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The Unfolding World of Chuck Hoberman

When is a building a mechanism? When is a mechanism a piece of art? When they're designed by Chuck Hoberman, the Buckminster Fuller of the 1990s.

By Tom Waters
Mar 1, 1992 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:23 AM


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Chuck Hoberman’s apartment, just south of SoHo in New York City, is littered with little machines that do amazing things. Scattered between his front door and kitchen are: a set of tiny paper wads that unfold into large, pleated arches and tubes; a bundle of folded plastic panels no bigger than a hatbox that expands into a 5-foot-tall, 2-person tent; a 6- inch-high black bellows with a handle that grows into a 21-inch-high briefcase; a spherical aluminum hedgehog, 16 inches across, that swells into a 6-foot-wide Buckminster Fuller-like geodesic sphere.

Designing these models is what Hoberman does for a living. Each one represents an idea--a patented idea--about the similarities between objects we call structures and those we call mechanisms. In Hoberman’s view the two can be one and the same. The models he designs reveal ways in which devices as small as a matchbox or as large as a building could transform themselves, changing their shape or size, simply by transferring motion from one part to all their other parts.

Sometime in the future these models could become prototypes for objects ranging from collapsible luggage to portable storm shelters to stadium roofs that open and close like the iris of an eye. So far, only a few of the models have shown any promise of immediate practical use. The rest are elegant and economical expressions of their principles--no more or less. For Hoberman, however, that isn’t enough.

I wouldn’t be happy just to get paid for my ideas, he says. I’m interested in seeing these put into practice.

One of the people Hoberman is counting on to help him put those ideas into practice is Leonard Horn, Esquire, a Brooklyn-reared and - accented veteran of 40 years of patent law whom Hoberman unabashedly admires. I have three patents, and Lenny is always saying, ‘You know, you’re not supposed to get patents just for fun. You’re supposed to make money with them.’ He’s my mentor, so I’m finally trying to do what he says.

The attorney seems to return the inventor’s admiration. Chuck first came to me in 1987, Horn says, a young man, starting out in business, and the subject matter of his inventions was different. Most of the stuff I deal with is organic chemistry. This was paper, moving machinery! Here’s something which was light and airy but intellectually stimulating--ephemeral but patentable. Chuck was obviously a creative young man, and I said, gee whiz, maybe I can be like a patron saint.

My first word of advice to him was sell. But I didn’t have to teach him that. Hey, look, that’s why he came to a patent attorney. If all you want is recognition, put it in a magazine. If you’re not looking for money, don’t waste your time on a patent.

Long before Hoberman had anything to patent, he had an abiding fascination with mechanisms. As a student in the 1970s he studied art at Cooper Union in New York City, concentrating on moving and mechanical sculptures. After graduating in 1979 he worked for sculptor Vito Acconci, helping to construct a work that involved dangling ladders out the window of an upper-story gallery and then moving them up and down. It was an interesting piece, Hoberman says, but working on it helped me realize how much more I know about mechanisms than most artists do.

After this experience Hoberman decided to take his interest in machinery in a somewhat unartistic direction by enrolling in Columbia University’s engineering school. In 1984, just before graduating, he began formulating the unusual design theories that would eventually lead to the models in his apartment.

In art school, he says, you could say I was a frustrated engineer, and in engineering school I was a frustrated artist. Maybe it was just kind of a psychological survival mechanism, but toward the end of my engineering studies I needed to think about something very--I don’t know what you’d say--something very artistic or abstract that would get me back to my background. The thought came to me that it would be interesting to have an object that you could make disappear in some way. I realized that one couldn’t make an object actually disappear, but you could think about how to make an object get very small and then get very large.

Hoberman found himself driven by his inventor’s dream. He spent the next year in what he calls a Rube Goldberg world, designing complicated contraptions with pulleys, gears, and myriad parts hooked together in all manner of ways. I used to build things all the time, he says, but if I needed a gear, it was horrendous because I didn’t know where to get it. I mean, I had Canal Street, which is sort of the classic market for secondhand goods. But when you have an idea in your head and you’re marching down Canal Street trying to find the parts, you know, damned if you can find them. I would just sit there with a piece of metal and a file and I would file gears together, or make them out of wood, or just piece together the most horrendous things because I didn’t know where to get the real material.

Hoberman spent the better part of 1984 tinkering with these contraptions in his home and then racing up to his classes at Columbia. At the beginning of the next year, he at last earned his engineering degree and went out into the world looking for work. After only a brief job hunt, Hoberman received several offers of employment, including one from Bell Labs. Ultimately, however, he opted to sign on with the oddly named Honeybee Robotics, a small group of Canal Street engineers who did interesting design work--mostly building industrial robots--in a casual, shirttails-out environment. Hoberman fit right in at the Honeybee offices and threw himself into the firm’s projects.

In his free time, however, he continued working on his own ideas. After another year of building his expanding and contracting machines, he had an important engineering epiphany.

