PRINT October 2011


The Baby Bullet 1928 Heath Racer. From Gene Thomas, Baby Bullet: Historic Documentation for the Aero-Historian (The Thomas Studio, 1975). Photo: Roger Lorenzen.

OVER THE COURSE OF MY ARTISTIC CAREER, I have found myself drawn to various objects as sources of inspiration. The first object to hold such fascination for me was an early airplane from the 1920s called the Heath Baby Bullet. This tiny airplane had a wingspan of 18 feet and was 14.5 feet in length. The entire plane, fully fueled, weighed less than 400 pounds and could reach a speed of 150 mph. The Baby Bullet was built in approximately two months, and the test flight was concluded in 15 minutes. In 1928, it won first place in an air race at Mines Field in Los Angeles. For me, the most amazing fact of the Baby Bullet was that no structural engineering was done on the plane, confirming my long-held notion that engineering can be intuitive. All subsequent and engineered modifications to the Baby Bullet only lowered its speed.

Bridge over the Metlac River designed by William Fairbairn in 1866 (unbuilt). Illustration from Francisco Garma Franco, Railroads in Mexico: An Illustrated History, vol. 1 (Sundance Publications, 1985).

THIS ETCHING IS OF A BRIDGE that was proposed and designed by the English engineer William Fairbairn for the Metlac River gorge in Mexico in 1866. The bridge was to be constructed entirely of iron and was to span a ravine that is 1,000 feet wide and 350 feet deep. The bridge was never built. For several years in the late 1990s I obsessed over this etching, as I thought it was one of the most beautiful structures I had ever seen. I dreamed that one day I might be able to replicate it in three dimensions. In fact, in 1998, I used Erector/Meccano parts to build an accurate model, which is 15 feet long and 9 feet high. This bridge became the inspiration for a whole series of bridges I designed and built over a six-year period.

Burt Rutan’s Quickie 1. From Sport Aviation Magazine (October 1978). Photo: Jack Fox.

THE QUICKIE I WAS DESIGNED IN 1977 by Burt Rutan, the famed airplane designer who is perhaps best known for designing Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipOne, a suborbital spacecraft. Rutan has said that he designed the Quickie I with the Star Wars X-wing fighters in mind. This is a counterintuitive example of a highly skilled engineer being influenced and inspired by a fantasy plane that was made for a movie. The Quickie I was able to cruise at 120 mph and to achieve 85 mpg. It was designed around a very small 18-horsepower engine and sold as a kit, which consisted of an engine, slabs of foam, epoxy resin, several instruments, and a Plexiglas canopy. I actually bought a kit in 1980, but much to my regret, I never built the plane and finally sold the kit. Recently I purchased three built Quickie I airplanes and plan on incorporating them into an artwork.

Ralph Wood, Causey Arch Railroad Bridge, near Stanley, Britain, 1725. Photo: Rob Williams/Flickr, 2010.

IN 2002, I was installing a series of large bridge sculptures made out of Erector/Meccano parts at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead-Newcastle, UK. Because of my interest in bridges, I was taken to see the Causey Arch railroad bridge, the oldest surviving railroad bridge in the world. It was built in 1725 by the architect Ralph Wood in order to facilitate coal transport to the River Tyne. The amazing fact is that this masonry bridge was built without any contemporary engineering and was simply intuitively engineered after an early Roman bridge. Unfortunately, the architect had built an earlier wooden bridge that collapsed; he was so fearful this masonry bridge would also fail that he allegedly leaped off it and committed suicide. Ironically, the bridge stands to this day. I am currently working on a 30-foot-long arch bridge that will be constructed with cement blocks but use no mortar.

The Horten Ho 6, 1944. Photo: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

THE HORTEN BROTHERS were aviation engineers in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s. They pioneered the idea of the flying wing. The flying wing was further developed by Northrop at the end of World War II and became the basis for the B-2 stealth bomber. This image depicts the Horten Ho 6 glider in flight in 1945. The flying wings are inherently unstable as they have no tail and are prone to spiral dives. As it was so difficult to fly, only expert military pilots were allowed to fly the Ho 6 glider. In 1994, I built six stick-and-tissue model airplanes in the configuration of a flying wing as a commission for a private collector. To provide stability, a simple weighted pendulum in the cockpit was linked to the ailerons on the wingtips, providing self-correction to the inherently unstable design of a flying wing.

