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From Flying Cars to Expanding Minds

Patrick J. Cudmore /Inventor and Lecturer

By Rebecca W. Carman

Patrick J. Cudmore lives by himself on Durbury Beach, with no connection to phone or power lines. He generates his own electricity, takes long walks by the ocean and invents in solitude.

"I'm the prototypical lone inventor," he says. "I have a studio in my home, and I test all my devices in great secrecy."

For 15 years, the visiting lecturer in the Visual and Environmental Studies department has been a practicing inventor, devising creations ranging from flying automobiles to egg-shaped rocking capsules.

Garbed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase, Cudmore arrives at Harvard twice a week looking like a traditional academic.

But the contents of his briefcase yield a clue to the South Dakota native's unconventional nature. From it he pulls fold-up children's kites, plastic toys to throw or spin, glossy photographs of speeding boats, sketches of cars with propellers cruising through the air and numerous patents, complete with golden seals.

Cudmore estimates that he has roughly 200 ideas for devices in his files, although none of them are currently in production. Twelve of his inventions have been patented, and two toy designs were produced by a major toy company.

The Carpenter Center featured a collection of the inventor's works last fall. And in 1982, the Boston Museum of Science displayed a full exhibit of his inventions, which include car mirrors that eliminate blind spots, roller skates that can be used on rough surfaces and flying windmills.

An invention that he is particularly enthusiastic about is a hydro-foil sailboat designed to sail at twice the speed of the wind propelling it. The boat was a finalist in the 1981 international Rolex Awards for enterprise.

The 45-year-old says that sometimes his ideas are met with incredulity. For instance, people often are initially skeptical of his "Skyro" invention, which is a plastic, cylindrical-shaped toy that "flies horizontally, like a laser, for hundreds of feet, and doubles as a bracelet."

"But once they see it work," says Cudmore, "they become believers for life." Both "Skyro" and "Bug-Eye," a hand-held portable microscope that enables children to view living insects, have been marketed by Milton Bradley.

The principle behind "Skyro," a wing that moves forward like an airplane propeller and has the verticle lift of a helicopter, is one that will enable automobiles to fly someday, says Cudmore.

"I tried out my idea for a flying car on General Motors and was told 'We don't have a policy on flying automoiles and therefore aren't interested,"' he says.

"The problem with being an independent inventor," says Cudmore, "is that once you make something, you never know how well it will do. It's completely out of your hands." Patents are expensive, ranging in price from $3000 to $20,000.

Researching and creating a prototype of an invention is also costly, requiring a variety of individual and corporate sponsors. Nearly $100,000 was invested on the last model of the hydrofoil sailboat, for example.

Cudmore says he dislikes the business side of marketing his inventions, preferring instead the "excitement of discovery."

"I like inventing because, to me, it's the most pure thing you can do," says the soft-spoken lecturer, who claims to be a bit of a perfectionist.

Cudmore grew up in South Dakota with a Sioux Indian caretaker and Indian art instructors. "Being exposed to Indian culture made me realize that there's more than one way to look at things, and that often the Indian way is better."

Cudmore first started as an architect, having earned a Masters Degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He won a Progressive Architecture Design Award in 1969 for his work on Cornell University's campus store and later worked on the New England Aquarium in Boston.

But he dropped architecture, opting instead for the life of an inventor. "Inventing allows you to more perfectly solve problems, without compromising at all," he says. "Also, it provides direct contact with basic physical principles."

This emphasis on invention over architecture created new demands on Cudmore and his two sons, Colin and Sean. "At first it was hard." says Colin, 20, who is presently working in Washington, D.C. "We didn't have any steady paycheck, and Dad had to be alone all the time so he could think."

But Colin adds that "a lot of kids know that their dads work for some company, but they aren't really sure what they do. Our father always talked to us about what he was doing, really enthusiastically. We used to all sit down as a family and try to come up with names for the inventions together."

"Often he would just sit down with a pencil and paper, nothing else, and come up with things left and right," says Colin.

Having college-aged children has helped the lecturer understand his Harvard students, Cudmore says. "Besides being able to relate well to younger adults, I also have tremendous tenacity, and tolerance for failure--good traits for an inventor."

"I realize that you learn the most when you're at play, so I try to have a real spirit of fun when I go about my work and my classes," he says. "I go about life as if it was a game."

Cudmore teaches the courses "Three Dimensional Design and Invention" and "Design of the Manmade Environment." Students in his classes have invented new types of musical instruments, floor plans for emergency housing in shipping containers, and children's toys based on the principle of light refraction.

"He tells us some weird things, like about Aborigines communicating with each other over 12 miles by talking to trees," says Andrew L. Nash '87, one of Cudmore's students. "But in context, you realize he does it to keep our minds open, to get us thinking in new ways."

"One thing Patrick teaches you," says Nash, "is that you don't have to just live with something that bothers you. He gets you into the mind-set of thinking of creative solutions, and eliminating the small annoyances of life.

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