The infamous 580-pound, 105-speed BEHEMOTH, with Mac, SPARC, and DOS environments as well as satellite datacomm, HF/VHF/UHF ham radio, heads-up display, head mouse, handlebar keyboard, 6-level security system, speech synthesis, 72 watt solar array, and deployable landing gear to keep the monster upright on killer hills. The bike now resides in The Computer History Museum.
With this issue we begin a series of articles unlike anything we’ve ever published. Steven K. Roberts has figured out how to live passionately, pursuing crazy dreams and building fantastic machines and going on amazing adventures. He calls what he does Gonzo Engineering, and in this series he tells you everything you need to know in order to pursue your own crazy gonzo engineering dream.
A Grand Vision is only the beginning. No matter how much passion you bring to bear on the project of your dreams, the odds of actually escaping the “gravity well” are low... unless you find a way to leverage larger forces. This series, derived from 25 years of audacious feats of gonzo engineering, presents the keys to six tools that are essential to a large-scale project:
A Business Angle
Your Own Education
A Public Presence
The Team of Volunteers
I contemplated publishing a book on this subject for years, and in 2009 I finally did, publishing the “trade secrets” that have made my adventures possible... the art of working with sponsors, media, and volunteers to get an insanely ambitious project off the ground and keep it moving on its own momentum.
This series of articles is a refactoring of that material for a new audience. But fundamentally the intended audience is still the same: people who are attempting to “reach escape velocity” with a massive feat of engineering. It is not about hardware or software technical methods; it is about the meta-hack of developing enough support and buzz to get your project to take on a life of its own. Large corporations can do this with brute-force methods (unlimited money and people), but individuals face daunting hurdles when competing for mindshare and resources. Without the ability to leverage larger forces as a sort of “martial art,” it is exceedingly difficult for a lone geek to escape the gravity well.
My own strange career has been the proving ground for the techniques revealed here. In 1983 I took off across the US on a computerized recumbent bicycle, freelance writing and consulting while underway. This was bizarre at the time, though it would now be unremarkable. But the project took on a life of its own, and I eventually covered 17,000 miles on three versions of this increasingly geeky machine. With a handlebar chord keyboard, heads-up display and head mouse, console Macintosh, and 24/7 satellite net connection (in 1990) it was a sort of geek extravaganza... and the project had about 150 corporate sponsors, 45 volunteers, and almost continuous mainstream media coverage. It became self-supporting, then segued through the ’90s into the Microship project—an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran with similar technological overlays.
This series of articles is not about any of that. What I intend to do here is to share the methods I used to pull the whole thing off without having a job or money in the bank. In these days of faltering economy, such techniques are more relevant than ever.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of corporate sponsorships and media manipulation, though, I want to give you a brief introduction to Gonzo Engineering, exploring the kind of lean, intuitive, art-and-engineering thinking that is necessary to proceed rapidly despite scarce resources.
As I said, this kind of adventure is not for everyone—mainstream R&D has little room for such social engineering, and if you’re just carving out a niche as a freelancer, most of this is a bit over the top. The readers who will benefit from this information are those who are trying to pull off the impossible with an insanely audacious project, do an end run around traditional linear approaches to product design, or explore that strange territory best summarized by my old friend David Berkstresser in his immortal observation: There’s glory in using inappropriate tools. You can tell you’re pushing a new frontier when all available tools are inappropriate.
If any of that sounds deeply familiar, the experience I’m going to share with you will pay for itself very quickly.
The Microship, the result of an 8-year development project involving extensive sponsorship, students, and volunteer teams. This is an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran with retractible wheels, hydraulic systems, 480 watts of peak-power-tracked solar panels, and zippy performance under sail. BEHEMOTH, the Microship, and the later Nomadness project are all documented at microship.com.
What Is Gonzo Engineering?
If you probe the interstices of an industry increasingly dominated by Big Business, you’ll discover a microculture of hackers motivated by the mad bliss of invention, surviving on the sweet contagion of creative energy. Employment bonuses mean nothing here; fancy packaging and market share are viewed with contempt if a product lacks art. Beauty, now that’s the thing—the beauty of elegant code, of a robust network, of a balanced design that “just works” without duct tape and feature bloat.
