Lucien C. Ducret
The Inventor of the Roto-Split
A Better Mousetrap - Inventors Tackle Life with Yankee Ingenuity
By Elizabeth Payne
Staff writer, Fairpress
When Lucien Ducret was rewiring a room in his Norwalk home in 1973, he fashioned himself an invention that not only spawned a new company but also ended up winning him a bronze award at the International Exhibition of Inventors last April, his second showing there. The Roto-Split was neither sexy or high-tech, just very practical - and novel enough to warrant patent. Since its creation it has been refined over the years with modifications that landed it the coveted prize this spring.
The idea behind Ducret's invention took shape when he learned that the local hardware store had nothing other than a hacksaw for cutting the steel encased BX cable - a method that had been causing some electricians injuries and even more frustration. Confronted with that problem, Ducret's imagination sped into high gear. "Being an engineer," he recalled in a recent interview, "my wheels start turning when I hear something like that. I say there's got to be another way."
As necessity has always been the mother of invention, Ducret researched the matter thoroughly and found nothing but clumsy, aborted attempts at solving the problem. He finally designed his own prototype of a new device that cut through the heavy outer layer without harming the cable inside, quickly and efficiently.
To gauge the market for the then $8.95 instrument, he ran one small ad in The New York Times that elicited more than 500 orders - about 400 more Roto-Splits than he had on hand. So Ducret sent back the checks and asked customer to wait until he could tool up for higher production. Almost 90 re-ordered, and that was the start of the mechanical engineer's Seatek Corporation.
"He's been doing this since childhood," explained his wife, Carol, who also works at the business. "Anything he would put his hands on he would modify to make it better."
Ducret's Roto-Split and patented Swing-Saw are among the many inventions born of Fairfield County minds. Some sound fairly simple, like the new cosmetic powder dispenser for which James Ladd of Rowayton recently received a patent; or the fine-toothed comb designed by a Greenwich pair to pick nits; or the Odor Eaters shoe inserts created years go by Ridgefielder Herbert Lapidus.
Other Inventions produced In this area are more esoteric, even mind-boggling. Perkin-Elmer of Norwalk, for example, recently got assigned patent number 4,660,977 for a synchronous wavelength drive and data acquisition conversion for a sequential spectrophotometer. This system, inventor Charles Wittmer said, was designed for a new Plasma II instrument to help analytical chemists locate some 60 different elements, like iron or copper in one minute. "In earlier days," Wittmer explained, "you could spend a couple of days just determining one."
Ladd left Chesebrough-Ponds five years ago to form his own cosmetics firm, where he felt he would be freer to develop new ideas. Some large companies, he said, tend to look for quick returns and often shy away from their employees' inventiveness because of the expense and bureaucracy.
"They have the money and they have the manpower, but they don't have the will." Ladd explained. According to the U.S. Patent Office, only about a quarter of the patents issued go to independent inventors, the rest to businesses.
"Because we're small and not as wealthy as a Chesebrough-Ponds, we don't file patents unless we feel they really provide some meaningful protection for the company, because it's just too expensive." Ladd said.
Though not a giant like Xerox or Polaroid, which also were spawned with key patents for marketable products, Ducret's company has now grown from a 400 square foot office to about 7,000 square feet in downtown Stamford. Hundreds of thousands of its number one selling cable splitter, the Roto-Split, are in the field today, costing about $30 each.
Ducret - who worked on the camera shutter for the first lunar landing, to mention just one diversion - has a total of 14 patents. And there are "more to come" to continue broadening the company line.
A domestic patent, which takes an average of 22 months to get from filing to acceptance, costs about $1,000 on up, Ladd said. The filing fee itself is normally only $170, but there are other government fees as well as tremendous research and often the need for patent attorneys, which can make the process expensive. Then there are additional fees in each country where an item is patented, something Ladd usually does to ensure no foreign copies come on the market.
Ladd's most recent invention, the $25 Luminique Powder Pen, contains a disposable cartridge that applies face powder that is loose rather than laden with the oils normally needed for adherence to a compact. Based on consumer interviews, Ladd said he believes the product will be widely accepted and eventually take some share of the market away from the now more popular pressed powder lines.
Another prolific inventor, Murray Schiffman of Westport, has, like Ducret, been fiddling ever since childhood. His first offering was a flywheel, primitively crafted from cork, toothpicks and flies, to maintain its own momentum when floated in water.
"It would go around and around," said Schiffman, president an co-founder of the lnventor's Association of New England at age 8, Schiffman put together a contraption to muffle the ticking of his alarm clock, which was disrupting his sleep. In 1950, he got his first patent for a wire garment hanger that not only held pants securely, but also prevented creasing. His next patent was for the more elaborate Directomat, once used in the New York subways to help people plot their routes until vandalism got the better of it.
"Now I'm working on a new kind of tape recorder, but I can't talk about it," Schiffman said. With inventions, secrecy is the name of the game to prevent idea theft. "That's one of the worst things in this business," Schiffman said, recalling a time when his patent attorney discovered a customer lifted his patented concept and come out with a slight variation on the theme - for which he then got a patent. Taking action through the Patent Office for the rights to the high resolution digital shaft position and coder instrument, Schiffman was able to take over the competitors claims of origination.
Chemist John Carroll is another local inventor of sorts, more "applications oriented," whose job at Novo Labs in Wilton requires constantly churning out of new ideas. He's not the mad scientist variety, though. "I tend to invent little things, all the time, but I'm not a full-fledged inventor spending dark nights under light bulbs" he explained.
Inventions don't always make it in the market, as both Schiffman and Ducret can attest. "I made a couple of mistakes, like everybody else," Ducret said, describing a "big monster" of a machine he invented years back for measuring and cutting cable, something that never achieved much success despite constant downsizing and other revisions. "I decided this was crazy," he said laughing now. "The challenge was great - I enjoy doing it as an engineer, but it wasn't a moneymaking proposition."
For the small inventor not endowed with company backing, it can be a tough way to make to make a living, said Schiffman. "It's very difficult to be a really successful inventor in terms of money," he said. Schiffman developed the idea for the variable speech control device in cooperation with the Cambridge Research and Development Group in Wesport. "We spent a quarter of a million dollars for the basic patent umbrella and then quite a bit each year to maintain it," he explained.
The Swing Saw, that Ducret has patented in the U.S., Japan, and Common Market countries won an award at the International Exhibition in 1984, but has yet to reach the promising market Ducret anticipates. "It's a long time and it costs a lot of money," Ducret said, "It cost about $60,000 or $70,000 just to tool up."
"Certainly a large percentage of patents don't pay their way," added a patent attorney who recently retired from a major local corporation. "A smaller percentage of patents more or less break even. An even smaller percentage make real money."