Snow cones are a staple at the State Fair of Texas. So, when the Fair asked me to verify if, as claimed, the snow cone machine was invented in 1929 by food vender Sam Bert I was warm to the idea.
Sam passed away and his son, Sonny, runs the business now. He still has a collection of the family's old snow cone machine.
“I guess he figured you could make a lot more snow cones if you didn't have to do it by hand,” I said while touring Sonny’s warehouse, near Fair Park.
Sonny's got great clues. His dad held six patents, including #1700819
“So the first patent. What year is that?” I ask Sonny.
“1928,” he says.
“1928. Ice shaving and cutting machine. He got a lot of patents. Six patents,” I said.
For some expert help, I took the patent information to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Jacob Choi, Assistant Regional Director, did a quick search and agreed to spend a few days to see if automated ice shavers existed before Bert.
“A little research on your part might yield some information that can be interesting?” I asked Choi.
“Potentially. Who knows what we might discover,” he said.
When Sam Bert died, the New York Times wrote an obituary calling him "...the man credited with inventing the snow cone ice machine." But is that true? Time for answers.
After looking into it, Choi says Bert did invent a new way to shave ice.
However, the USPTO said we should first look at the language in Bert's own patent. It says, "This invention relates to improvements in ice-shaving..." So, Bert, himself is recognizing that others came before him. And, in fact, Choi did find 7 earlier inventions for cutting ice.
I went back to Sonny to share what we learned.
“He did have a new idea, and he did have a better idea, but he didn't have the first idea,” I said.
“Not number one. Maybe number two,” Sonny said.
So, the snow cone machine was not invented at the Fair. But if there were such a thing as the Academy of Ice Shaving Arts and Sciences, we'd give Sam Bert a lifetime achievement award.
“You're happy to know this, then?” I ask Sonny.
“Sure. Always happy to know what’s the right thing,” he said.
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