Hugh Ross Eckert can thank the recession and a $12,000 potential white elephant for steering his business in a new -- and potentially lucrative -- direction.
For nine years, Eckert Optical Instruments Inc. focused on microscope and borescope sales to such clients as Westinghouse, Martin Marietta and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Labs. Then the bottom began to fall out in 1991, as he watched such clients go through layoffs and budget slashings, said Mr. Eckert, 43. "The year of missed orders is what I call it. I bid on more business and got less orders. The writing was on the wall."
The drop-off in business left him the unwilling owner of a $12,000 videoscope, a high-resolution remote viewing camera his company had purchased to sell to defense contractors and federal law-enforcement agencies.
Mr. Eckert brainstormed 100 potential new markets for the remote viewing camera. Two of them -- historical restoration and indoor air quality -- intrigued him. Research showed people in those fields had money to spend. And the rest is history.
Ever since his first historical restoration project a year ago, inspecting the nooks and crannies of the Cupola House in Edenton, N.C., the videoscope has been collecting bucks, not dust.
The company has worked on two projects at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. One involved a hunt for the engraved silver plate that George Washington laid on the site of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol Building on Sept. 18, 1793.
The stone was laid atop the plate, but the stone's exact location had been lost over the centuries. The videoscope was lowered into a 10-foot pit in an unsuccessful effort to find the plate.
The videoscope is a camera about two-thirds of an inch wide. It transmits pictures along a cable to a video screen, using two fiber optic bundles for light. Via remote control, its operator can make the scope pivot, swing and snake its way into tight spaces. Which isn't easy, said Mr. Eckert. The effort can take hours.
The company charges $160 an hour for its service. That might seem steep to some, but for those who appreciate being able to leave the walls of historical buildings intact, it's a pittance.
The videoscope has snaked through existing holes at a home on Cedar Park Farm, a 300-year-old farm on the West River in southern Anne Arundel County, enabling architectural historian Richard Rivoire to assess the structural condition of the building without disturbing it much.
"It's one of Maryland's most important architectural landmarks, and it had structural problems that could not easily be observed without taking down wall finishings," said Mr. Rivoire. "So Hugh did a videoscope exploration of the frame where we could use the camera to penetrate sections of the wall that you couldn't otherwise examine."
Mr. Eckert said his company occupies a unique niche and is poised to be around for a long time.
"His technique is pretty new to my knowledge," Mr. Rivoire said. "Nothing like this has been done quite in the way he's doing it. I think he's going to go a long way with it. There are lots of uses for it."