Marty Mueller: He figures things out

IN PERSON

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Marty Mueller, co-founder of Gizmo-CDA, has had a passion for building since his childhood.

COEUR d'ALENE - For as long as he can remember, Marty Mueller has been building something.

This lead him and his wife Barbara to start Gizmo (a place where art, design, technology and tools are connected by the hands and minds of the people of this community) in Coeur d'Alene.

Marty, who says he hasn't grown up yet, spent his childhood in a suburb of Chicago, where most of his time was spent in his dad's heated garage.

"In our little town there was a couple of days a year that you could put any kind of junk or trash out on the curb and they would come haul it off," he said. "Well, me and my friends would go out, starting at 5 in the morning, and anything that had wheels or a motor we would be dragging it home.

"We were just building stuff all the time - we couldn't just not build stuff."

If it had wheels on it, or if he could make something move, Mueller was all in. He did OK in school, but it wasn't the books that kept him inspired. It was the shop and science classes that captured his attention.

In fourth grade, Mueller said there was a rule that no go-carts were allowed on school grounds, but his teacher had heard about a really cool go-cart that Mueller had built and invited him to bring it to school for show-and-tell.

"Instead of saying 'no it's against the rules,' she encouraged me to bring it in," he said. "She validated what I was doing."

In junior high, Mueller had an inspiring science teacher who let him and a friend run "pretty loose" with any science experiment they wanted to try because the teacher could see their eagerness to learn.

Curiosity, eagerness and a thirst for knowing how everything works motivates Mueller to keep taking challenge after challenge.

All of Mueller's friends would bring their tools and projects to his dad's heated garage, because he had electric outlets.

Early in childhood, what were some of the things that you would build? Was there one or two things that you built that just blew your mind?

Well, we built the usual stuff - model airplanes and model cars. When I was 12, I came home from school and told my mom I got a job. To her credit, instead of her saying 'what the heck are you talking about, you're 12 years old how can you get a job,' she said great, where? I had gotten a job at the local bicycle repair shop, but it was also a hobby shop. I worked for 25 cents per hour five days a week after school until they closed. Then all day Saturday, but I never took home a nickel because I was taking it out in bicycle parts, model car kits or airplane parts or whatever. I was a pretty good bicycle mechanic but I learned a lot from the older guys who worked there. They were high school kids, but to a 12-year-old, they seemed like adults. I guess I just kept doing that stuff. My friend Bill Butterworth and I - the other guy my science teacher let run loose with me - built a rocket guidance system in the eighth grade for the school science fair.

Really, you're kidding me, did it work?

Everybody breathed a real sigh of relief because we had electrical malfunctions that prevented it from being launched, but by God, we built it. It had a little gyroscope to help steer it and actuators to make the fins move, and he went on to launch satellites for a living. He worked for Raytheon at the time and his boss came to him one day and said "I have this project that nobody wants to touch, but you may be the right guy to do it." So Bill asked him "what is it?" and the guy described the project and asked him for a budget, and Bill said "this is going to be a lot of money." His boss said "I can find the money to do this, but can you find the people?" So Bill went around Raytheon and talked with people who were bored with their jobs and looking for excitement. He put together the team that created DIRECTV. His Japanese customers - his old satellite launch customers - came over when he was just about done with it but had it working. He told them what he was doing, and they said "Butterworth, this is a terrible career move. Our government has proved that this is not possible for 15 years." And Bill said "well that is too bad, look here, it works."

Well you have some similar successful experiences haven't you? Do you have an example of something you've built that people say just cannot be done?

Well, I just figure things out. Maybe the closest thing to that are the cameras we built for IMAX to use on the space station film.

How did that come about?

We just kept pushing on it. Barb is really good at pushing on stuff and figuring out strategies to get things lined up.

How did you know NASA wanted a camera?

