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Little Gadgets Can Mean Big Bucks for Entrepreneurs


About 30 million people paid homage to Tony Volk while cooking their Thanksgiving turkeys last month, and they didn't even know it. Mr. Volk was hardly a celebrity, but he certainly made the most of American ingenuity.

Over the ages, people have roasted fowl over fires or in ovens. They've had to rely on guesswork and experience to determine when the golden-brown bird is done. Meat thermometers came along, but to squint at their juice-splattered numbers, you had to keep opening the piping-hot oven.

Tony Volk's contribution was the pop-up bird timer. Others actually beat him to the idea of a spring-loaded plastic sensor that you'd stick into the thigh of the bird before shoving it in the oven. A little metallic bead deep in the device held a spring in place, and the soft metal was supposed to liquefy when Tom Turkey reached 82 degrees Celsius -- the temperature when fowl is safe to eat. This would loosen the spring, and up would pop a plunger that announced the bird was ready. But early versions had problems with weak springs that would clog with honey and barbecue sauce that people used to baste their birds. So the plunger wouldn't pop, birds came out over-done and dry, and many a Thanksgiving was ruined.

California turkey farmer Tony Volk put a stronger spring in the contraption, combined organic and inorganic materials to make the little triggering bead, and made sure it would not melt until the bird came within a half-degree of 82 degrees.

Originally, he and his family assembled each pop-up timer by hand around a kitchen table. Now, machines do it in a big California factory. Tony Volk's heirs sell more than 100 million poultry timers annually, and this humble example of American ingenuity earns them and their employees more than $10 million in income each year.