IT BEGAN HUMBLY, as a small seed, nearly three decades ago, in the mind of a local wood and metal patternmaker. The germ of Jeff Carnevali’s idea — a round, elastomeric rubber ball, surrounded by a spring-loaded, double-armed metal clamp to form a grippy, orbital socket capable of mounting countless devices to solid surfaces — wasn’t revolutionary. It was simple, universal technology brought up to 21st-century needs and standards with modern materials and engineering.

In today’s digital, handheld-device society, that seed has blossomed into a thriving business, RAM Mounts, in South Park, a rare surviving blue-collar neighborhood in tech-booming Seattle.

The Backstory: Why don’t people know all these great products came from Seattle?

Carnevali’s ball-and-socket mount, first produced in his own basement along the Duwamish River, today is made in the same spot, on a mass scale, by RAM Mounts, a largely under-the-radar light manufacturer probably better known to its global gearhead-aficionado fans than to its own South Park neighbors.

RAM Mounts, which still produces its own die-cast aluminum, powder-coated mounting parts, now makes some 5,000 distinct parts, most of them locally. In various modular combinations, they can connect nearly any device (mobile phones, portable computers, radios and other small electronics leading the way) to almost anything else.

Loosening one or two knobs on a RAM Mount gives a device multidirectional movement. Tighten them back up, and it’s rock-solid in conditions ranging from 50-knot ocean gales to an SUV trip to pick up the kids at soccer practice.

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In that sense, the company’s growth — in the past four years, it has expanded its manufacturing space by 20% and nearly doubled its workforce, to 400 — says interesting things about consumer and societal evolution. But locally, it might say something more profound about timing, sense of place, and the people and passions that drive regional economies.

Rosela Martin, a production specialist at Cascade Designs in South Seattle, inflates a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad. All pads are left inflated for at least two days to be sure they don’t leak air. Therm-a-Rest mattresses were invented by three Seattle engineers. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Rosela Martin, a production specialist at Cascade Designs in South Seattle, inflates a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad. All pads are left inflated for at least two days to be sure they don’t leak air. Therm-a-Rest mattresses were invented by three Seattle engineers. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

It goes without saying that environment drives local business. It’s why the Palouse is the world’s breadbasket instead of, say, Minot, N.D. In the Pacific Northwest, add an additional, intangible driver: innovation, led by creative types who made a concerted choice to live in a place with big trees, fresh air and that mind-blowing view of The Mountain. Many local leading industrialists have been Northwest-based by choice, not birth.

Big, local thinking is responsible for our region being known globally for big players such as Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft and now Amazon.com. But that somewhat tired listicle of major economic powers provides little nuance about the ideas of place that often accompany a healthy sense of place.

This is where RAM Mounts, and a slate of other smaller, like-minded contemporary enterprises, re-enters our tale. While Seattle’s bigger businesses inarguably changed the world, the town’s diverse economy gets little credit for innovative smaller stuff that leapt from the borders of the local Cascadian bubble to make the entire orb a cooler place.

Consider the following companies, whose products stand as iconic innovations — things that Seattle is not well-known for (even to many of its own residents, particularly the newly arrived) but maybe should be.

Their common denominators say a lot about what drives us: Each is distinctly a product of a damp, lush, gray, mountainous coastal region, peopled by folks with a thirst for fresh-air adventure. Designed in basements or garages to make life better for Northwesterners, in an era where a “startup” was someone offering jumper cables, each product also has found fans in markets far beyond.

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THE FIRST PRODUCT at what would become RAM Mounts was a boat propeller puller in the early 1990s, under the name National Products Inc. It prompted a call from a water-ski company to build a ski holder, for which entrepreneur Carnevali, a West Seattle native who now owns more than 150 design patents, employed the ball/socket device that would prove only more useful to consumers over time.

Employees at RAM Mounts work in a storage building at the company’s Seattle location. The South Park company began with Jeff Carnevali’s design for a ball-and-socket mount, which was first produced in his own basement, along the Duwamish River. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Employees at RAM Mounts work in a storage building at the company’s Seattle location. The South Park company began with Jeff Carnevali’s design for a ball-and-socket mount, which was first produced in his own basement, along the Duwamish River. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Today, the company’s Build-A-Mount website is a must-bookmark for any true gearhead. Die-cast, injection-molded and powder-coated pieces flowing off the South Park assembly line, where some machines run 24/7 to meet demand, can combine to flex-mount almost anything to anything else. The trademark RAM balls — sized 1 to 4 inches, depending on usage — attach everything from mobile phones to trolling motors onto boat decks, cockpits, handlebars, dashboards, end tables, exercise bikes, forklifts, wheelchairs, computer workstations and other objects and surfaces. RAM Mounts have swept the globe and literally left the planet (yes, the International Space Station), and have a well-earned reputation for keeping stuff where it belongs — and making it better-positioned and more usable.

