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Yankee Ingenuity: It's All in the Family

Marian Chaffe in front of Atwater Kent Labs, where her grandfather, Robert Chaffe '42, studied electrical engineering. Grandfather and granddaughter both designed award-winning remote-controlled devices.

Perhaps it's in the genes. Maybe it's just luck. But whatever the reason, there's delicious coincidence in Marian Chaffe's recent award-winning science fair project: a remote-controlled device that extends the walk signal at intersections.

Sixty-five years ago, Robert C. Chaffe '42, Marian's grand-father, devised an apparatus that could change the stations and adjust the volume on a radio--also by remote control. His invention earned him WPI's Yankee Ingenuity Award--a $500 prize that enabled him to attend the Institute.

Marian Chaffe's idea earned her the first-ever Frederick P. Fish Patent Award at the Massachusetts State Science Fair in May. Funded by the Boston law firm Fish & Richardson PC, it provides a no-cost patent application and, if a patent is granted, the possibility of commercializing the product.

When Marian began work on her junior-year science project at Massachusetts Academy of Mathematics and Science at WPI last fall, she didn't know about her late grandfather's invention. She only learned of it afterward, when her father, Dean Chaffe '81 (M.S.), who has kept his father's paperwork, noticed the similarities of the devices.

The Yankee Ingenuity Scholarship was founded in 1927 by Henry J. Fuller, an 1895 WPI graduate and a son of its second president. The award was given annually through 1960 to the New England boy who submitted a project that displayed the greatest amount of the trait supposedly possessed by Yankees.

A requirement for winning was fashioning a useful object in a novel way from unpromising material. In its report on Chaffe's winning entry, the WPI Journal noted that though remote-control tuning devices were not new, he "displayed real ingenuity in the design and construction of the one he submitted. The motor was from a junk shop, the gears were from an Erector set, and the springs were from various old clocks."

Chaffe went on to a business career after stints as a flight instructor during World War II and as a researcher for Goodyear Aircraft Co. But he remained a lifelong tinkerer. "He was always building something," Dean says, recalling the basement workshop where he, too, spent many hours.

Awards for electrical engineering devices may have skipped a generation in the Chaffe family, but an interest in the subject matter did not. Dean has spent half his career as a mechanical engineer and half as an electrical engineer. In fact, he helped Marian with some of the programming for her science fair project. By all accounts, the bloodline remains strong.

As a child, Marian was always taking things apart and putting them back together, terrifying her parents by opening car doors while in her car seat or getting the lids off childproof medicine bottles, exploits that earned her the nickname "Houdini." Now she's turned her ingenuity to grown-up uses.

Marian may have inherited her science curiosity from her paternal grandfather, but the inspiration for her invention came from the maternal side of the family. When she heard about her mother's parents' fear of crossing busy intersections near their senior complex, she was inspired to create a handheld radio transmitter that sends signals to the mechanism that controls the crosswalk signal, prolonging the walk light as long as needed. If patented and commercialized, it will allow her grandparents to cross in safety.

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Last modified: Sep 02, 2004, 11:26 EDT
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