It is from this culture that the Internet emerged, as well as the Open Source movement. Less obviously, it’s also a diverse community of home-shop machinists, Arduino artists, guerilla solar experimenters, human-powered vehicle designers, robotics hobbyists, amateur radio satellite builders, and countless other independent developers. If you want to see passionate invention without the sloppy overhead of a big R&D budget or the weird constraints of maximizing shareholder value, go find a hacker... someone who gets a thrill from circumventing limitations and who knows how to get things done.
This has been my world for 30 years—a world where fun is the bottom line and livings are made on the opportunistic spinoffs of creativity, not by selling one’s life for a salary. We subsist in the dark matter between industries, trolling flea markets and dumpsters for Obtainium, mail-ordering goodies, making holy pilgrimages to the surplus Mecca of Silicon Valley, repurposing the detritus of corporate America to our own obsessive ends. Scattered among us are conjurers, alchemists, wizards, lone-wolf inventors, quirky entrepreneurs, larger-than-life writers, and the origins of more than a few disturbing geek stereotypes.
In this parallel universe, the motivation for creating is highly personal. In industry, you can bet that any massive development effort is associated with a business plan—there’s no room for slack in a bottom-line world, and seldom are things done for fun. But here, you’ll find entire lifetimes given over to chasing quixotic dreams; you’ll see personal fortunes whittled down to marginal subsistence in the name of invention and reputation. Occasionally there’s an imagined pot o’ gold, to be sure, but most likely it’s just a reassuring fiction to keep the spousal unit calm in the face of demonic focus, Every Goddamn Night Out There in the Shed. No, our motives are usually as guileless as passion itself: chasing daydreams, building tools, realizing obsessions, shattering limits, publishing, earning grins of appreciation from the cognoscenti and accolades from neophytes.
These are things that touch the soul more than the bank account, and there’s definitely a conceit about it—our sense of security lies more in our toolsets than our 401Ks. We feel sorry for vested employees with their BMWs and well-appointed houses, even as we decorate our labs with rusted hand-me-down office furniture and pay for system upgrades by mining our hardware boneyards through eBay. But money is not the point. It’s the exhilaration of surfing the knee of the learning curve, the almost erotic bliss of a machine flickering to life—catching the spark and glowing while the rest of the world sleeps.
Of course, getting to that point can involve a ludicrous amount of work.
The First Steps
This is an almost embarrassingly intimate look at how crazy unbalanced people can take an ambitious dream and pull together the resources to make it come true (and then go out and play). You’ll never get a corporate middle manager to admit it, but such lunacy, driven by emotion and other unquantifiable wild cards of the psyche, lies at the very heart of the design process. You can formalize tools and implement procedures all you like, but you can’t fit passion on a PERT chart; trying to do so will repel the very people you need most.
The first step is one of the most fun: indulging in a fantasy rich enough to trigger secret grins of hard-core technolust. That’s the stuff that makes otherwise sensible engineers willing to devote years, if that’s what it takes, to getting it right.
One of the great secrets I’ve discovered is that even someone with stupendously bad work habits (like me) can get a prodigious amount accomplished by applying one simple and obvious technique: keep moving in the same direction for a long time. Unfortunately, that can lead one down the path of specialization—an essential part of the great symbiosis between those who dream and those who produce. Specialization along with its concomitant skills is obviously necessary to get real work done, but if you’re not careful it can also become a filter through which you see the world, attenuating everything that is not somehow related to your primary focus. Over time, this can cause severe perceptual distortion from which it can be difficult to recover (especially if said specialty ends up, not necessarily through any fault of your own, becoming an evolutionary dead end in a rapidly changing industry).
That’s an easy platitude for a self-proclaimed generalist to spout, but how do we resolve the problem? How do we hold on to a central design objective for a decade or more without becoming like one of those single-issue political or religious zealots who lose the broader context entirely and descend into extremism? It’s much easier to end up there than you might think, especially when you audaciously choose to chase a personal obsession rather than sell 40-hour weeks while hanging onto the remainder for your own sanity-preserving pursuits.
