Ruby Family History Project Blog

Knudsen's occupation in 1940 census was "making novelties"

Knud Knudsen came to America in 1906 as a laborer and hired hand and retired in 1958 as the president of a large industrial enterprise. But his heart and soul was in the metal shop as a tinkerer and inventor of consumer wares for enjoying spirits and tobacco. Even as Danbury Electric Manufacturing took off as a supplier of electrical components during the 1930s, he tinkered away with inventions for corkscrews, ashtrays, and bottle stoppers.

His 1940 census record identifies his occupation not as a corporate executive but as a novelty-maker in the metal goods industry. The image is the census record for Knudsen and his wife Christine (her Danish given name was Kirsten) for their address at 5 Osborne Rd. in Danbury, Conn. (highlighted) with an enlargement of the Knudsen information below. This information was collected by a census enumerator on April 10, 1940, a year after Knudsen had acquired rights to the Walter Ruby corkscrew patent.

By contrast, his 1930 census record identified him as "General Manager" in "Electric Mfg."

Knud Knudsen obituary

To learn more about Knud Knudsen, the inventor who bought the rights to my grandfather's corkscrew jimcrack, I started with the name of the company referenced in Knudsen's patent. In the filing, the patent is assigned to Danbury-Knudsen Inc., a corporation of Connecticut.

I quickly found out that the company was the successor to Danbury Electrical Manufacturing Co. and was a major supplier of automotive and industrial electrical components. Knud Knudsen was the founder and president until he sold the business to Amphenol Corp. in 1957.

That gave me pause because it seemed unlikely that same man who tinkered with corkscrews would also be a high-flying corporate executive. But as I worked it through, it was the same Knud Knudsen who headed an industrial enterprise who also tinkered around with corkscrews and ashtrays.

There is a lot to learn about this interesting man but I will rely on his March 1967 obituary in the Bridgeport Post for the overall narrative. Corkscrews are not mentioned but cigar lighters are. Enjoy.

Timing of the Knudsen patent transfer and Walter Ruby's death

We don't have any information suggesting a connection between Walter Ruby's corkscrew patent and his subsequent death. On face value, the successful sale of his idea would seem to have been only good news for Walter and his business prospects. Nevertheless, the proximity of the dates is striking.

Knud Knudsen received his picnic corkscrew on June 27, 1939 and Walter died three weeks later on July 22. Of course the agreement they reached and payments made must have preceded the June date by several months, allowing for bureaucratic lag at the Patent Office.

Walter Ruby sold the rights to his invention

New information discovered this week tends to confirm the story told by our father that his father Walter Ruby sold the rights to his corkscrew invention. Further searching on corkscrew collector sites revealed that an inventor named Knud Knudsen of Danbury, Conn., acquired the Ruby design in 1939 and used it to produce the two devices shown here.

It appears that Ruby and Knudsen independently devised the same S-shape cap lifter as a feature of their otherwise differing corkscrew inventions. Even though Knudsen may have filed for a patent first, Ruby was issued U.S. Design Patent 109,879 for a Combination Pencil, Corkscrew, and Bottle Opener on May 31, 1938.

It seems that this prior art then prevented Knudsen from gaining a patent for his Remover for Bottle Closures, the patent title for what collectors now call the Knudsen Picnic Corkscrew. A year later, Knudsen finally did receive U.S. Patent 2,164,191 for the device and proceeded to bring it to market. The top photo is an example.

I learned from a monograph written in 1989 by Ron MacLean that "a similar model with a mechanical pencil in the case end was also registered by Knud Knudsen as U.S. Design Patent 109,879." He also mentioned two private collectors who had copies of the latter device, but included no photographs. This seemed to suggest that Knudsen had gone on to manufacture and sell a version of the Ruby corkscrew.

Finding evidence of one took another hour or so. Here on the Corkscrewing Around blog is where I found the second image, which the blogger describes as a hard-to-find "Knudsen patent pencil/corkscrew." As you can see, it is nearly identical to the Jim Crax corkscrews pictured in earlier posts, except it adds a pocket clip as an additional component.

So the evidence strongly suggests that Knud Knudsen acquired the rights to the Ruby invention in order to clear the way for his own design, and then also brought the Ruby product to market separately. The family story told by our father was that Walter received a payment of $50,000, which was quite a princely sum in 1939.

So who was Knud Knudsen and why would he invest so much in getting patent rights for a bottle opener design? More on that in an upcoming post.

