inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #0 of 39: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 21 Apr 03 12:47
Inkwell welcomes Brad Stone, author of the new book _Gearheads_
(, in which he covers the history robotic
sports. Steven Levy says "On the surface _Gearheads_ is a book about
robots - fearsome, heavily armed, and in some cases highly illegal
machines, and the talented mechanical artists who build them. But
secretly, it's also a deeply moving narrative about dreams, and how
they're dashed."

Brad Stone has been writing for Newsweek since 1995. As a general
assignment correspondent for the magazine, he covered the 1998 Mark
McGwire-Sammy Sosa homerun chase, the infamous serial killer nurse case in
Indiana, and the jury deliberations in the Timothy McVeigh trial.

Since 1998, as the magazine's Silicon Valley correspondent, Stone has
owned one of the best perches in the nation from which to cover the boom,
bust, and rebirth of the high-tech economy. He has covered the Microsoft
anti-trust trial, the Napster saga, the contentious HP merger with Compaq,
and the proliferation of digital consumer devices.

In spring of 2000, Stone reported in Newsweek on a new kind of
entrepreneurial activity whose focal point was north, not south, of San
Francisco: the increasingly visible sport of robot competitions. His
investigation into the Bay Area origins of the enthusiastic community of
robot builders and artists led to the writing of Gearheads.

Stone has also written for Wired, More, and the Sunday Telegraph magazine.  
He lives in San Francisco with his wife, attorney Jennifer Granick, their
cat, Mr. Boodles, and a variety of expensive and largely unnecessary
robotic appliances and toys.

David Nunez ( leads the discussion. David lives
in Austin, Texas, where he specializes in connecting the computer
technology industry with education, encouraging students to explore
robots, multimedia, and computer games as sexy introductions and gateways
to careers in engineering and IT. As Information Technology Cluster
Director with The Capital Area Training Foundation in Austin, David
facilitates relationships between high tech professionals and educators
and works closely with multimedia, software, networking, and computer
manufacturing companies in the Austin area. He encourages their
collaboration among each other and with the K-14, post-secondary, and
workforce development communities in Central Texas.

David is a member of the EFF-Austin Board of Directors, where he conducts
programs that help students probe the ethical and social implications when
developing and using technology. He also does community outreach and
new-member recruitment, and he's secretary of the organization. More
pertinent, David is EFF-Austin's liaison to the Austin-based Robot Group,
and is planning a revival of Austin's infamous Robofest in a mission to
delight the public with technology using both geeky and artistic
demonstrations of technology.

As a member of The Central Texas National Engineers Week Steering
Committee, David's responsibility is to help manage recruitment of
engineers to work with students on engaging, hands-on projects (with names
like "Gumdrop Dome" and "SLIME!")that demonstrate principles of Physics
and Engineering. In his spare time, David is learning to build his own
robotic art in his dark, twisted, dungeon of a garage.
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #1 of 39: David Nunez (davidnunez) Wed 23 Apr 03 13:00
Welcome, Brad... and welcome WELLians.

My personal email is - I'll welcome your offline
questions and feedback at any time in these two weeks...

However, please feel free to jump into the conversation, here, at any
time, folks.  


Brad, I'd like to start with a standard "Why did you write this book?"
question.  In particular, I know that you've written extensively about
 Silicon Valley and tech+business+legal+culture stories (ex. Microsoft
antitrust suit), and there is such a strong element of all four of
those in this book.  

However, could you please share what is about the Robotic
Sports/Art/Combat story that appeals to you, personally?
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #2 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Wed 23 Apr 03 18:07
Thanks David!

I first got involved by attending all the local BattleBots and FIRST
robot competitions in the year 2001 for an article in Newsweek. They
were exhilerating, heart-pounding events, in different ways. At FIRST
(Dean Kamen's competition for high schoolers) you just fed off the
energy of the students. At BattleBots, the whole thing was an amazing
spectacle: the destructive 300 pound robots battling, the roaring
crowd, the vibrant community of tech and art-loving people from all
walks of life...