IMAX already had a contract with NASA to do a film about the building of the space station, but none of their cameras - I mean their cameras were the size of a mini fridge - would fit through the door of the shuttle. So it wasn't a possibility, and it was a real monster in terms of operating it. It took a really skilled and highly trained guy. It took 20 minutes to reload the film and it goes through that in three minutes of filming. It wasn't a practical thing, so we had to come up with a new design. We had to design and build the camera and train the astronauts. But about three quarters of the way into the design process, they came and told us "yeah, we told you would have this much space (he described about an 18-inch square with is hands) in the mid-deck lockers, but you don't. You only have this much space (gesturing the size was reduced to about 12 inches)."

So it was back to the drawing board?

Yes. We had to completely redesign the electronic packaging and the optical system to get it to fit where they needed it to fit, but we did it.

Had you ever done anything like that before?

I had been building motion picture equipment for a long time, but nothing like that. Barb and I have always sort of operated on the Bumblebee Principle. We just don't know we can't do that, so we go ahead and fly. For us it has been a great way to learn new skills and to pull off new projects. We've had a lot of great employees and mentors along the way, and that is kind of what inspired us to do Gizmo.

How so?

The number of people that have helped us either by imparting a little bit of knowledge at a critical juncture or have been sort of guiding forces about "well, here is how I think about that." Not necessarily answers, but ways of figuring stuff out.

So what was your college experience like? What did you go to study?

I went to college to study engineering. I loved my engineering classes. I would be there until 3 in the morning sometimes working in the lab. I loved designing and building stuff, but I didn't manage to get to any of my other classes, so I was about to flunk out. The counselor called me up and said if you take a leave of absence, you can come back when you get your act together. So I dropped out and went to trade school.

What trade did you choose?

Machine shop because the guys I really connected with in college ran the machine shop. They recognized a kindred spirit because most of the engineering students were not tool people. But they were great. They were miles ahead of me in calculus. I never managed to figure out calculus. They were miles ahead of me in those type of classes, but they had never built anything, where I was driving a car I literally built from scratch. I mean I built the frame, and the suspension and I put an old '32 Ford body on it.

What was trade school like?

Well, when I got to trade school I had to get a job. My mom told me since I dropped out of college I was on my own. So I was working with my buddy on a well digging rig - a big water well drilling rig that his dad built out of scrap parts. So that was another inspiration of mine. I mean Bill Dunlap was a wizard at putting together junk into a functional 40-foot tall derrick that was hydraulically operated. He built the whole thing. There is another example of someone that could do whatever he put his mind to. He just had the persistence and ingenuity to figure stuff out. It turns out that when you build stuff and it breaks you learn a lot more than if it works. Because you have sort of learned if it breaks, you can say OK there's one limit. You have got to do better than that. If it works you don't know if it is way over-built or if it is just barely functioning.

Did you ever settle into a career? Can you take me along your career path?

Yeah, while I was in trade school I started working part time as a machinist in a factory. Just repetitive machine operator stuff. Then I went to work for Bill Dunlap in his machine shop. I had great latitude and I screwed up royally a number of times, but I always fixed it. Then right out of trade school - just as I was getting ready to graduate, or finished up, I am not sure if I really did graduate because I probably didn't finish all the other stuff, but I got through all of the machine shop courses - a fellow called up looking for a machinist. He was a pretty crazy guy building film lab equipment, or actually resurrecting old film lab equipment to meet new demands. He had some guys moonlighting for him, but they got really tired of his shenanigans and he was looking for somebody full time, so I went to work for him as his first employee. It turned out he didn't know beans about designing stuff, but he was really good at selling stuff. He did most of his selling by lying, or telling stories. A lot of sales are about convincing someone that's buying something that he can do it. So he would come back and tell me what he sold and I would scratch my head, figure it out and build one of those things. Then I would find out later that nobody had done that before. Again, it was useful to have basic information about how stuff works, but not being constricted by "this is how you do it." So I would apply basic principals to things and make them work, and if they didn't work, I would keep at it until it worked and we got pretty good at it.

It seems like the way you think is there are no limits, kind of like everything is limitless?

