Walter Ruby

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.

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.


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