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Designing a faster sailboat, cars that fly

Patrick Cudmore has his work cut out for him. After he has created the world's fastest sailboat, he wants to make cars fly. You won't find Mr. Cudmore in the test laboratories of a research and development firm, though, or some think tank.

He's at home, inventing.

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Some of the most advanced technology has evolved out of the basements, garages, and attics of home inventors.

Historically, inventors have done more to simplify and improve the quality of everyday life than any other group.

And yet Cudmore is part of a shrinking minority.

Since the early 1970s the number of independent inventors has dropped from half a million to 200,000, estimates Alexander Marinaccio, president of the Inventors Club, a national organization based in Springfield, Mass.

More and more of them opt for the financial security of working for large corporations.

These companies can guarantee a source of income, whereas the independent inventor incurs all the costs of his or her work.

Mr. Cudmore has been inventing on his own for 13 years.

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He has 10 patents, and two of his inventions have been marketed by Milton Bradley - ''Skyro,'' a hand-held aerial toy, and ''Bug-Eye,'' a portable, self-illuminating microscope that enables children to capture and observe living insects.

Other inventions include a sonar-enhanced rear-view mirror designed to eliminate blind spots, and a bird feeder that turns so that the entry opening is always downwind, so it won't freeze over.

Inventors are problem-solvers, and the hardest part about the work is getting a clear definition of the problem to be solved, Cudmore says.

''Sometimes children are better at this than adults, because they have a tremendous scientific curiosity.

''There were many times when my own children would say, 'Daddy, why can't we do this . . . ?,' which would get me thinking about the root of the problem,'' he notes.

It was Cudmore's oldest son (now a college student) and a laundry basket that inspired his first invention.

''I remember watching my son crawl inside a laundry basket and pull another over the top of him and then try to rock it.

''And of course it split open; he fell out and began to cry,'' he recalls.

''But it was obvious he wanted two things; he wanted a rock ability, and he wanted an enclosure.'' From this observation evolved the ''wobble egg,'' a plastic egglike shell that allows a young child to crawl inside and rock from side to side but will always stay upright.

Yet the transformation from idea to product is a long, complex, and expensive process.

Before a patent can be issued, the inventor must first make a nearly perfect prototype.

Then he must run a patent search to make sure his idea is original. There's a 1-in-10 chance that an inventor's patent will clear, Cudmore estimates.

Once the check is completed, the inventor must then dish out $3,000 for a patent to protect his idea. If he wishes to have foreign patents, getting them can cost $15,000 more. But a patent isn't enough protection, warns Cudmore. An inventor's rights can be challenged with a court suit, he explains, and for that reason he has a ''very well paid'' patent lawyer.

Considering that most independent inventors have no set income, the costs of their work can put a financial squeeze on the individual. Cudmore relies on consulting and royalty advances as a means of support. The cost of getting a patent has more than doubled in the last year, which has made it a lot tougher for the little guy, he says, ''Yet the majority of the technological breakthroughs that move the economy come from small companies and inventors,'' he adds.

The financial constraints have forced many American inventors to turn their patents over to foreign countries, because they are willing to finance the work, Cudmore says. Even with all its ups and downs, Cudmore finds his job personally rewarding. He is quick to add that that does not mean he has no visions of making millions, however.

He lives the self-sufficient life of a pioneer. His home is the sole shelter on a strip of land known as High Pines, a part of Duxbury Beach, 35 miles southeast of Boston. To reach this inventor's oasis, one must cross a quarter-mile wood plank bridge. From there it's four-wheel drive only. Cudmore generates his own electricity, and pumps water from a well, chops wood for his stove. It's a bit remote, but ''I love it out here,'' he says. ''I have the beach for my boat, and the winds are good for testing areodynamic concepts.''

The most recent of Cudmore's patents is his rotary wing. It rotates forward like an airplane propeller and has the vertical lift of a helicopter rotor. It will enable automobiles to fly someday, he says, ''but it will happen long after my patent rights wear off.'' Cudmore, a former Air Force Academy cadet, says he has always had a fascination with flight. But it's his hydrofoil sailboat that is his real labor of love. The ''Hydrocat'' represents a breakthrough in sailing performance, claims Cudmore, who has devoted five years to the project. ''After 5,000 years of design evolution,'' he says, ''the fastest sailboat can sail 1 1/ 2 times faster than wind speed. The Hydrocat will be able to reach speeds 2 1/2 times faster than wind speed.''

The fiber-glass catamaran consists of two light hulls resting on arch-shaped foils, which reduces water friction to allow for faster sailing. In a sense the craft is a winged sailboat. The faster it goes, the higher it lifts itself up out of the water. ''When you sail a boat like this you will feel the experience of flight,'' he says.

In 1981 Cudmore's Hydrocat was a finalist in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. He is working on an even faster model, which he plans to sail in the world sailing speed trials in England in October. ''I want my sailboat to win the world speed sailing trophy for America for the first time,'' he adds.

Before becoming an inventor, Cudmore, who had studied at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked as an architect. His design for Cornell University's campus store won him a Progressive Architecture Design Award. The store is a large building in the center of campus that was placed underground to preserve the continuity of a historic quadrangle. Cudmore also helped design the New Eng-land Aquarium in Boston. Yet he was not sorry to give up that career. ''I got bored with architecture,'' he says. It didn't allow him the flexibility to perfect a design, and there were too many compromises.

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