By the way, here are links to download the Ruby and Knudsen patent documents.

Walter's moving tribute to Mel Brenner

Here is the text of Walter Ruby's eulogy for Mel Brenner, delivered as part of a memorial service for our family member on June 27, 2013 at Jefferson's Ferry Retirement Community in Setauket, NY.

I am Walter Ruby, Mel’s nephew by marriage. Sandy is my late father Stanley Ruby’s first cousin. Besides the familial connection, Stan and my mother Helga were lifelong dear friends of Sandy and Mel. They lived in different parts of the U.S. but sometimes vacationed together, in Shelter Island, California or elsewhere.

I want to thank Janis, Amy, Leslie and their families and of course Sandy for giving me the chance to speak today. Like everyone here today, I am with the Brenners in their deep sorrow over Mel’s passing. Yet it feels appropriate today to accentuate the positive; to celebrate Mel for his sheer joy in life and the joy he transmitted to all of us with his effervescent personality, with his delightful sense of humor and love of people and nature.

Let me start by sharing a sense of inadequacy for this task. The truth is that while I considered Mel my favorite uncle, I didn’t know him nearly as well as I would have liked. When I was 6 years old, my family left Massapequa Park where we had lived for a year, and moved west to Pittsburgh, Pa and later to Chicago. So during childhood we saw Mel, Sandy and girls no more than once a year and often less; when we would travel to NY to visit the family or when they would stop off and see in Chicago while driving around the country in their RV.

Later once I was an adult and living in NYC I saw Mel and Sandy occasionally, often on family occasions—they were at my second wedding in 1983, at Joan Felenstein’s funeral and we had several memorable visits to their Massapequa home, especially one in 2006, when we took a lot of photos and put it up on our Ruby Family History blog, including cardinals and other beautiful birds lining up at Mel’s bird feeders. And then of course, I took a trip to Rhode Island last summer with Mel for the annual reunion of his 87th U.S. Army Infantry Division—where he served as infantryman in World War II, from the Battle of the Bulge across Germany to the Czech border the day the war ended. I will come back to that in a minute.

When I think back to childhood encounters with Mel, I have few specific memories just a sense of ease and fun of hanging out with him. I remember a wonderful visit to Long Island when I was 11; together with my parents and my siblings, Danny and Joanne, we were about to depart on our year long sabbatical year in Israel where my father was a visiting physicist--sitting on the floor in the living room of Joan’s house in Rockville Centre showing Mel my baseball card collection of which I was immensely proud. I believe I left them with him for the year, so I wanted to make sure he knew what he was getting. The point is that he was the kind of grown up who could get on the floor with a nephew and flip baseball cards—and feel completely comfortable. I could see how he must have been a marvelous teacher.

Recently, after Mel’s passing, Leslie wrote a letter of memories—one of which involved a game Mel inspired of dropping sticks into the stream in the woods behind their house and seeing whose came out first. A few years later we were doing that in the stream in the woods behind our house near Pittsburgh in a game called Poohsticks, which Stan had adapted from a Winnie the Pooh story—or so we thought all these years. It turns out it was likely adapted by Mel from Winnie the Pooh in a stream in the woods behind the Massapequa house and then Stan took it from him. In any case, the game was infused with Mel’s gentle spirit and sense of fun…

Nine years ago, after my parents died, and Joanne, Dan and I got interested in family history, Mel let me read his World War II reminiscences and I found out for the first time about the horrors he had experienced as his unit moved from the Battle of the Bulge into Germany—face to face with death as a 19 and 20 year old, one of only 7 guys in his unit of 42 who survived till the end of the war. But I didn’t really connect with Mel’s story at that time as I was so totally focused on our immediate family’s story, and somehow assumed Mel would be around forever…But then when I visited him and Sandy at Jefferson’s Ferry about a year ago, he told me that he had just about given up on going to his reunion in Warwick, RI because his health was shaky and he didn’t know how to get there, and something in me caused me to say, “Well, maybe I could drive you there.” And he broke into a huge smile and exclaimed, “Gee…you would do that for me?” And I replied, “Sure, why not? I’m sure it will be great fun.”

In fact, the experience of our round trip drive to the reunion and back including two crossings from Orient Point to New London and back and the experience of the it indeed turned out to be great fun, but much more than great fun. It was getting to know Mel really well, and to learn not only about his life experiences, but somehow a wonderful affirmation of life itself. Honestly, it felt like one of those 70’s road dramas about cross-cultural bonding with a Jewish sensibility—something by Paul Mazursky like Harry and Tonto.