It was actually a very sort of haphazard and almost groping-in- the-dark process, he says. Initially my thinking was: If you want to make something get big and small, then you have to have the thing that gets big and small and then you have to have the thing that makes it get big and small. In other words you have to have both the structure itself and some kind of mechanism that controls it. But then I realized that for a really elegant solution, the structure and the mechanism had to become one thing.

Suddenly, Hoberman realized, the gears and pulleys clogging up his jury-rigged designs were no longer necessary; the structures themselves could do all the work. As Hoberman now saw things, an expandable device would not have to resemble a piece of machinery as much as a piece of origami; his newly conceived devices need be nothing more than elaborately folded paper and tape constructions able to grow and shrink like an accordion--albeit an accordion from another dimension. The pattern of folds, cuts, and creases alone should be enough to trans-fer motion from one part of the structure to all the other parts.

What I started to work with, says Hoberman, is a class of structures that have what I call developable surfaces. This is essentially a pattern placed on the surface of a structure that not only fills space but also causes the structure to fold up and change as force is applied to it. The key is that the structure can fold up in only one way. It’s as if each facet on the surface is impinging on the one next to it or communicating with the one next to it. If you were to change the position of even one facet by, say, twenty degrees, you would have to change all the other facets; the change would ripple out and the structure would fold in an entirely different way.

Working at home, Hoberman used these design principles to build a host of unusual, expandable structures--many of which fill his apartment today. When he showed the structures to Honeybee, the firm sensed-- correctly--that there could be a marketable product in them. In 1986 Hoberman and one of his colleagues demonstrated the models to NASA and won a contract to design a collapsible shelter that space-walking astronauts could use aboard the planned space station.

The NASA contract was merely a study, says Hoberman. They didn’t want us to build a shelter, they just wanted us to design one, build a model, and see if it was feasible. Nevertheless, it was nice to see that other people thought there was a practical application for developable surfaces.

Hoberman made his models increasingly elaborate, and eventually began working with materials other than paper. One eight-inch by eight-inch collapsible wall was made entirely of small panels of hinged brass. The foldable briefcase was molded from black polypropylene, the same material used for videocassette boxes. At the same time, Hoberman also began to hunt for other classes of collapsible structures. After another year he found one, based not on creased surfaces, but on web-works of many featherweight beams. The principle of the new models remained the same as the old ones-- dynamic structures in which each moving component determines the motion of each adjacent component; but instead of facets of the components doing the moving, it was now mobile ribs.

By now Hoberman had access to computer programs to simulate models, as well as metalworkers who could make physical models to order. The first working model he produced--with the help of machinist Bill Record, who heads the aptly named Zengineering Company--was the now- patented expandable sphere.

This drawing, Hoberman says, pointing to what looks like a bent pair of scissors, really sums up the idea that makes the expandable sphere work. It’s so simple that in a way it’s surprising no one else discovered it.

Simple to Hoberman, maybe, but to the uninitiated it takes a little elaboration. An ordinary pair of scissors, Hoberman explains, is essentially a two-part machine. Hinged at just one spot, the two components operate by changing their position relative to one another. However, if you connect two or three or scissors end to end, like a set of extendible fireplace tongs, the new apparatus gets a little more complicated: Now, as you open the first pair of scissors, all the others open, too, causing the overall structure to become wider and to retract in length. As you close the scissors, the machine gets narrower and longer again.

To build his expandable sphere, Hoberman started with this tong model and then made two key modifications. Each of the hundreds of scissorslike components that make up the sphere are composed of two 6-inch ribs that are bent ever so slightly--10 degrees off a straight line. In addition to bending the ribs, Hoberman changed the position of their pivot point so that it was slightly off center. As in the fireplace tongs, each rib in an expanding sphere has three attachment points: one at each end to connect it to the ribs before it and after it, and one in the center, to connect it with its partner rib. In the fireplace tongs these three attachment points are all in a row--you could run a straight line directly from the first one through the center one and on to the third one. In Hoberman’s expanding sphere, the center point is shifted a splinter of an inch to the side, so that a line from the first point to the third point would run right past it.

The result of both the curve in the rib and the displaced pivot point is that when you string the scissors together, they form a gentle arc; more important, they retain the same degree of curvature as they expand and contract. A long enough collection of ribs could thus form a circle that would grow larger and smaller but always retain its 360-degree shape; a three-dimensional collection of ribs could be assembled into an expanding sphere. In fact, by changing the arrangement of the ribs, Hoberman can form nearly any two- or three-dimensional shape.

The analogy I sometimes use, says Hoberman, is to the carpenter building a roof on a house. If you want to build a roof and you just lay all your two-by-fours end to end, the roof you’ll get is going to be flat. However, if the end of each two-by-four is slightly beveled, any two beams will form a slight angle when they’re connected; a row of them nailed together will form an arch.

When Hoberman first brought the expanding sphere to Leonard Horn, the attorney saw a product in it. The structure, Horn believed, could make a perfect child’s home igloo, which could be folded up and put away when not in use. In 1989 Hoberman and Horn started working with Abrams/Gentile Entertainment, a toy think tank, as Hoberman describes it, which develops new toy ideas to the prototype stage, then licenses the properties to the big toy manufacturers.

