#45 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 7          July 1993

Inventing Under the Desk
by Walter Raczynski

Mr. Raczynski is a product designer in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Back 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 trapezoidal shape.

Then came my favorite part—tightening those dreaded tiny thumbscrews, located only the short radius of a helium atom from their neighbors. 

As I continued connecting my digital servant, I got to repeat this joyful task, except that the next connector didn’t even have thumbscrews.  The 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.

A Problem, and an Opportunity

I’m 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.

Computers 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?        

I 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 between them).

Tractor Belt

I 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 “tractor-grip” connector. 

As 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. 

I 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.

Now, to Commercialize

Since 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! 

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.

As 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. 

My 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.

I 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.

So now I can buy flashlights that aren’t mint flavored, and go to work on my desktop rather than under it.

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