C. Walton Musser

May 1, 2007
True brilliance is often clothed in humble attire. It makes its presence known not in lofty words, but in the unassuming language of honesty and wonder.

True brilliance is often clothed in humble attire. It makes its presence known not in lofty words, but in the unassuming language of honesty and wonder. Such is the life of C. Walton Musser, a man of diverse interests who enjoyed sharing his thoughts with all who cared to listen.

Clarence Walton Musser was born in Lancaster, Pa. in 1909. He had two brothers, Clair Oman Musser, who achieved international fame as the conductor for the Marimba Orchestra, and L. Willoughby Musser, a Borough Squire and Lancaster County Justice of the Peace.

Walt Musser, however, was destined to go the engineering route. At the age of 10, he sketched and crafted his very first invention — a rubber band gun. He went on to M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania, and was eventually employed as a consultant by the U.S. Government, General Motors, Olin Mathieson, and United Shoe Machinery Corp.

During World War II, Musser worked on a top-secret project, which led to the invention of the recoilless rifle. As lead engineer, he was awarded 61 patents and was called on to supervise production and testing of prototypes.

Soon after, however, he found himself repairing refrigerators and air conditioning, then working in a tool and die shop under a cruel foreman who gave him the worst jobs — a period he later recalled as “some of the best training” of his career. It taught Musser to work under pressure and solve difficult problems on his own, a self-education that paid off as he began work on his many other inventions.

The greatest of those inventions, which came in 1957, leverages the elastic deflection that originally inspired him as a rubber band wielding boy. For several years, Musser researched non-rigid body mechanics using controlled deflection. During his investigations, he found that traveling deflection waves in a flexible toothed piece of metal generate extraordinary mechanical leverage against a rigid mate. So he combined rigid and flexible splines with an engineered elliptical unit to generate traveling waves, and called the compact device a harmonic drive. The high-torque mechanical gear technology quickly evolved to provide backlash-free power transmission with excellent positional accuracy.

Among Musser's other inventions are hollow charge projectiles, mechanical and electronic oscilloscopes, heat cells, guided missiles, jet engine test cells, canopy removers, and parachute release devices for aircraft.

The essence of Walt Musser and his life's work are best captured in his own words, “It is never a question as to whether it can be done — it is only whether one cares to spend the time and effort.”

Information and photo courtesy of waltmusser.org and harmonicdrive.net.

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