Big-sellers today are the company’s “X-Grip” smartphone/tablet holders, the latest in a long run of lifetime-warranteed modular mounts that can be left in place and fitted with interchangeable arms and customized attachments for any product that qualifies as a consumer flavor of the day.

The modular approach has allowed the company not only to roll with the tides of change, but profit from them through future-proofing: Customers who had a handheld GPS mount on a motorcycle, boat or hang glider a generation ago still use the ball mount to affix an updated RAM Mounts smartphone connector today, says Andrew DeDonker, the company’s marketing director.

Completed plates with balls are designed at at RAM Mounts in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Completed plates with balls are designed at at RAM Mounts in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Traditional big-sellers include a universal marine electronics mount, which captains of watercraft of any size use to mount sonar/GPS units — and move them around as needed — and a No-Drill Laptop Mount that affixes notebook computers to vehicles of all sorts.

Users who rely on ultimate flexibility — kayak anglers come to mind — have found their own ways to combine various RAM parts in creative fashions to make double- or triple-jointed mounts that put downriggers, rod holders and electronics in, on and around their craft in every conceivable place.

The key to all of it, of course, is the foundation: That simple ball joint. It sells itself by moving where you want it, and, once clamped down, staying put.

LESS THAN A dozen miles away, another nondescript South Seattle factory cranks out another product that revolutionized outdoor life in the Northwest and beyond: the Therm-a-Rest inflatable camping mattress.

To legacy Seattleites, the T-Rest story might be a familiar one, but to newcomers, it likely isn’t well-known. The short take: Local engineers Jim Lea and Neil Anderson, victims of the infamous, 50,000-job layoff at Boeing in 1971, conspired with an engineer pal, mountaineer John Burroughs, to solve the age-old outdoorsperson’s literal nightmare: cold, sleepless nights on the ground under the stars or in a tent.

Lea, inspired by a gardening knee pad filled with open-cell foam, fashioned a press from an old sandwich-maker that would become the now-ubiquitous (and widely copied) Therm-a-Rest. While they’re status quo for today’s younger trekkers, Therm-a-Rests — to vets of flimsy air mattresses or rock-hard, blue-foam pads — were a revelation.

Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads are made at Cascade Designs in South Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads are made at Cascade Designs in South Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Within two years of the sandwich grill experiment, patent papers filed, the pads were being mass-produced in Sodo. Four decades later, they still are, in Seattle facilities with some 400 workers, a distribution center in Reno and a sister manufacturing facility in Ireland.

By combining open-cell foam with an airtight outer fabric, the Therm-a-Rest, manufactured under the Cascade Designs name, solved the problem of cold and hard in one swift blow. Although a bit heavier than products it replaced, the Therm-a-Rest has been considered weight well spent by successive generations of outdoor trekkers, whether out for a weekend or an entire summer on the Pacific Crest Trail.

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Interestingly, the market that began with a midweight, medium-thick mattress has since forked in distinctly opposite directions. Today, the company sells innovative, superlight, ultracompact “NeoAir” line mattresses (they weigh as little as a half-pound), and a range of thick, heavy, extra-cushy car-camping pads such as the Dream Time; the biggest weighs in at 8 pounds and is touted by some as more comfortable than a good home bed.

Along the way, Cascade Designs, like most in the industry, morphed into a parent company for various other lines of innovative equipment. Its acquired brands now include Platypus hydration bladders; SealLine watertight bags; PackTowl pack towels; Varilite wheelchair cushions; and Mountain Safety Research’s  broad array of mountaineering/backpacking and survival gear.

John Burroughs, left, was one of three men who invented the Therm-a-Rest mattress and the Cascade Designs company in Seattle. Burroughs, an engineer and mountaineer, is mostly retired now. His son, David Burroughs, right, is the company’s president. (Courtesy Therm-a-Rest)
John Burroughs, left, was one of three men who invented the Therm-a-Rest mattress and the Cascade Designs company in Seattle. Burroughs, an engineer and mountaineer, is mostly retired now. His son, David Burroughs, right, is the company’s president. (Courtesy Therm-a-Rest)

Founder and longtime chairman John Burroughs still is a mostly retired employee, and his son David is Cascade Designs’ president. Even with the broad range of products now under the company umbrella, mattresses still are the biggest seller. The company, now facing fierce competition from mostly overseas manufacturers, keeps most of its production in Seattle because of the local talent pool in designing and making its products, and the proximity to the places they’re most often used, says Cascade Designs’ Erik Flink.

“The Therm-a-Rest truly changed the way people sleep outdoors,” he says. “Not just backpackers, but everybody.”

ANOTHER LOCAL GEAR company has a similar story to tell — and a similarly ubiquitous single product that managed to make it globally famous. Outdoor Research was founded by scientist and mountaineer Ron Gregg in the wake of a harrowing expedition on Denali in 1980.