Hoberman and AGE originally came into contact because of one of the toy firm’s most successful products, the Power Glove, a Nintendo video- game accessory that senses the movements of the wearer’s hand and translates them into computer data. The wearer is able to control the action on the screen without using a button or a joystick. The Power Glove was derived from a far more advanced version of the same idea called the Data Glove, which cost $9,000 and was used chiefly for military and experimental applications. AGE licensed the Data Glove idea, redesigned it to cost $20, and then licensed it in turn to Mattel Toys, which manufactures it for use with the Nintendo systems. AGE made a lot of money with this arrangement; the obvious next step was to build on its success by connecting the glove to a robot, so it contacted Honeybee Robotics.

That’s where we first met Chuck and saw these particular structures, says John Gentile, a partner in AGE. Then Chuck and I had a dialogue going, and I thought there could be something in his ideas, but it was in a very abstract form. So over the next year we worked on developing specific toy and game concepts that were intended to be much more accessible to the toy people.

The toy business is notoriously cutthroat, and Gentile is cagey about the specific projects the firm is working on, but he identifies several toy categories in which folding structures could have applications. First, there’s the outdoor-activity category, which sounds a bit like Horn’s igloo idea; then there’s the construction-set category--the Lego set for the year 2000, as Gentile says--that would allow the child to build something at one size, then expand or retract it.

Finally, there’s the so-called male-action-figure category, a term that, of course, means dolls for boys, but in the toy industry that’s an unpardonable oxymoron. Action-figure manufacturers usually try to erase the feminine stigma of dolls with hypermacho subject matter: Masters of the Universe, Rambo, GI Joe. Gentile is working on folding structures that, when contracted, are in scale with the action figure, but can then be expanded to the scale of the boy.

Let’s say the particular play environment is eleven inches high, Gentile says, so it would be about a two-story building next to the action figure. When the structure opens up for the child, maybe it’s five feet high, so a three- or four-year-old can crawl or sit or kneel underneath these things.

Gentile’s efforts have made toys perhaps the most developed area of applications for Hoberman’s ideas, but there are plenty of other applications that could quickly catch up. Leonard Horn, whose work occasionally brings him to trade shows, proposes a folding trade-show display booth. Hoberman himself, however, can see his inventions in a flashier environment.

I’ve been in front of movie directors, art directors, special- effects people, he says, and they sort of say, ‘Great, we love you, baby, love it.’ We’ll see if they do love it. But it would make sense if they do. The structures are visually compelling. And in the entertainment industry, that’s a great deal of what it’s all about. In developing ideas like mine, it makes the most sense to start on the fantasy end of things and work toward the reality end.

In truth, Hoberman will probably end up working both ends at once. Already attaining reality is a larger version of the expanding sphere, one which grows from 4.5 feet in diameter to a whopping 18 feet. The model is set to go on display in October, in the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, overlooking the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Plans call for the sphere to be suspended in the museum’s central atrium, Hoberman says, and to open and close by motor.

What most represents the reality end of Hoberman’s vision, however, is architecture, and most specifically, the closing irislike stadium roof. The roof would consist of concentric rings of bent-scissors- like assemblies that support a set of sliding trapezoidal roof panels; the panels would be smoothly carried along by the motion of the scissors. The computer drawings Hoberman has produced show that the beams would combine to look like a set of crisscrossing spirals from the underside. The roof panels would be visible through the spirals and would look like triangular teeth that gradually extend to fill the entire circle of the roof.

Hoberman recently completed a four-foot-diameter model of the roof, and even at that scale the elegance of the mechanism is impressive. Expanding this idea to the scale of a baseball park will be very difficult, Hoberman says, but by no means impossible. There are a lot of basic technical issues involved in getting it to operate on that kind of scale. It’s a whole other animal when you jump into a larger structure. With a small model, each piece is basically acting as a completely rigid piece and each pivot is acting as a freely turning joint. But when you build something very large, what happens is that those pieces that were rigid are bending and deflecting, and those things that were turning freely are starting to bind. Understanding what’s happening there is a big problem.

Even if the prob-lem is solved--which it no doubt will be-- Hoberman does not want to invest all of his energy in this or any other single project. He believes his design principles have so many possibilities, so many applications, that they will indeed one day turn up in toys, buildings, space stations, and a host of other structures not yet imagined.

I think a very valid analogy is to Bucky Fuller’s work, he says. You know, what the hell was the geodesic? It was this fairly abstract mathematical construct that turned out to be the minimum material to span the maximum distance. That whole concept was something that didn’t refer to one use, one material, or one size. In his case it had mostly structural applications; in my case, my ideas are floating in even more of a limbo. In a way it would almost be easier if there were fewer potential uses for it. But in truth, anywhere you want to have something that collapses down for some reason--anywhere you might want a structure that can grow bigger and smaller--these designs could find a home.

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