Mel hadn’t been very mobile for a few years and from the moment we got started, he was as giddy as a kid in a candy shop about the sights—especially the North Fork of the Island, where he knew every village and every cove—he had sailed the whole shore with a friend who had a yacht of whom Mel said, “I loved sailing with him all around Long Island, but I got mad at him for two reasons; he died and he didn’t leave me the yacht.”

One thing that made Mel genuinely angry he showed me on the return trip; a hidden slave graveyard in Orient Point almost no one knows about…Mel showed me where it was…pointing out that few people are aware that slavery continued to exist in New York State well into the 19th Century…one could see the graves of the Lord and Lady of the Manor with their birth and death dates marked and around them some little stones without inscriptions were 5 or 6 slave graves looking like pet graves. How was such a thing possible, Mel demanded, in a country dedicated to the premise that all men are created equal? He loved this country and risked his life for it, but he wasn’t about covering up the blemishes.

On the trip up, I debriefed Mel on his experiences in the war; how he went to school to be in an elite technical unit, but how it was disbanded and he ended up in the infantry instead, about his baptism of fire in the Bulge where it was so cold that when they slept outside in their sleeping bags it was so cold that the sleeping bags froze to the ground and they had to slither out of bed in the morning and then cut the bag loose with a pocket knife. Mel told me about seeing friends killed before his eyes and about the random quality of who lived and who died and about his own close calls; how he was once blown high into the air by a shell and somehow came down unharmed.

Mel recalled how on several occasions he, the only Jewish member of the unit, had talked other members of his unit out of shooting to death German soldiers they captured; that not only was it morally wrong and might besmirch the reputation of the unit, but if found out on the German side, it would discourage soldiers and civilians from surrendering. On one occasion, Mel had to summon all his self-control to prevent himself from shooting a teenage member of the Hitler Youth who had fired at him from a house. Even amidst the horrors he was immersed in, amidst a psychology of ‘kill or be killed’ Mel’s quiet voice of conscience never left him.

After the war, Mel was then all of 20, in his own words, “went back to being a kid” and went to college before meeting and marrying Sandy and starting his teaching career. Like so many others I experienced Mel as one of the warmest, kindest and funniest people I ever knew and on that trip I wondered, “How did he managed to process his wartime experience and stay sane? The chasm between that experience and the rest of his life seemed immense. Apparently, he tucked it away for many decades, but the older he got and the further away from the war chronologically, the more he seemed to need to grapple with it and deal with what he had experienced…

On that trip also I learned a lot about other parts of Mel’s life, including his political activism; his deep involvement in Democratic politics, including his unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1970 and the excitement of serving as a McGovern delegate to the Democratic Convention in 1972. Concerning the prior experience he talked to me about what it was like going door to door and asking for peoples’ votes in the most solidly Republican area of Long Island. He said he knew his chances of actually winning the election were slim, but he enjoyed the experience greatly because he loved retail politics and he was glad to have the opportunity to share his passion for liberal ideals with people. As he spoke I was struck by how little personal ego seemed to have been involved; that for him—and for Sandy, who was also deeply involved in Democratic politics--it was really about leaving the world a better place than they found it. Mel believed fervrently in free speech and was a founder and past president of the New York Civil Liberties Union-Nassau County Chapter.

The last time I saw him about a month before his passing at a modern dance performance at Julliard, including a dance piece composed by his daughter Janice, a dancer and choreographer of whose career he was immensely proud, he told me that he a bit down to see that with all the work he and so many other wonderful people had done over the decades, the political situation in America and especially the state of civil liberties was no better than it had been 50-or 60 years ago, when he first got politically active. Had it all been worth it, he wondered, had anything really been accomplished? Janice, who was standing with us, and I assured him with considerable conviction that without the work that he, Sandy and other activists of their generation had done, things would be considerably worse. I hope that gave him some solace.

When thinking of Mel, I come back all the time to the hackneyed, but terribly apt phrase, “A life well lived.” He did it all, pretty much everything he wanted to do in his life, a beautiful family, a successful and emotionally satisfying career, including a glorious 30 year retirement during which he rode his bike across France on several occasions and many other wonderful trips. He was witty, charming and incredibly kind. He gave so much more than he took. He left the world a better place. What more can one ask of life and what more can one ask of a human being?

