For nearly four decades, General Kinetics Inc. has been driven to moments of success -- and disappointment -- by the inventive genius of its scientists.
None has been more prolific and dynamic than the late Robert Gutterman.
Mr. Gutterman, a physicist, co-founded GKI in 1954 with retired Adm. William Goggins, mathematician Alfred E. Roberts and electrical engineer Walter Anderson.
The four men, who went without pay for their first year, got their first big break in the late 1950s when Mr. Gutterman thought of a way to help filmmakers clean grease pencil marks off master prints.
Movie studios so loved the "kineosonic film cleaner" that they awarded him a special Oscar forhis invention in 1960.
The machine, which used big blasts of ultrasound to scrub the film, brought Mr. Gutterman a chance to share the stage with Bob Hope and Ginger Rogers.
But it also illustrated one of the problems that GKI encountered over the years -- turning creative genius into profits. The film cleaner, for example, didn't make much money because the market for the cleaners was small.
Still, the publicity brought customers for a similar device, one that could clean computer tape.
Mr. Gutterman developed computer tape demagnetizing and rewinding equipment that for many years was the core of GKI's business.
During his tenure at GKI, Mr. Gutterman spent hundreds of thousands of dollars researching
For example, at the request of the makers of Musselman brand applesauce, he made a machine that would find and remove impurities -- such as fly legs -- in applesauce.
After selling the original machine, GKI couldn't spark interest from other applesauce makers. But today, GKI still markets a machine, based on the applesauce machine, that picks out flawed plastic pellets for molding companies.
And when some tomato-farming friends on Maryland's Eastern Shore asked him to develop a machine that would harvest tomatoes, Mr. Gutterman designed and built an ingenious wheeled device that had blades that would cut off the plant at the root, sling it on a conveyor belt, shake the tomatoes
off the vine and put them into a truck.
The machine worked fine in the Eastern Shore's sandy soil, but when the company showed it off in California to the big tomato growers who could make the machine a financial success, the wheels bogged down in California's muddy soil.
Such outcomes eventually took their toll on GKI.
In the mid-1970s, new President Louis Schap abandoned the tomato harvesting machine and eliminated research in order to pull the company back from the brink of bankruptcy.
The company recovered its financial health by the mid-1980s, thanks to a very low-tech product, metal cabinets for Navy ships.
But by draining funds away from research, the company lacked strong lines of business that were not defense-related.
More recently, it has made big profits from a spy-proof fax machine that is used in the White House and by allied troops in the Persian Gulf.
Robert Gutterman would have been proud.