During February’s Black History Month, the Lemelson Center is celebrating the achievements of African American inventors. In my research, I learned about a local inventor from Columbia, Maryland named Garthen Leslie. Leslie is best known as the inventor of Aros “smart” air conditioner.
Little is known about Leslie’s childhood or early years. In 1973, he graduated from Alabama A&M with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Over the next several decades, he pursued a successful career as an information technology (IT) professional, with a series of jobs at private sector firms (including General Motors, IBM, and Johnson Controls) and government enterprises (including Fannie Mae). In 2011, Leslie hung out his shingle as an independent IT consultant, and served such Washington, DC-area clients as the Department of Energy.
Meanwhile, Leslie “moonlighted” as an independent inventor, unaffiliated with a corporate R&D lab, university, or other institution. “It’s sort of a hobby,” Leslie told the Baltimore Sun in 2014, “coming up with ideas, jotting them down, coming up with more ideas, jotting them down.” Leslie explored several novel ideas in his notebook, such as a skateboard with an odometer and speedometer, a sensory-equipped life vest for toddlers, and a web-based system for distributing audio-books. In summer 2012, Leslie conceived the idea for his “smart” air conditioner. While driving through Northwest DC on his way to the Department of Energy, Leslie noticed hundreds of air conditioners hanging from the windows of high-rise apartment buildings. "I thought, 'Wow, those things must be running all day long, they must be costing people a lot of money,'" he told the Baltimore Sun. "I started thinking, 'You know, there are smart phones that allow you to control a lot of things. Why couldn't I control that air conditioner with my smart phone?'"
Like many independent inventors, Leslie had dozens of good ideas, but he struggled to develop them. It can be an expensive and time-consuming challenge to commercialize a new invention, and Leslie had struggled to find any business partners. In fact, he had liquidated $20,000 from his retirement savings in an unsuccessful attempt to secure some patents and commercialize his ideas. Leslie’s wife, Carol, put her foot down and his ideas lay dormant for six months.
Then, in January 2013, Leslie was lying in bed watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Leno’s guest was Ben Kaufman, the brash young CEO of Quirky; the startup, according to Leno helped “ordinary people become successful inventors.” Kaufman explained how Quirky employed crowd-sourcing to develop new products. Amateur armchair inventors could submit simple sketches and descriptions of new inventions to the Quirky.com website, where its community of 1,000,000 members voted on the best ideas. Then Quirky’s in-house team of patent attorneys, engineers, product designers, and marketers would “do all the heavy lifting,” shepherding the idea through the product development process until it reached store shelves. Finally, the original inventor would be paid a 4% royalty on all product sales. As Kaufman showed Leno an assortment of improved dust brooms, motorcycle helmets, and flexible power strips, Leslie jotted down “Quirky.com” before drifting off to sleep.
In the spring of 2013, Leslie submitted several ideas to Quirky, including his concept for the smart air conditioner. His timing was perfect, as Quirky had just established a partnership with General Electric (GE) to develop a series of web-enabled home appliances. GE inquired if Quirky’s community had submitted any ideas reimagining the window air conditioner; by December 2013 Leslie’s smart A/C concept entered Quirky’s product development cycle.
In March 2014, Kaufman invited Leslie to take the train up to Quirky’s New York City headquarters to check progress on the air conditioner’s development. Leslie later told Yahoo! Small Business that he expected to see “some detailed sketches or maybe a cardboard mockup.” Instead, Leslie was amazed to arrive and find Kaufman and 200 cheering Quirky employees who had gathered to witness the unveiling of “Aros,” a working prototype of Leslie’s smart air conditioner. The teams at Quirky and GE had developed Leslie’s idea from sketch to prototype in just four months; it would hit retailers in just another two months. An emotional Leslie said: “In my wildest dreams I never thought I would be looking at a finished product. When they unveiled it, I just had a warm feeling in my stomach that said, ‘it’s real…it’s a real product.’”
How does Aros work? In many ways, it works just like any other 8,000 BTU window air conditioner. However, Aros is representative of the “Internet of Things” (IoT): it comes equipped with a WiFi transceiver enabling it to send and receive data to other Internet-connected devices, like a cell phone. Using the Aros smartphone app, users can control the air conditioner remotely from anywhere. Aros can track (and predict) its owner’s usage, turning itself on and off automatically to conserve energy and cut costs. Aros can also turn itself on and pre-cool the apartment once the owner reaches a preset commuting distance from home. Much as Leslie had imagined, Aros was a truly “smart” air conditioner.