But I probably would have lost interest after the article if it hadn't
been for meeting Marc Thorpe. He was an ILM model maker for the Star
Wars flicks, and the founder of robot combat. His event in the 90s was
called "Robot Wars." But he got into bed with the wrong investor and
ended up enduring years of litigation, bankruptcy and sickness. I saw
it as a great American business tale, and in fact it mirrored alot of
what was going on in Silicon Valley at the time in terms of founders
losing control of their beloved creations. So thats what got me
interested in telling that story in my first book... and of course,
there were all these weird, brilliant characters (like Mark Pauline,
the founder of the art group SRL, and Dean Kamen). I thought it could
be a rich narrative.

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #3 of 39: David Nunez (davidnunez) Wed 23 Apr 03 19:42
You're right.  The story behind the scenes was often more bombastic
than the noise and drama of the robots, themselves! 

(although I imagine nothing was noisier than Mark Pauline's pulsejets
on bots like the Running Machine!)

"Losing control of their beloved creations" might be a theme for many
people involved in these events.  Marc Thorpe especially seemed a
tragic figure whose creation grew up too quickly for its own good.

And then there's Mark Pauline and Survival Research Labs (SRL)...

Gearheads opens up with some vivid descriptions of the utter chaos of
a live SRL show.  SRL is world-renowned for their art happenings and
has obtained quite a bit of fame even outside the geek world.  

Unlike the other builders and promoters in the book, Mark seemed to
WANT his art to get loose and out of control while he, and only he,
held onto the reigns for dear life.  

In fact, he never, throughout the story that unfolds in the rest of
the book, chose to give up that power over his artistic vision to
investors and television producers.  

What is it about Pauline and SRL that allows his artistic vision to
enjoy some mainstream success while avoiding the pitfalls of
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #4 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Fri 25 Apr 03 14:58
David, hmm, that's a tough one. I'm not so sure how really mainstream
SRL got in the 80s and 90s. Certainly people in the art, technology and
robotics worlds knew of them, and as Wired was celebrating the
intersections of those fields in the 90s, its readers did as well. To
the extent that SRL enjoyed mainstream success, it was because its
shows were true spectacles and completely unique. No one forgets the
time they show up in the dead of night to an abandoned industrial lot,
get their eardrums blown out and nearly die in a hailstorm of flaming
animal carcasses...

As for how Pauline was able to avoid the pitfalls of
commercialization, it's simple because he avoided it. Whenever anyone
approached him about using SRL photos or video, he refused and went
after them if they did it anyway. Filmmakers asked him about using SRL
bots in their work and he demanded ridiculous control over their
projects in return. He simply had no interest in that stuff. And he's
stubborn as a mule.

In the book I try to juxtapose Pauline with Marc Thorpe. Pauline
enjoyed being the bad guy outside of mass culture. Thorpe adapted some
of SRL's ideas, scaled them down and opened them up to garage
tinkerers. He wanted to generate a mass phenomenon and build a business
on top of it. Unfortunately he got roasted in the process, partly
because of his own naivete... Incidentally, I really grew to like and
respect both guys during my research. At the Gearheads book party a
week ago at Fort Mason, they were reintroduced to each other after
nearly 10 years and buried the hatchet which resulted from their
financial dispute in 1994.

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #5 of 39: David Nunez (davidnunez) Fri 25 Apr 03 16:19
It sounds then that Mark and Marc had different missions, as well... 

One was pure art and politics while the other was taking the geek
mainstream and making some $$$ to boot?