The 1962 Lotus Elite. Photo: Ashley Border, 2010.

THE LOTUS ELITE was the first production sports car designed by Colin Chapman of Lotus Cars, and debuted in 1957. The Lotus Car Company was already known for their revolutionary race cars, which won many important international races. Their design philosophy ran contrary to the prevailing norm; they made their cars lighter and therefore more nimble, rather than increasing the horsepower and the weight. This design philosophy enabled Lotus cars to outmaneuver much more powerful and faster vehicles on the racetrack. The Lotus Elite was likewise an extremely radical car and remains so to this day. It was very lightweight: Approximately 1,200 pounds, it had a 100-horsepower engine and a body and chassis composed entirely of fiberglass moldings. There were only two strips of steel in the car—a strip for the door hinges to attach to and a very small steel frame to which the engine and suspension were attached. I consider the Lotus Elite to be the most beautiful car in the history of automobiles. Chapman was inspired by a Ferrari, but the Lotus Elite has a purer and simpler design than the Ferrari. The sensuous body, lack of ornamentation, and innovative engineering are especially appealing to me. For a brief period after graduate school, I actually owned one. Unfortunately, because of the intricate specialty tools required to maintain the car, I was never able to get it running and was forced to sell it. Inspired by the Lotus Elite, I designed and built my own small car, the B-Car, in 1975. The B-Car was so light I could pick it up and hold it over my head. Its motto was: “100 mph and 100 mpg.”

Photomontage of Alberto Santos-Dumont’s airship rounding the Eiffel Tower, Paris, October 19, 1901, n.d. Artist unknown.

ALBERTO SANTOS-DUMONT was a very early balloonist and aviator who grew up on a Brazilian coffee plantation in the late 1890s, reading and dreaming about Jules Verne. In Europe, it is Santos-Dumont, not the Wright brothers, who is considered the father of aviation. After moving to France as a young man, he assembled an entire series of revolutionary dirigibles powered by gasoline engines. He was known to steer his dirigible above the rooftops of Paris, tie it to the second-floor balcony of a restaurant, as though it were a horse at a hitching post, and have lunch. Afterward, he would reenter his dirigible from the balcony and cruise home. His most famous feat was winning the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize in October 1901, on a flight with a set course that rounded the Eiffel Tower. Santos-Dumont was successfully able to turn Verne’s fantasies into reality. In an ode to Santos-Dumont and the period in which he lived, I am currently building a sculpture that will consist of a motor-driven dirigible rounding a simplified model of the Eiffel Tower. I started the project by having a machinist build a single-cylinder gasoline engine based on a 1903 design. This engine is being adapted to fit into an aluminum Erector Set structure that will hang under a 30-foot dirigible. The Eiffel Tower will be approximately 45 feet tall and made with flat pieces of curved and riveted steel. A tether will attach the dirigible to the top of the model tower, around which the craft will fly in a tribute to Santos-Dumont’s 1901 accomplishment.

Plans for Phil Bolger’s Motorsailing Cargo Boat. Illustration from Boatbuilder Magazine (January/February, 1995).

PHIL BOLGER was a very well known and eccentric boat designer. His boat-building philosophy was 100 percent anti-yachting and anti-varnish. He favored simple, blunt, and, to the untrained eye, ugly designs that could easily be built from sheet materials such as plywood. I had three of his Micro 16 sailboats built for my artwork Three Ghost Ships, 1991. I had planned to sail the Three Ghost Ships from Charleston, South Carolina, to Plymouth, UK, carrying a small amount of tea, without human sailors and only robotics controlling the boats. Bolger designed a motor-sailing cargo boat to serve isolated hunting/fishing and scientific camps in Alaska. This vessel is designed to carry 3 tons of cargo. My fantasy is to load this small motor-sailing cargo boat with 3 tons of 24-carat gold bars. The cargo would be valued at $192,000,000 (based on $2,000 an ounce for gold).