from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 7
Under the Desk
Raczynski is a product designer in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
in 1988, I was on my hands and knees, reattaching a snarl of
cables to the back of my personal computer.
With a foul-tasting flashlight stuck in my mouth (it was
perfect for blocking the escape of the profanities this task was
earning), I worked at inserting the connectors, guided by their
came my favorite part—tightening those dreaded tiny thumbscrews,
located only the short radius of a helium atom from their
I continued connecting my digital servant, I got to repeat this
joyful task, except that the next connector didn’t even have
manufacturer had been too value-conscious (read “cheap”) to
bother with them, so I dragged out the jeweler’s screwdriver I
kept by my computer and got to work.
Problem, and an Opportunity
a product designer—so instead of merely committing blasphemy,
the normal human response to the aggravation caused by bad
design—I tend to ask questions.
For example, “Why does it take two hands, one flashlight,
a direct line of sight and a screwdriver just to connect a printer
to a computer?” Having
asked the question, I made a few on-the-knees observations about
the design problem. This
beloved connector had a body holding its electrical components,
with a screw on each side to engage two nuts on the computer.
Both screws, as luck would have it, were products of the
industrial revolution—meaning they turned clockwise to engage,
counterclockwise to disengage.
and peripherals are constantly being improved (at least their
guts, if not their accursed connectors).
Obviously, each change would necessitate further fumbling
with cables. Could I save fellow office workers the embarrassment of
having to expose their buttocks to the breeze while fumbling with
a screwdriver and flashlight during these inevitable equipment
changes? In other words, could I couple the motion of these
screws easily and cheaply?
thought of several solutions and gauged them according to
ergonomics: The best one would interface naturally with the human hand.
That meant I couldn’t use a gear to connect the
thumbscrews—it would have to be too thin (I knew the computer
industry wasn’t going to reposition the connectors for my
benefit, and they’re spaced too close for a big gear to fit
was still on my knees when I thought up the inverse of a gear.
A gearbelt would have teeth on the inside like the tracks
on a bulldozer and teeth on the outside to easily engage the
driving machinery (the office-dweller’s paw).
This would allow me to call my invention a
I carefully extricated myself from the tangle of cables beneath my
desk, I began the engineering and
design process. My
first problem was strength—if I reinforced the belt, it would be
impossible to install on the connector during manufacture.
And how strong did it need to be?
If the belt stretched, it would help prevent office Tarzans
from overtightening the connector screws—this does happen—and
stripping the nuts on the computer’s end of the connector or,
worse yet, snapping the screws.
That would allow me to add safety
to my list of features, which obviously began with convenience.
found a belt supplier who actually seemed to care about the use to
which their belts would be put, and they sent me some samples that
were nearly the right size. I
pondered the physical constraints on a computer connector (and
ended up spending more time than I wanted staring at the backs of
these machines), then put together some drawings and had a shop
construct a “proof-of-principle” model.
I had belts that were one-sided only, I had to glue them together
with a vile industrial cement, something which had the fortunate
side-effect of stretching the belts to the correct length.
I took my sample connector to a computer manufacturer and
had the pleasure of watching 50 engineers pass it around as if it
were contraband. That was when I realized that they’d spent even more hours
on their knees wrestling with those stone-age connectors than I
had a ready audience, and if only this engineering department
hadn’t been disassembled immediately after my visit, I’d have
made a sale on my first call. I contacted a second firm, however, where I was rejected
several times by the marketers.
Finally, I had the presence of mind to call on the
president directly. I
was able to convince him that he really wanted to see me and that
he would sign a non-disclosure agreement.
As time is always short in situations like this, I just
pulled the prototype from my pocket, watched the flash of
“religion” in his eyes, and licensed the invention to his
company the same day.
a designer, I have always been engaged with function as well as
the visual “correctness” of a product.
I think that if it’s not visually correct, there's
usually a functional flaw as well. Following this principle, it
was relatively easy to design the adapter as an attractive unit
instead of a bulky bulldozer-behind-the-computer.
last challenge was to find a belt that was both stretchy (so it
would slip against the screws when Tarzan tried to over-tighten
it) and slippery (so it would slide over the connector during
tightening). I knew I
couldn’t lubricate the product as I had the prototype—with
forehead grease—so I settled on a belt that was molded in two
stages, with hard, slippery teeth on the inside and a grabbier,
yet stretchier urethane on the outside.
was granted a patent on my gizmo, and first licensed it to Xircom,
Inc., who began using it on pocket network adapters.
In June, 1992, LAN
Times called it “the most clever mechanical idea to turn up
at NetWorld,” a Boston computer-equipment show.
The Wall Street
Journal recently covered my adapter as well.
It turns out the computer industry, despite signs to the
contrary, is not immune to good ergonomics.
now I can buy flashlights that aren’t mint flavored, and go to
work on my desktop rather than under it.