When you met last met with them, how were these guys interpreting the
progress in accomplishing their missions through their chosen medium,
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #6 of 39: Alex Mead (vamead) Fri 25 Apr 03 17:06
I appreciate Jon L. sending review copy, which I devoured over
last 2 days. This is a delightful and insightful book with a lot
of deep issues at its core. Here is nascent review, with some
beginning thoughts:

The belligerent prehistoric primates confronting each other in
Stanley Kubrick's "2001 - A Space Odyssey" are initially just
screeching and raucously jumping up and down to intimidate each
other, but it's all sort of comical -- no one gets hurt. Then,
perhaps influenced by the presence of a perfect black cuboid that
ominously appears (coming from whence, some higher race of
beings?), one primate picks up a massive dessicated animal femur,
which we see will make an excellent club, and we know the course
of prehistory is about to change -- Weaponry has been invented.
Zoom forward 100K years and we see the results of coevolution of
weapon and its bearer, high technology man exploring space in vast
complex machines, some of which have their own synthetic
intelligence and self-awareness. Kubrick's powerful 1968 film
continues to resonate with us, decades later, as a testament to
our composite and conflicted nature, rooted in the belligerent
primate, but also striving toward subtle states of feeling and
awareness, felt in the movie's music and those strange,
incomprehensible final sequences, musing on life, death, and the

So, we may not particularly _like_ the fact that some deep
primeval stratum within us revels in combat, seeing our enemies
routed, overrun, dismembered, bloodied -- hearing that "our
troops" have taken the enemy city, blown their leader to bits! If
we're thoughtful, we may be a little embarrassed to admit that we
can spend countless passive hours watching the sanitized rituals
of individual physical combat (fencing, boxing, or wrestling) and
the even more abstract ritualized forms of group combat (football,
baseball, soccer, polo).

Really, aren't we loftier creatures than that? Could we really be
amused by watching two mechanical devices, being remotely
controlled by their "Gearhead" human builders, thrash around and
try to destroy each other? Good grief! And could this sort of
thing remotely be called Art? What sort of pathological minds
would assemble a bunch of steam-shovel size machines to hurl
flames and 2x4 lumber at each other, mangle each other and
everything in sight, and subject their audience (those oh so edgy
onlookers) to real physical hazards? Shouldn't we at least _try_
to cultivate our higher, socially responsible natures, and
encourage our youngsters to learn about technology in ways that
foster constructive creative thinking and cooperation?

Yeah ... I suppose that's right; but you know the kids (and some
of us 50-something kids) really love watching those battling
robots try to destroy each other; and when one gets mortally
disabled, the 8-12 year olds collectively chant for the "house
robots" to push the unfortunate victim into the "pit" where flames
will finish him off in good style! So much for the innocence of
youth! If you're not making sense of all this, then you've clearly
not watched the televised Robot Wars (from the UK) or Battlebots
(Comedy Central) series that have enthralled a significant
audience here and abroad. However, author Brad Stone, Newsweek
writer and techno-enthusiast, has been drawn into this world of
motorized mayhem, and in his just published "Gearheads - The
Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports," gives us a fascinating inside
look at the people who created this strange entertainment -- and
at their powerful opposition, characters like millionaire inventor
Dean Kamen, who detests the destructive bent and the cheap
exploitative feel of these TV competitions.

For the robot warriors, however, the last 7 years of developing
this sport have been anything but entertainment! For the "bot"
builders and their odd-couple bedfellows, the businessmen who have
financed the conversion of the builders' garage hobby into a mass
media event, it's been an exhausting 7 years war -- a nightmare of
conflicting values and destructive legal battles borne of business
naivete and belligerent personalities. Stone's diligent research
shows us that the temperaments and goals of creators like Marc
Thorpe and Mark Pauline just don't fit at all into the jungle of
the popular entertainment business. We can't escape the impression
that the prolonged destructive butting of heads between the
handful of men at the core of this activity has undermined and
exhausted the vitality of the whole movement.

[enough for now; probably to be continued...]

alex mead, denver, co
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #7 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Sat 26 Apr 03 07:59
Alex, thanks for the kind words!

Dave, both Marc and Mark are onto side projects right now. Pauline is
getting hitched in the fall, and is planning some grand theatrical
display of robots for his wedding ceremony. He feels pretty happy with
SRL's twenty-five year history of trouble-making.

Thorpe is working with SimCity creator Will Wright in an east bay
warehouse developing robot-themed TV show ideas. I think he feels like
some of the early Robot Wars fulfilled his vision of grand performance
art, but that ultimately the project was a disaster, because it led to
such hardship for him and his family personally...