Mel, we miss you and love you.

What we can learn from Walter's corkscrew

One thing I find especially interesting about the images we have of two Walter Ruby patented corkscrews (one is above) is that they are both inscribed with promotional information about Carioca Rum. That leads to the conclusion that even though he was no longer an employee of American Spirits at the time the corkscrews were manufactured he was still working on the company's behalf.

When I showed the new information to Walter the younger yesterday, he reminded me that he has reported family lore from Stanley that Walter received payments or royalties in the amount of $50,000 related to the corkscrew invention. I am wondering now if his major client remained American Spirits and that if it is the source of the funding. Maybe his departure from the company was not on the bad terms we supposed but in an alternative arrangement where he continued work for the company on a consulting or supplier basis.

I don't think we know of a date for when he left the company, but it could have been late 1937 or early 1938. The timeline on the patent is interesting. He applied for the patent on August 3, 1937, possibly as a side project while employed at American Spirits. The patent was issued on May 31, 1938, by which time he was likely self-employed. From the death certificate, we know that he occupied his Rockefeller Center office as a "manufacturer" for only five months preceding his death in July. That would make it January or February of 1939 when he set up shop as a manufacturing business.

Finally, the device itself. It is not an invention in the common sense of the word as a technology innovation. It is, as he describes it in the patent claim, "an ornamental design." Gaining a patent for the design gave him protection that nobody else could manufacture a similar product for a period of 14 years.

As nifty a design as the device is, I can't imagine that there was a great market for specialty corkscrews. I don't think it was meant as a item for retail sales to home bartenders. I think it was designed as a promotional vehicle for companies like American Spirits to give away to professional bartenders. They hoped the device would be used behind the bar at all the best cocktail lounges—each one bearing a cocktail recipe for the Carioca Cooler, Walter's signature drink.

That could explain why we see Walter's invention being used to promote Carioca Rum in 1939 even though he was not then employed at American Spirits.

Walter Ruby's patented corkscrew

Yesterday I went back to polish up my Walter Ruby story on Treelines, which recounts information from this blog about his business history in the liquor industry in the 1930s. Included is a mention of a barman's tool invented by Walter Ruby, which he manufactured independently after leaving American Spirits in 1938. Previously we have only heard about this device, never seen photos or other evidence of the so-called invention.

So yesterday I was having trouble finding an image file for the story on my computer and so decided to run an image search on "Walter Ruby" in Google, since I knew I had found it online originally. Well, besides finding the image I was looking for, photographs and drawings of the fabled Walter Ruby invention showed up.

The first, above, is from a corkscrew collector's auction site, where an item labeled "Walter Ruby Patent Propelling Pencil & Corkscrew" was listed and sold in 2010 for $250. Further searching revealed that a second copy of the item came up for bid earlier this year. Here is how the item is described in the catalog.

This is an American 1938 Walter Ruby patent corkscrew, caplifter and propelling pencil. It is black with green lettering and is marked "Suggest the Carioca Cooler (Cuba Libre plus lime) Made only with Coca Cola Lime and Rum Carioca 86 proof. Serve in 10 oz Collins glass - Plenty Ice, Gia Ron Carioca Distilleries Inc. San Juan, Puerto Rica, Pat. Pend".

So with all the mentions of patents, I ran another search for patents by Walter Ruby and, lo and behold, there is his full patent filing available as a pdf. Here is the text of his patent claim:


Walter Ruby, Long Beach, Long Island, N. Y.
Application August 3,  1937,  Serial No.  70,865
Term of patent 14 years

To all whom it may concern:

Be it  known that I,  Walter Ruby, a citizen of the United States and resident of Long Beach, Long Island, in the county of Nassau and State of New York, have invented a new, original, and ornamental  Design  for  a  Combination  Pencil, Corkscrew and Bottle Opener, of which the fol- lowing is  a specification, reference being had to the accompanying drawing, forming a part there of,  in which

Fig. 1  is a side elevation of a combination pencil, corkscrew, and bottle opener with the cork screw element inserted in the top of the as when the article will be used for writing, show ing my new design;

Fig. 2 is another elevational view taken at right angles to the disclosure in Fig.  1;

Fig. 3 is  an exploded View of the article shown in  Figs.  1  and 2,  the  parts  being  joined  by a bracket.

