Fred Amram saw how students were hurting their necks and shoulders. So he decided to do something about it.
Fred Amram, 78, a retired University of Minnesota professor of creativity, sits in the comforts of his home in Minneapolis, Minn. on Monday, July 30, 2012. After observing how students wear their backpacks and then researching the negative effects, Amram told himself, "I can fix this." He recently invented a type of backpack designed to avoid shoulder and neck problems and with adjustable straps that can be used as a messenger bag, a normal backpack or a single strap backpack.
Fred Amram, a writer and retired University of Minnesota communications professor, experienced a harrowing childhood in prewar Nazi Germany with his Jewish family, before immigrating to America in 1939.
Amram, 78, said he learned much from his students and always hung on to his humor and creativity. Now, the professor has designed and patented a new type of backpack that he says prevents neck and shoulder injuries among kids who love to sling their packs over one shoulder.
"Throughout my career, I watched students wear their backpacks on one shoulder, causing obvious discomfort," Amram said. "Physicians and chiropractors have documented that backpacks cause back and neck problems when not worn centered on the spine. Apparently, wearing a backpack over one shoulder looks cool. Advising students to wear backpacks centered on the back is close to useless. So if one can't change the student, one has to change the backpack."
Amram deconstructed several backpacks and resewed the straps from top right to bottom left.
"Perfect," he determined. "Now a heavy pack could sit on one shoulder while the weight is pulled to the center of the back. The center of gravity was where it should be. I realized if I could have the straps going at an angle, that solved the problem ... but not the whole problem. I still had the other strap. The patent is for removable, replaceable, repositionable straps. ... That's really how it does all these wonderful things, including converting it by connecting two straps to a messenger bag. I made several prototypes, but not of very good quality.''
Amram, no salesman, was going nowhere until he had a chance social meeting with Bill Hutchinson, the president of Wilsons Leather, who arranged a meeting with a Wilsons designer in early 2011 to flesh out the idea.
Wilsons manufactured several hundred of the "Amram 5-in-1 Backpacks," priced them at $39.99, put them in a couple dozen stores and offered them online at www.wilsonsleather.com.
Amram hopes the versatile backpack will be a youth hit and lead, eventually, to customized straps that say "Richfield Hockey" or "Washburn Volleyball."
"Kind of like the Barbie doll," Amram said. "It was very popular, but Mattel made all its money in the different dresses and accessories."
Al Minniti, Wilsons director of product development, is impressed. "Fred is a thinker and an inventor, and I hope I have that spark and passion when I'm 78," he said. "It's a premium backpack and laptop-compatible. Nylon backpacks are not a huge item for us. Most of ours are leather. But it's a great concept and interesting enough for us to produce it."
Amram's short-term goal is to sell enough Amram packs to recover the $35,000 he invested, most of which went to get a federal patent on the product.
A vivid writer
Amram, who came to Minnesota from New York in 1956 for graduate school, has finally made a mark in the apparel industry, where his father worked before World War II.
Amram writes vividly of his youth in Germany and America. In an article published earlier this year, Amram recalls German agents in 1939 entering his father's fabric studio and taking merchandise from the family home in Hanover.
"That night, Papa didn't come home until well after supper," Amram wrote. "He was dirty and tired. Papa explained [they] had traced him through his automobile license plates. They arrested him, confiscated his car and brought him to a construction site. There he worked with other Jewish slave laborers under the supervision of armed guards.
"Papa now had no income and would be forced to work as a slave seven days each week. He returned home after my bedtime and he left before I awoke. I was 6 years old the next time the men in uniform returned with their terrifying knock.
"I, the man of the house, went to the door, unlocked it and sprang out of the way. ... This time I stood in front of my mother -- not behind. I looked straight at the lead officer with my arms crossed. I guessed that was the proper posture for a grown-up. I never regained my childhood."
The Nazi stormtroopers stole Amram's childhood, but they didn't kill his creativity.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144