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #8 of 39: David Nunez (davidnunez) Sat 26 Apr 03 17:14
Something that Thorpe clued into pretty early was the concept of
community among the robot builders.  

Could you please talk a little bit about how the early robotic
competitions helped foster a fledgling community among otherwise
garage-bound geeks?  
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #9 of 39: J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Sun 27 Apr 03 10:28
And can you say something about how these artists supported themselves
finacially throughout their careers, and what their future prospects for
making a living through their art is? Good thing? Bad thing?
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #10 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Sun 27 Apr 03 10:38
It's true - the various engineers, weekend tinkerers, and computer
coders that coalesced around Thorpe really did become a community. At
first, they met only once a year, every August, to compete in Robot
Wars. So they were friendly with each other, but not much of a family.
Then two things happened. The Internet became a mass communications
medium in the mid 90s, and most of the Robot Wars participants were
early adopters. And Thorpe ran into legal trouble, so the participants
needed some way to keep in touch with each and stay updated on events.
They started checking in with each other every day on the
robot-building chat rooms and bulletin boards, and that's when that
core group of builders started to look alot like a real community.

Similar dynamics are at work with other robot events. For example,
each year, the high school students around the country affiliated with
Dean Kamen's US First competition swarm a set of online forums at When they gather for their regional events and the
annual national finals, they all already know each other, even though
the group of participants turns over every few years. 

But attending the robotic combat events really seems like intruding on
a community that has been together for a decade... that's probably
because all the intrigue brought them closer together.

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #11 of 39: one man's astrolabe is another man's sextant (airman) Sun 27 Apr 03 19:45
"Slam, bang, grease the engine. Throw out the throttle and give it the
gun."  From a child's story book.

THis book is a great read. And a great book to reread again during the
summer after escaping on vacation from the digital media world but
suffering withdrawals of the adrenlin rush among the placid playas or
the white noise of the ocean.

In a media world flooded with digital effects GEAR HEADS is a mastery of
the word-picture-movie starring violent robots in contrast to their
owners who have their own fights to fill the dull space between
contests or art displays as the case may be.

Jules Verne would have written the book as fiction. Brad Stone goes a
step further though showcasing the technology while carefully noting the
human relationships going on and the emergence of a globally connected
community through the Internet.

I found the legal wars fascinating with the ruthless music exec-investor
taking the wannabee entrepreneur to the cleaners while the crafty
engineer in Dean Kamen looks to organize the whole industry, all the
while the original artist attempts to keep things pure.

We are plunged into a world of people playing out pledges and plans in a
plot to be king of the mountain only to be betrayed by politics without
violence which is best left to the robots themselves, the alter ego
slaves of the silent violence in a world of art, science and business.

The demise of animatronics by digital effects relegates the animators to
a WWF-like world of robots and lawyers. As ILM cast of the cogs and
sprockets of a passe technology, the animatronic robots are given new
powers and new masters in a world reminiscent of Mad Max meets the

It will be interesting to see where robotic sports leads in the next ten
years. Wherever it leads, it certainly won't be boring.

Question: The first and last pictures of Thorpe show someone who has
clearly aged most likely from all the stress. What are the years on
those pictures?

Brad, the book focuses more on the people providing key insights into
the good, bad and ugly behavior. However, the lawyers and their actions
seemed rather droll and matter of fact asi f they were just weapons for
the most part. Was the legal stuff mostly dull?
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #12 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Sun 27 Apr 03 22:28
Airman, keep the praise coming! It is much welcome and needed in the
author's to-be-expected post-book crisis of confidence.

The first photo is of Marc in the ILM shop from the early 80s. I
believe he was working on a robot for the flick "The Explorers." The
final photo was from January 2002, at a lawsuit victory party at the
house of video game designer Will Wright. My wife took that photo, by
the way. So, a span of 15 or so years. I'd agree with your assessment
about stress (and sickness) though, as I think Marc would as well.