I claim: The ornamental design for a combination pencil,  corkscrew and bottle opener, substantially as shown and described.


Pretty amazing discoveries. I have signed up with the Collector Corkscrews site in hopes to finding one for sale. Meanwhile, I'll consider what new information we can glean from these surprising new finds in the next post.

Celebrating the life of Mel Brenner

By Walter Ruby

Eleven months ago, I had the privilege of traveling with Mel Brenner to Rhode Island for the reunion of the 87th U.S. Infantry Division in which he served during World War II. The trip was an uplifting experience that afforded me the opportunity to get to know in a deeper way than I ever had before my favorite uncle from childhood—a warm, funny, charming and inspirational man who heartily enjoyed myriad aspects of life while dedicating himself to making the world a better and saner place.

Sadly, Mel succumbed to cancer at the end of May (see obit from Newsday) and on Thursday June 27, I took part in his memorial service at the Jefferson’s Ferry Retirement community where he lived his last three years. The event, which drew well over 100 people, was a bittersweet and uplifting celebration of Mel’s life, with much laughter and love mixed with a great sense of loss that also brilliantly channeled his uniquely eclectic essence. For this, Mel’s three daughters, Janis Brenner, Amy Schettini and Leslie Brenner, and Janis’ husband Mitchell Bogard, who devoted weeks to the putting together of the complicated multi-media production, deserve great credit. 

The event included a moving dance performance by Janis entitled Where-How-Why Trilogy, which seemed go head-on at the great existential issues of life, love and death; an acapella performance of one of Mel’s favorites, Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” by Michelle Rosen, a lifelong friend of Janis’ who used to sing folk songs with her as teenagers back in the late ‘60s; and remarks on Mel’s life by family members and close friends, including Mitchell, Janis, Sid Wenokor, Leigh Steinman (Leslie’s daughter), Amy Schettini, Daniel Schettini (Amy’s son), Elaine Rosler, Orrin Dow, myself and Leslie Brenner, followed by presentation of a comprehensive and inspiring photo-montage video on Mel’s life, which will hopefully be presented on this forum as well.

Mel’s beloved wife Sandy who sat in the front row in her wheelchair, was not well enough to speak, but she appeared deeply moved by the event and profoundly consoled by the coming together of family and friends to celebrate Mel’s life.

A few things came up at the memorial service I hadn’t known about Mel. One was that he had created a rich lode of stories about two vaguely leprechaunish boys named Alfie and George who lived under a mailbox, which he used to entertain his children and grandchildren as they were growing up. Listening to Amy, Leslie and her daughter Leigh share memories of those stories gave one a poignant sense of how Mel transmitted a sense of joy and wonder to small children, as did a retelling of some of Mel’s favorite jokes in spot-on fashion by 11-year-old Daniel Schettini, who brought to the performance the polish and precocious savoir faire he has acquired as a child actor in LA.

Another highlight was Leslie’s reading of a list Mel compiled on his 75th birthday of what he had learned in life ranging from the tongue-in-cheek (“numbering your white socks ensures equality and fairness” or “push ‘print’ if you expect a computer to reproduce what is on the screen”) to the profound (“watching the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean and seeing the bluefish jump is one of life’s great experiences”) and something he learned all-too-literally at a young age (“when the bullets are coming at you, stay very low”).

In the poignant remarks of Amy, Leslie and Janis and the grandchildren, the portrait of Mel that emerged was of a Renaissance man who, even after his early retirement from his teaching career in his mid-50s, stayed busy and engaged with the world through involvement in good causes like building the Democratic Party in Nassau County and protecting basic constitutional rights for present and future generations through his leadership in the Long Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet Mel also took the time in Leslie’s words “to sit back and just be,” deeply enjoying the things in life that made him happy—whether it was riding his bike several times across France and England, fishing on the south shore of Long Island, savoring Dixieland jazz and the Weavers, or whittling walking sticks and whimsical creatures from wood that many of his family and friends (including me) attached to their car dashboards as good-luck talismans. And of course, Mel enriched countless lives by sharing his joie de vivre with everyone around him, first and foremost, with his beloved family.

Mel, we will miss you deeply but go forward inspired by the example of someone who lived life to the fullest and, as Leslie put it, “truly earned this rest.”   

Walter Ruby story on Treelines

I'm trying out a product called Treelines for presenting family narratives. Here is my first effort, entered in the company's contest for stories about getting started in genealogy.