No, I am well aware of limits. Barb is the one who pushes me past that because she doesn't even believe in the laws of physics. She is always saying "why can't you do it that way?" Quite often that is really fertile ground for coming up with new ways to do things. So let me back up just a little bit. So, I worked for this guy for 10 years building more and more elaborate film equipment, we pioneered a bunch of stuff and got patents for it. But when I met Barb, she said "why do you work for this guy? He is such a pain in the butt all of the time. He is not only lying to his customers, he is lying to all of you guys too. So why do you put up with that?" And I told her that I loved doing it, but I am a horrible business person. I liked doing the job so much, I would just give it away. I did this work for fun, and I would make horrible business decisions. But she already had a business for 10 years supporting herself and running the business. She said, "I'll make sure that doesn't happen."

So you went into business on your own?

Yes, and the minute that happened, we realized we didn't have to live there anymore and we came up here. That was in 1980.

So wait, you built the IMAX camera here in Coeur d'Alene?

Yeah, with local guys. We had a shop full of machinists. We had five or six guys and a really great electronics guy and a great software guy - all of them were local.

So you guys must have laid pretty low. I grew up here and I don't recall hearing anything about you guys until recently.

We've just been quiet about it, and we've kind of been retired for about 10 years. We finished the space cameras in the late 1990s and the digital cameras were coming on.

Let's talk a little about Gizmo and how it came to be. What was your inspiration?

My inspiration was working with the (Coeur d'Alene) high school robotics team - the TeraViks. It was the first robotics challenge team. I got involved in that about five years ago. I really enjoyed watching the kids who were interested in robotics and seeing the lights going off in their heads. They could make connection between what they had learned in school, and what we actually did in the shop. In the course of discussing how many bolts we needed to use to hold a sprocket on the side of a wheel to move a robot down the field, we could talk about physics, and talk about strength of material and about mechanics and we could talk about the area of a circle, which is how you figure out how strong a bolt is. We could talk about all of these things in a five-minute discussion on how many bolts we were going to need and how strong they have to be. Then all of a sudden all of these light bulbs go off and all of sudden they realize that they need to know how to find the area of a circle.

So you are helping them understand the practical application of their studies?

For me it's always been about practical use. If I wasn't to apply something in a practical sense or see something applied in a practical sense, I wasn't interested. As a student. I was a pain because I was always asking 'why are we doing this?' And there were some teachers I had, like a physics teacher I had, that would stop and answer those questions. But I never had a math teacher who would stop and answer that question. It was just like 'shut up and learn it,' and I am not good at just shut up and learn it if I don't understand why we're doing it. I have hands-on experience with all this stuff and if it didn't make sense to me, I am not buying that story.

So you are inspired to share that experience with others?

So with kids, being inspired by the kids, and the kids that are involved with the robotics team are really smart kids, but some of them have never held a screwdriver in their hand. On our robotics team they build the robot, we don't send the parts out to some other shop to get it made. They learn how to conceptualize it first, then they learn the CAD design, then we go into my shop and they make the parts. If I have to teach them to be a machinist in six weeks, I couldn't do it. But they are good with computers, so with the CNC milling machine, which is what we use to make most of our parts, it's like a computer game for them. We have come up with a real cut-to-the-chase way of making all our parts. I teach them to use the band saw and be safe with it, and CNC machine does the rest.

You mentioned that your three kids all moved away because there were no jobs for them here; is that part of what you are doing here?

Yes, I would like to see that change, and I think it can. We both believe that getting kids early before school sort of wears them out. School wore me out in terms of having to sit through class without getting up to actually do something. That's not how I learn. I learn with my hands and my head. So having a place where that can happen with project-driven stuff and a whole bunch of different things going on is what we are doing. Because if someone thinks they are interested in turning pottery on a wheel, they might also be interested in turning something on the lathe. They are similar in that you are creating a cylindrical part. There is some magic there because you are watching this thing evolve and you get to control the shape. The cross pollination is really good stuff.

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