As for the legal stuff, do you mean was it boring for me to research?
Not at all - I saw the dispute between Thorpe and Plotnicki in
metaphorical terms, an artist versus his investor. I was truly
fascinated by all the devious legal strategies both deployed over the
years as they tried to separate their lives.

If you mean: was the law itself behind the dispute dull?... then i'd
say yes - there were no novel legal issues at stake in the fight over
Robot Wars. It was basically a question of whether Thorpe had broken
his agreement with Plotnicki and was secretly supporting the Roski
family, which was starting a competing business, BattleBots. As you
say, lawyers and arguments were merely weapons in a battle between
cultures (the gearheads versus the NYC music men) and people who didn't
like each other.

The ruling irony of the book - what made it appealing for me to write
- was that the exotic brand of havoc in the ring was a mirror for a
more common, and much more violent and destructive, brand of warfare
behind the scenes...

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #13 of 39: David Nunez (davidnunez) Mon 28 Apr 03 08:21
So... since you mentioned Plotnicki... he definitely came across as
the villain in this story.

Unlike Thorpe, he definitely did NOT embrace the community and in fact
effectively drove wedges between his production company and the

Could you please relate some of the ways the builders banded together
to face these challenges?

Also, I think it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how
businesspeople/investors should relate to, support, and partner with
geek communities like the robot builders?
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #14 of 39: one man's astrolabe is another man's sextant (airman) Mon 28 Apr 03 12:23

Howard Rheingold speaks of book publishing the equivalence of having a
baby. So having the post-partum blues as your baby is delivered to the
world is to be expected.

Egos lived vicariously through machines and lawsuits! I noticed that
most of the characters were guys with few exceptions. Is there a glass
ceiling for gearheads?

And what does the future hold? What does the commercialization hold for
in the future? Where is the military going with this stuff? And how do
you get an invite to one of the informal, illegal and outrageous events
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #15 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Mon 28 Apr 03 13:48
David, at first, the gearheads in the book primarily banded together
online to share info on the lawsuits and to coordinate underground
events that could happen outside of Plotnicki's control over the Robot
Wars property. Eventually, they used the online forums to coordinate an
informal boycott against Robot Wars in the US, and to support its
rival, Battlebots. They also shared info on when and how they could
show up at court proceedings and testify on Marc Thorpe's behalf.

On how investors should relate to, support, and partner with
geek communities... Well, you have to start from a point of respect
for those communities, and an understanding of what motivates their
activities. If you start anywhere beyond viewing their work as
free-labor for the amusement of others and the enrichment of yourself,
you've improved on the behavior of the people I write about in the

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #16 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Mon 28 Apr 03 13:56
Airmen, the gearheads are mostly, but not all, guys. Women play a big
role in SRL, and in many teams in the robotic combat and FIRST worlds.
I'd guess the split is... 70-30?

On the future, I'd point to DARPA's Grand Challenge, a race between
autonomous robotic vehicles between L.A. and Vegas. The first event will be held next March.
The army hopes that by plugging into the chaotic, de-centralized
innovation of the vast community of gearheads might yield some
solutions to the problems facing their unmanned ground vehicles program
(which is lagging behind the aerial stuff.) That kind of event will
make for great documentaries. As for real successful TV, no one has
quite found the right formula yet. The sport might continue to grow
quietly, around the world with small local events. Then again there are
a handful of new robotic-combat themed shows being minted, so we'll
see how those do.

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #17 of 39: David Nunez (davidnunez) Mon 28 Apr 03 14:10
I'd like to build on all of airman's questions in (#14) one at a
time.. they're all too big for a single response.

Let's start with the "glass ceiling for gearheads."  

It seems every project described in the book has an element of "let's
get the public interested in robotics."  Dean Kamen's FIRST competition
is of particular interest to me since it targets younger students at
an impressionable age where career decisions are being made... 

Yet, flipping through the pictures and reading the stories, I see
hardly any women (with notable exceptions of 13-year old daughters of
ubergeeks) or people of color actively engaging in robot building...

