When newspaper publisher Joseph Coyle overheard the dispute between the hotelier and the deliveryman, he knew there had to be a simple solution.
The hotelier had grown frustrated because eggs delivered from a local farm were often broken. Putting all one’s eggs in a basket, although a risky proposition, was standard practice in 1911.
How then, Mr. Coyle wondered, could one safely move eggs from Point A to Point B?
About 40 years of age at the time, and publisher of the Interior News, a publication in British Columbia’s Bulkley Valley, Mr. Coyle was nothing if not resourceful. His list of inventions would ultimately include a pocket cigar cutter and a vehicle anti-theft device.
For this predicament, he invented a product that remains largely unchanged since he dreamed it up more than a century ago – the egg carton.
“He said there’s got to be a better way. And … well, the rest is history,” Fergus Tomlin, director of the Bulkley Valley Museum, said in an interview.
Mr. Coyle was born in Ontario in 1871 and got his start in journalism there as an apprentice. After stops in New Jersey and Alaska, he settled in the Bulkley Valley in 1906.
He first produced his paper in Aldermere and his office’s close proximity to the hotel is what allowed him to overhear the egg argument, according to the B.C. Historical Association.
Mr. Coyle thought up a plan to make cartons with individual cushioned slots. He first produced the cartons by hand, then developed a machine to keep up with surging demand. The machine is now in the care of the Royal BC Museum.
Mr. Coyle patented his idea in 1918. By 1919, he had sold his newspaper holdings and moved to Vancouver to focus on the new business. He would eventually move to cities such as Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles, setting up factories along the way.
An advertisement from a decades-old Chicago carton reads: “The Coyle Egg-Safety Carton is the container that really eliminates your breakage problems.”
Mr. Coyle moved back to Vancouver in the late 1930s, before settling in the nearby city of New Westminster.
Hundreds of millions of Coyle cartons had been produced by the time he died in 1972, at the age of 100. But the story of his invention doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. Mr. Coyle’s daughter, Ellen Myton, would say many people amassed wealth as a result of her father’s creation. He just wasn’t one of them.
“As is so often the case with inventors, he was no match for the sharp practices of big business and their sharper lawyers. The Coyle carton made several millionaires but dad was not one of them. We lived comfortably, but not affluently,” she told the historical association in the early 1980s.
Ms. Myton said the use of the Coyle carton died with him. Mr. Tomlin said Ms. Myton, too, has since passed away.
Mr. Tomlin said Mr. Coyle’s experience shows a patent is only worth the amount of money that can be used to defend it.
He said there have been claims that egg cartons were being developed in other parts of North America at around the same time Mr. Coyle had his vision.
But he said as far as he’s concerned, Mr. Coyle solved a centuries-old problem and his invention is the region’s “gift to civilization.”