Quirky featured Leslie in its advertising and rollout for Aros in May 2014. Quirky developed a TV ad that mocked Kaufman as “the world’s least important CEO”—the idea was to promote its community of inventors, at Kaufman’s expense. The TV ad showed Leslie—“a regular guy who invented Aros”—sitting in the A/C’s cool comfort while sipping a beverage. Then the camera panned back to show Kaufman massaging Leslie’s bare feet! “At Quirky, real people invent all our products,” the ad said, “Ben just runs the company.”
Leslie and Kaufman also engaged in some guerrilla marketing. During the hot NYC summer, the two donned Hawaiian shirts and delivered Aros air conditioners to customers in an Aros-themed delivery van. And like all of Quirky products, a picture of Leslie, the inventor, was featured on the product’s packaging (see banner image above).
Most 8,000 BTU air conditioners retailed for about $220, but consumers were apparently willing to pay $300 for Aros’s additional features. Before its official ship date, $5 million in pre-orders were placed on Amazon.com alone. Aros eventually retailed at several big box stores, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Best Buy, and Target. At age 63, Leslie received the first of at least five $100,000 royalty checks in 2014. We suspect Leslie’s wife, Carol, is no longer concerned about her husband’s retirement account.
What’s next for Leslie? In 2014, he told the Baltimore Sun, “I have other ideas and other concepts I'm working on." Such as? He smiled wryly: "Nothing I would prefer to talk about at this particular time."
Burk, Adrienne. “Inventor of a Smart Air Conditioner Will Get a Cool Half Million,” Yahoo! Small Business, May 2014, https://smallbusiness.yahoo.com/advisor/inventor-of-a-smart-air-conditioner-will-get-a-cool-half-million-181054486.html, viewed 14 February 2018
Chopra, Viresh. “Aros,” http://www.vireshchopra.com/aros.html, viewed 14 February 2018. Chopra was a Quirky designer who worked on the Aros. I found most of the blog post’s images on Chopra’s on-line portfolio, with photography credits to Quirky’s in-house team and Marshall Troy.
Leslie, Garthen. “Book Radio System,” US Patent Application No. 11/049,862, Publication Number US 2005/0250439 A1, filed 4 February 2005, published 10 November 2005, available via Google Patents, https://patents.google.com/patent/US20050250439A1/, viewed 14 February 2018.
Leslie, Garthen. “Dr. Garthen Leslie,” LinkedIn profile, https://www.linkedin.com/in/garthenleslie/, requires LinkedIn login, viewed 14 February 2018.
Lorenzo, Doreen [former president of Quirky]. Oral history interview, conducted by Eric S. Hintz, Marie Stettler, and Chris Gauthier, 29 January 2015, SIA Acc. 16-043, Lemelson Center, Project/Program Records, 2006-2015, Smithsonian Institution Archive, Washington, DC.
Olivarez-Giles, Nathan. “Aros Window Air Conditioner Can be Controlled by Your Smartphone,” Wall Street Journal, 19 March 2014, https://blogs.wsj.com/personal-technology/2014/03/19/aros-window-air-conditioner-can-be-controlled-by-your-smartphone/, viewed 14 February 2018.
Pichaskie, Pete. “Columbia Man’s Air Conditioner Invention Picked Up by Quirky,” Baltimore Sun, 1 May 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/howard/columbia/ph-ho-cf-leslie-0501-20140529-story.html, viewed 14 February 2018.
Quirky. “Dr. Garthen Leslie Sees His Invention for the First Time,” promotional video, 19 March 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvBGnkLb8Hg, viewed 14 February 2018.
Quirky. “Introducing Aros,” promotional video, 17 March 2014, https://vimeo.com/89366481, viewed 14 February 2018.
Quirky. “This is Garthen Leslie—Introducing Aros,” television ad, 17 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTt6ebLTA3s, viewed 14 February 2018.
Tejada, John. “Quirky Is Telling the World Just How Unimportant Its CEO Is,” AdWeek, 30 May 2014, http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/quirky-telling-world-just-how-unimportant-its-ceo-158032/, viewed 14 February 2018.