My experience with FIRST teams at local high schools has been mixed. 
It's mostly boys building the bots, but there is a strong diversity in
ethnic background. In the high school competitions, there is a portion
of the contest involving presentation of the project; the teams must
design a booth and promotional materials (websites, brochures, films,
etc) about the design, build, and testing process behind the schools'
bots.  It seems to me that young women involve themselves more in that
side of the event than the greasemonkey, bot building. 

Are robot builders inherently gruff, anti-social, and reveling in
machismo?  Surely, it takes enormous amounts of testosterone to decide
that putting a sawblade or large spikes on wheels to destroy someone
else's baby is a good idea?

Can robotic competition enjoy a widespread market appeal in spite of
non-diverse builders?   What's stopping the women and ethnic minorities
become more than consumers of this artform?
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #18 of 39: poking the ladyfingers in the notice board (abbess) Mon 28 Apr 03 15:32
The issue of women building robots for robot competitions seems to simply
reflect the numbers of women in science and engineering in general.

There's still some socializing going on that winds up with fewer girls
playing with power tools as kids, fewer girls being told to pursue math and
science, and so on.  Plus my personal opinion is that girls often feel more
social pressure to not be geeky early on than boys.

I haven't read Gearheads, so I don't know a lot about what women do and
don't show up in the robot contests he documents.  But I can inject a bit of
firsthand knowledge about the 2.70 and IDC competitions, having been part
of both, and a bit about the 6.270 Lego robotics contests, too.

None of these are destruction-oriented. 2.70 is part of a required undergrad
mechanical engineering class, and so the numbers of women participants there
is about the same as the number of women in the  department - maybe 25-30%
in the early 90's.   The IDC was fed by students doing well in the 2.70
competition, so the numbers there would be expected to be similar, and on
average I think they were.  When I went to the IDC, MIT sent 8 students,
and two of us were women.  (as a sidenote, we were the only two women
participants - no other countries had sent women, and the sponsoring
organization, who provided the prizes, gave out mens watches to the first
place team and tie tacks to the second place team!  Fortunately, I had
more use for a watch that was too big for my wrist, and we eked out a
victory.)    As far as I've observed, 6.270 has also had relatively large
numbers of women participants, though the department of computer science
still has fewer women students than the department of mechanical

I guess as for more women in the FIRST competition, people like me are
guilty of not having enough time to be role models.  And the same goes
for Junkyard Wars, which I have entertained thoughts of entering on

My personal preference has always been for the more constructive
competitions, where the goal is to have the robot do something besides
destroy the other robots. You could always design for demolition of
obstacles, instead of demolition of somebody else's work, if the spectacle
of watching things break is desirable.  Hence I'd choose Junkyard Wars over
Battlebots.  Plenty of competition just in stealing parts from the other
team, without actually aiming for sabotage!  I don't know if you want to
make a sociological argument about this being a stereotypically female
preference or not -  I like watching things go boom, but if I'm going to
take the time to build a robot, I want it to die doing something more
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #19 of 39: one man's astrolabe is another man's sextant (airman) Mon 28 Apr 03 15:50
The other thing I noticed was the uberquest for champion du jour. Roski
seems to epitomize the Viagra builder while Setrakian is not so much
interested as winning but at least setting the bar higher than before
demanding a response that requires a new generation.

REading this book I wondered what would be next. One path opens up the
arena to the world. Another path opens up the obsticle course aspect
into a smart cage approach. Another road leads to tag team and group

Yet hidden in the last few pages are the unexpected consequences where
even 1 inch of plexiglass won't stop the flying objects o art and
science. One only wonders what the air quality is like in bot battle.

Good work!
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #20 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Tue 29 Apr 03 09:07
David, I'm going to stick to abbess's comments on the gender ceiling
issue. I just don't know the answer to that one, but you are certainly
correct that the sport could attract a more diverse base of

Airman, interesting point on the near-tragic accident in the very last
televised BattleBots! I piece of metal from a robot was flung through
the lexan roof and ended up on the lap of a woman in the crowd - who
was holding a baby. Luckily no one was hurt, but the competition was
cancelled soon after, and then so was the TV show. The lesson and
pattern seem to be that when you unleash a competitive community of
engineers and tinkerers on a particular problem, you get a roiling
creative ecosystem whose solutions often - and quickly - overwhelm the
expectations of the organizers. This happened over and over again with
robotic combat. It will be interesting to see if something similar
happens with Darpa's grand challenge, or the new breed of robot
competitions springing up around the world.