The company, specializing in advanced mountaineering gear and now full lines of clothing and other outdoor goods, has a passionate following among high-altitude denizens. But it first gained fame as a maker of accessories such as gloves and, famously, Gore-Tex gaiters (the “X-Gaiter,” forerunner to today’s popular Crocodile) that proved effective in warding off frostbite. They became must-have accessories for climbers on Cascade volcanoes and, not long after, big peaks across the globe.

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Gregg was killed in an avalanche skiing near Nelson, British Columbia, in 2003, after which the company was acquired by Dan Nordstrom. By that time, the company’s products, all with lifetime warranties, had won multiple gear-design awards.

The Seattle Sombrero, made by Outdoor Research, is a popular rainhat with Northwesterners. (Earl Harper / Courtesy Outdoor Research)
The Seattle Sombrero, made by Outdoor Research, is a popular rainhat with Northwesterners. (Earl Harper / Courtesy Outdoor Research)

But since 1985, one OR product designed with Northwesterners specifically in mind stood out, and still does: the Seattle Sombrero, an arguably goofy looking, broad-rimmed rain hat that gives off a vibe that is equal parts cowboy, Indiana Jones and Quinault rainstorm refugee.

The Gore-Tex lid over the years has become as close as a single product gets to being standard-issue gear for newly arriving Northwesterners — at least those willing to drop pretenses and wear one.

“It’s not just a hat; it’s a lifestyle choice!” enthused one new convert in a recent online review.

Another reviewer, Outdoor Gear Lab, offers up the sort of feigned praise the makers and fans of the distinctive hat have come to expect. “The Seattle Sombrero isn’t the most stylish hat out there, but it also isn’t the ugliest.”

The “Sea Som,” in keeping with company founder Gregg’s defiant “fashion be damned!” guidance, earned legendary status because It Just Works, keeping heads dry in downpours for decades, with a brim broad enough to keep rain off your face and, more important, away from the inside of your rain parka at the back of your neck.

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Its shell is fully waterproof, the light tricot lining just warm and wicking enough for comfort during strenuous activity in cool, wet weather. When the clouds briefly part over the Humptulips, you can flip up the brim on the sides to reduce wind drag or catch some air. A chin strap is the finishing touch, keeping it on your head even on a gale-force day on Hurricane Ridge.

(Note: Some transplants, tricked by the “Sombrero” part of the name, complain that it breathes insufficiently for year-round use, to which locals respond, “Duh. It’s a wet-clammy hat, on purpose.” OR makes other lids for warmer weather, trading on the fame of the “Seattle” name.)

The hat, now made in China, retails for $60 but often can be had for substantially less in a year-old hue. It now comes in four sizes and a rainbow of colors, and, at just over 3 ounces, its crushable form allows it to be taken everywhere. And over two decades, it has done exactly that. You’re likely to see the hat on hikers, paddlers, anglers, golfers, dog walkers and just about anyone else, from here to Beijing. Rumor has it that annual sales of the hat top 25,000.

UCO, a Redmond company in business since 1971, produces a candle lantern that is popular with campers and backpackers. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
UCO, a Redmond company in business since 1971, produces a candle lantern that is popular with campers and backpackers. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

SIMILARLY BELOVED BY many hikers, campers, preppers and others is an old-school gadget designed by another local company, UCO (pronounced “YOU-co”) of Tukwila.

The company, founded in Redmond in 1971, and now one of several brands operating under the company name Industrial Revolution (it originally made ski-boot buckles for K2), draws its name from the concept of “utility, comfort and originality” — all components of its mainstay product, the UCO Candle Lantern.

Listing the UCO lantern as an iconic Northwest product is sure to be controversial in some crowds: Even though it’s less than 5 inches tall and weighs about 6 ounces, ultralight backpackers call it heavy, pointless, “old tech,” with breakable glass — best left at home. But we’ve never had one break, crush a vertebra — or burn something up. And those who choose to use the low-tech device for backpacking, car camping, picnics or other uses, are literally drawn by the comfortable, warm glow of the candle lantern’s flame, which just can’t be replicated by even the techiest LED.

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The key to the candle (they start at $19.99 for an aluminum model) is its packability: Its glass shade slides into a metal body for safekeeping when not lit, and wax stays inside. The innovation was a spring that continuously pushes the stubby, reloadable candle up to burning position inside the housing. (Note: It works best with candles made by UCO, not cheap knockoffs. The premium beeswax candles will light a tent, room or other space for up to 12 hours — plenty long enough for a candlelit dinner on a beach somewhere.)

The success of the original candle lantern prompted a spinoff product even better suited to car camping or the occasional home brownout: The upscale “Candelier,” a three-candle model that allegedly produces enough heat to boil water on its metal lid. (We haven’t tried this, but the light is a popular staple in our camping trailer, and there’s another one in the earthquake emergency-lights box — likely a promising new profit center for UCO products.)

Bottom line: Everyone should own one. Or, with that big earthquake that might be just around the corner, go ahead and show your local roots, be they deep or shallow, and make it a six-pack.