He Built Better Mousetraps

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    While you may have heard of that pair, very likely the name Calvin Dodd MacCracken doesn't immediately resonate in the inner recesses of your memory, and yet certainly, at some point, you have come across one of his numerous practical inventions. The surgical stapler: his. The water-cooled "K-pad" used by hospitals to administer to burn victims: his. The water-pressure-driven sump pump: yep. And who has not marveled at the simple, functional beauty of his electric hotdog grill, nearly ubiquitous at sporting events, street fairs and greasy spoons, as it slowly cooks a handful of franks by relentlessly turning them atop the device's gleaming metal rollers?

    In all, MacCracken was awarded more than 80 U.S. patents for inventions or processes he developed in a career that began during World War II. Fresh out of MIT, where he'd picked up a degree in mechanical engineering in 1941, he was recruited into General Electric's creative engineering program in Schenectady. First major assignment: Develop a combustion chamber for the then hush-hush jet engine?a project inaugurated by the British, who, consumed by the war, asked the Dept. of Defense to take over the job. DoD, in turn, gave the project to GE. "His boss told him, 'There're no experts out there?you're now the expert,'" notes Calvin's son Mark MacCracken. Ultimately, Mark adds, his dad, still in his early 20s, "Came up with the idea that focused the fuel and the air in two different places?the 'double vortex'?within the combustion chamber. On the first jet engine being throttled, he was the throttler." That breakthrough earned him his first patent.

    In 1947, MacCracken founded his own creative engineering company?Jet Heet, Inc., based in Englewood, NJ?and over the years cranked out a heap of products, many of them energy-efficient heating and cooling systems. Like an electric blanket that dispensed with unsafe electric wires, instead producing heat via plastic tubes that circulated warm water. Plus, for transporting wounded soldiers to triage in the Korean War, a set of coveralls that operated on the same principle as the electric blanket. (While the U.S. Army never used the coveralls, spacesuits worn by Apollo astronauts featured a variation on the same concept.) And his ingenious design for ice-rink construction, which employed flexible plastic tubing rather than pipes embedded in concrete. Spray water over cooled tubes, and, voila, instant ice rink. Cheaper, faster and easier to assemble, and portable.

    "He always wanted to build it and try it," explains Mark, "because he believed you don't know what you don't know." That same philosophy animates Cal MacCracken's sensible 1983 A Handbook for Inventors: How to Protect, Patent, Finance, Develop, Manufacture, and Market Your Ideas. "It takes a strong ego and personal commitment to be a freelance inventor," he writes. "You must be willing to fail repeatedly, to risk scorn and bankruptcy. The positive side includes the joy of creativity, a quickening of the heartbeat, an exhilaration better than that offered by any stimulant. When one of my original inventions works for the first time, I have a feeling closely akin to falling in love, a desire to repeat over and over to myself, 'I've done it, I've done it, I've done it!'"

    "He was absolutely a champion of the little guy among inventors," says Lucye Millerand, program coordinator for the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame?more a wall of fame, on the campus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. He made the cut as a charter inductee, she argues, because "there was a deliberate effort to ensure that there was representation of inventors-entrepreneurs?people who do not work in a big, cushy r&d setting, where all they do is sit at their desk and think of brilliant ideas. He also had to manage his company, keep it afloat and meet a payroll."

    MacCracken's big break was a forced-air residential furnace (the Jet Heet furnace) that used 2-inch, insulated, flexible air ducts instead of large metal ones. It sold well enough that Standard Oil wanted a piece of the action. The company's drivers, idle during the summer, would hawk furnaces in the field. "Well, after about a year of that," Mark remembers, "they realized you can't have truck drivers sell furnaces, and so they pulled the purchase order."

    But Jet Heet had invested huge sums to expand to meet demand. When the Standard Oil deal went sour, Jet Heet declared Chapter 11, resurfacing in 1964 as Calmac Manufacturing, Inc. Since the early 80s it has concentrated its efforts on thermal energy storage, a process Cal brainstormed and developed.

    Born in 1919 on the Vassar College campus, where his father was president, Calvin MacCracken grew up in Poughkeepsie, and at age 16 entered Princeton, where he starred on the squash and tennis teams. He graduated with an astronomy degree in 1940, then briefly worked with Theodore Edison, son of the famous inventor, in Edison's West Orange, NJ, lab, before skipping off to MIT. At 5 feet, 11 inches, 165 pounds and possessed of a full head of jet-black hair in his prime, MacCracken was something of a soft-spoken hunk?right up until he died from complications related to Alzheimer's on Nov. 10, two weeks shy of his 80th birthday. His wife proudly volunteers that he won 11 national squash championships, while as a tennis player he qualified for entry in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills eight times.

    That squash prowess landed MacCracken in a tv ad as a "Ballantine Ale Man" in the early 60s. "Basically, the criterion for inclusion was that you had to be the CEO of your own company and you had to be a national champ in a 'different' sport," remembers Mark, who succeeded his father as Calmac CEO when Cal retired in January 1996. "The ad showed him playing squash for 20 seconds, then coming off the court with a towel wrapped around his neck accompanied by two beautiful models while drinking a beer." Meanwhile, a jingle played. Mark semi-sings: "'Who is an Ale Man/He could be you/A man with a thirst for a manlier brew/Three out of four men every time/Chose the bolder, keener tasting ale, Ballantine."

    Send tips regarding departed worthies to: quickandthedead@aol.com.