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #21 of 39: David Nunez (davidnunez) Tue 29 Apr 03 09:21
We missed a question from J Matisse Enzer  (matisse) (#9)

"And can you say something about how these artists supported
finacially throughout their careers, and what their future prospects
making a living through their art is? Good thing? Bad thing?"

And to build on it, since several teams have access to sponsor
funding, has this activity grown beyond the means of the tinkerer?
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #22 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Wed 30 Apr 03 09:39
Various artists have different approaches to supporting their work.
Mark Pauline told me he has a lucrative gig buying and re-selling
surplus computers and other technology. I don't know too much about it,
but it funds his SRL efforts. Others in the robot art community, like
Christian Ristow in LA (, do special effects

In the competitive robotics world, during the heyday of BattleBots' tv
coverage, some of the top competitors did score sponsorship dollars
and were able to quit their jobs. BattleBots was also paying a $1700
royalty check for every time a team's robot appeared on the show. And
there were some royalties from toys and video games. But that is in a
lull right now as the sport looks for other means of exposure. Let's
put it this way: no one is getting rich.

inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #23 of 39: David Nunez (davidnunez) Wed 30 Apr 03 12:36
However, one person that DID get rich from his garage tinkerings is
Dean Kamen, eccentric inventor, marketing genius, and founder of the
FIRST competition that encourages students to explore engineering
through non-aggressive robotic competition.

I have to ask, particularly in light of the Ginger/IT/Segway media
blitz and hype... what was it like interviewing the guy?
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #24 of 39: one man's astrolabe is another man's sextant (airman) Wed 30 Apr 03 14:59
Kamen was already rich though. His medical inventions alone will keep
him going for a very long time.

What was Kamen's motivation? Passion driven ego without any sign of
mercy seemed to infect everyone else.
inkwell.vue.181 : Brad Stone, _Gearheads_
permalink #25 of 39: Brad Stone (bradstone) Wed 30 Apr 03 16:32
Oh, interviewing Kamen was rich. I interviewed Dean at the 2002 FIRST
Silicon Valley regionals. He was perched on his Segway. I was galloping
after him like an obsessed fan. After much badgering, he gave me an
hour and we went in search of a quiet place away from the hubbub of the
competition. We settled on a lounge-type room but curiously, during
the conversation, women kept barging in on us. Later we realized that
this was a women's bathroom of some sort.

Anyway, I had a long list of question to ask Dean about FIRST and its
successes and challenges. I asked him my first question about why he
created the competition, and he talked nonstop for the whole hour. Now,
I'm not the kind of interviewer to just sit there and nod. I tried
repeatedly to hurry him up, to get him to condense his repetitive,
looping anecdotes, anything so we could just move on! And he just
paused at my interruption, nodded, and started again on the soliloquy.
At one point, 45 minutes in, I begged him if we could move on,
desperately pointing to my watch... but he was too busy spinning out
the whole progression of his logic behind creating FIRST. He seemed to
be enjoying reliving all the initial epiphanies that led to the

After the hour was up and I hadn't gotten very far, his marketing rep
poked her head in and told Dean he was needed on the show floor. So,
for the rest of the day I followed him around, peppering him with all
my questions, as kids besieged him for autographs and photos. He's a
total rock star at FIRST events, deservedly so. But this is no way to
conduct and interview. Eventually I got what I needed on the founding
of FIRST, Kamen's partnership with MIT professor Woodie Flowers, and
their campaign against BattleBots and robotic combat... In fact the
chapter on FIRST and Kamen in the book was really fun to write. Dean
and Woodie are both great characters. Their motivation is purely
philanthropic, inspiring a generation of Americans to get into science
and technology. Its a wonderful cause.



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