The trick is at once simple and fiendishly tricky: all it takes is caring so passionately about the project that it fills your daydreams, turns trade journals into treasure hunts, induces you to recruit your friends, inspires doodles, and overlays a sense of purpose onto every foray into the backwaters of the web. This is a lot to ask of a job that’s been dumped on you by management, and one of our central messages here is that if this crazy-talk of passion gets you all fired up and chafing at the bonds of a career that isn’t letting you play enough, then maybe some restructuring is in order. For there is simply no way that crank-turning, even by a well-oiled department full of Really Smart People, is going to give you a sustained rush of intense creative obsession; doing that requires a suite of characteristics that are generally regarded as pathological in a corporate environment:
Enough chutzpah to believe that you are doing something original and important, but the humility to steal shamelessly from the work of those who have preceded you
Enough schmoozing ability to induce others to buy into the dream, but the stubbornness to continue believing in your mad quest when associates have given up on you
Enough optimistic naivete? to interpret catastrophic failures as steps along a continuous path, but the sensitivity to recognize the real gotchas (like your own change of heart) when they subtly appear
Enough arrogance to ignore the warnings and skepticism of people with far more experience, but the wisdom to shut up and listen quietly to the advice of practitioners in a completely unrelated field
People who behave this way are often described as having attitude problems, difficulty working well with others, and a tendency to jump around and not finish assignments. These are not the things managers look for in employees.
What I’m trying to tell you here is that if you are one of these troublesome folks, you need to shape your environment to support your passions: nothing is more important than removing the barriers that our culture erects around creative madmen, and few companies are willing to customize a job description to allow your brain to go berserk in its own juices. In severe cases, you might even need to jump ship and accept the insecurities that accompany working alone. (On the other hand, if you are in management and are trying to pull off the impossible, then you need to recognize and encourage the hackers in your midst, giving them the freedom to be profoundly annoying and unpredictable.)
All this is simply a contextual backdrop for the real point here, which is that massively audacious feats of creativity fall out of a way of thinking that is much more a lifestyle than a toolset. I find myself smirking at books about management and team-building, when virtually every world-changing cusp in the fabric of technology can be at least partly attributed to the obsessive-compulsive behavior of some intense character who broke the rules, dropped out of school, irritated colleagues, jumped between careers, got in trouble, or, as the schoolbooks used to say about the inventors I tended to identify with, “died alone in poverty, an embittered man.”
It seems we keep returning to this theme: a lifestyle of dedication to a mad dream, with everything else shoved aside as necessary to make room for equipment, learning curves, relationships with gurus and assistants, testing phases, and the endless quest for support. It’s not necessarily profitable, nor is it particularly fun (in the amusing sense), but there is something blissful about having a raison d’etre, a central passion, an unwavering navigational objective that allows every instant of your life to be tagged unambiguously with Distance To Go, Cross-Track Error, Estimated Time of Arrival, and Speed Over Ground. Such clarity may be illusory, but it beats floundering around every day, changing direction on a whim, and questioning your purpose even while working your butt off and looking forward mostly to evenings, weekends, vacations, and retirement.
It’s also no guarantee of success. But even going spectacularly down the tubes feels kind of noble when it’s part of your life’s enduring quest.
Still, I keep wanting to overlay some kind of formality on this. Aren’t there a few rules we can apply that are a bit more useful than saying “just dream it,” like some incongruously successful relic of the 60s who became a crystal-sucker in the New Age fringes of Silicon Valley before stumbling into a founder’s pool during the can’t-fail dot-com boom? Like, it’s all about the fundamental vibrations of your creative energy, man...
Well, um, yes. But if this level of design is indeed a lifestyle, then the closest we can get to “formal tools” is a body of behaviors and attitudes. Let’s put on an engineering hat and attempt to consider the problem in that light.
Next up: formal tools, engineering, a sense of urgency, and economics.
Steven Roberts was the original “technomad,” covering 17,000 miles around the US on a computerized recumbent bicycle from 1983-1991 while publishing tales via CompuServe and GEnie, then extending the same design objectives to water with an amphibian pedal/solar/sail micro-trimaran that consumed all available resources until 2002. As is typical of homebuilt boat projects, however, by the time it was finished he didn’t really want to do that anymore... so he has since made the transition to a full-time life aboard a 44-foot steel pilothouse sailboat, and is now based in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle.
The ship is extensively networked with embedded data collection and control systems, streaming telemetry, and a user-interface layer reminiscent of the Enterprise... with a wrap-around console that includes communications, R&D lab, audio production studio, and a piano. Roberts has published 6 books ranging from travel and adventure to microprocessor design, and prior to becoming a technomad spent a decade developing custom industrial control systems, early home computers, and other paleo-geekery. More on his technomadic projects can be found at microship.com (with the new boat at nomadness.com). He is publishing the ongoing technical narrative of the new project as a monthly PDF “Nomadness Report,” as well as a series of Boat Hacking design packages detailing the subsystems.