and accommodation ladders in telescoping sections, Wellens's innovation was to anchor the gangway's ends to both deck and pier, with the result that the plank would extend and contract automatically as the ship rose and fell on the tide.
The Naval Station built one gangway to Wellens's specifications for use on barges and ships at piers 90 and 91. The station's gangway "worked satisfactorily" Wellen later reported. "I do not know if the unit was widely used [elsewhere], but after the unit was mentioned in the Shipping News I received inquiries from shipping companies in Japan, Germany, and many ship-building companies from there and the United States." Although he never received any licensing contracts for the device, Wellens was gratified to find interest in it "far greater than I had expected."
A provision of the Beneficial Suggestion Program was that patentable ideas would be submitted to the Patent Office without cost to the employee, and that any money from commercial use of the ideas was to go to the inventor. Consequently, Wellens submitted his gangplank design to the Patent Office in November 1950, and he received his patent in 1957.
The U.S. Patent Office stopped accepting models as part of patent applications in 1880. Nevertheless, inventors since that date have continued to find models helpful for refining, demonstrating, and marketing their inventions. Wellens's detailed model was built in 1948 by the Naval Station's sheet-metal shop at the request of the station's commanding officer. Wellens supervised the construction. It is unclear whether the C.O. ordered the model built in order to test Wellens's idea before the full-scale prototype was built, or because he believed, incorrectly, that Wellens would need such a model to accompany his patent application. Either way, Wellens retained the model himself and offered it to the Smithsonian in 1991.
Alexander M. Wellens, Telescoping Brows, U.S. patent no. 2,803,841, Aug. 27, 1957.
National Museum of American History accession file 1991.0555
Social Security Death Index
"Economy Prizes," Washington Post, Jan. 6, 1947, 4.
"Ideas Pay Off at Navy Center," Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 11, 1948, 6.
"Navy Saves $8,800,000," New York Times, Feb. 28, 1949, 36.