For those who face increasingly higher fuel bills, at least one young inventor has taken his eye off solar cells, synthetic fuels and cars run on peanut butter to help shivering owners of a radiator-heated home.
Ogden Hammond, with his wife, Ingrid, spent two years inventing a device he thinks can take between 25 percent to 40 percent off homeowners' heating bills.
For the last two years, Hammond has been trying to take his device from the idea stage to the market. He is calling his invention SCOTCH (short for Simple Cost-effective, Optimum Temperature Control for Housing) and his company, Count Digital Ltd.
The idea behind SCOTCH is relatively simple. It is a system that controls the firing rate of the house boiler while regulating individual radiators with "intelligent thermostats. No rewiring will be required since SCOTCH relies on the domestic house current.
Only two prototypes actually exist at the moment, one in a young solar energy professor's office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the other in the Hammonds' former house. But the Hammonds are primed to find 100 customers by next heating season. If they do not, their $70,000 investment may be lost entirely.
Hammond, 33, is a chemical engineer who taught innovation at MIT for four years in the mid-1970's. Inventors dot his family history. His great-great grandfather, Edwin Augustus Stevens, apart from bringing the America's Cup trophy to the United States, invented the "T" shaped railroad track and established the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. On his mother's side, Hammond's great grandfather, at 10-years-old a penniless and fatherless immigrant, died a multi-millionaire with 300 of his own patents.
SCOTCH is an exceptional energy-saving idea, at least as far as the National Bureau of Standards, which reviews such inventions for the Department of Energy (DOE), is concerned.
The bureau, which admittedly gets some pretty unlikely ideas (perpetual motion machines are ubiquitous and one inventor suggested a "rock wheel" powered by leveling the Rocky Mountains) has received almost 16,000 applications since 1975.
Yet SCOTCH became one of 153 inventions reviewed and passed on by the Bureau and one of 86 to be in line for DOE's grants for energy saving ideas since 1975.
The $92,000 grant the Hammonds expect to receive will fund two-thirds of the cost of taking the product to the first production stage. (Not ungrateful, the Hammonds nonetheless note a little ruefully that the grant actually covers a sixth of the cost of taking the idea "from our heads to a working device.")
The dangers of trying to launch such a project are only just beginning, though. Hammond acknowledges energy-saving devices are hot. A few years ago, Radio Shack started selling a remote control unit which transmits signals to a radiator using the domestic house current.
For the Hammonds another danger lies in the market itself. "We are too small; the market is too big. If we grew at 50 percent a year, from a base of 1,000 in year two, in seven years we would be a $30 million company selling 12,000 units. But we would have captured all of 1 percent of the Northeast market."
SCOTCH is susceptible to imitation. So, to discourage others who might be tempted to muscle in on the action, Hammond decided to safekeep his invention. He gave his SCOTCH to his alma mater, MIT, which has a patent policy and licensing program.
By agreement, the royalties will be split down the middle after out-of-pocket expenses are paid. Count Digital gets an exclusive license for the first five years of sales. Hammond calls MIT, a "psychological deterrent to patent encroachments," although MIT denies there is any agreement to defend the patent.
Even if the product isn't launched in time for next year's snows, owners of pre-1940s houses will be warmed by one thought. Before Ogden Hammond's application came up, staffers down at the National Bureau of Standards did not know anyone was still trying to keep warm in brick houses by steam heat radiators.