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The Head of R&D

Rad Head Complete-500 Wide.jpg

Among the people we miss most in Arizona are our then-neighbors Pat Thurman K7KR and his wife Sue “Starshine” Thurman. Back in 1998, Sue approached me about building her a sort of robotic ventriloquist’s dummy for a kid’s show she was working on (starring her character Starshine) to promote reading in grades 1-4. She wanted a character who looked like a robot, and suggested that Meccano might be just the thing. I’ve done a lot of Meccano work down the decades, and thought it was a great idea. I soon realized that a full-sized dummy would be mostly steel and weigh far too much to sit on anyone’s lap. As a counter proposal I suggested a disembodied robot head, which would be controlled by a puppeteer under a table. Sue loved it, and gave the character a name long before I finished designing and building him: The Head of R&D, aka “RAD.”

The show itself was no small production, and included a cameo by Jane Hull, then governor of Arizona. Sue worked fiendishly hard on it, and recruited many of her theater friends to play parts and generally help out. Carol played Madame LePinswick, a fortune-teller. I sat under the modified card table on which RAD was mounted, so that I could work the controls. RAD could turn his head from side to side, roll his eyes, move his bushy eyebrows independently, and work his jaw. All of this was done with a vertical control column running down from his neck, and with both hands on the controls (which resembled a movie-submarine periscope) I could do it all at once. Sure, it took some practice, but the range of expression RAD could display was surprising.

RAD Head Top Inside 500 Wide.jpg

The inside of RAD’s head was a ratsnest of gears, sprocket chains, levers and push rods, and took a great deal of fooling-with to get right. During performances I sat on a peculiar folding beach chair underneath the card table, and watched the stage on a 9″ portable color TV so that I could see where everybody else was on stage and make RAD interact with them. (There was a CCTV camera mounted on a seat in the front row of the grade school auditorium where the show was presented.) Two of Sue’s friends were voice actors, and provided RAD’s slightly British voice and the voice of TC, the Heathkit Hero robot who was Starshine’s sidekick. I basically lip-synced RAD to his voice actor, who was off-stage with a mic. I added as much additional facial expression as I could manage, given that moving his mouth was primary.

Earlier today, Sue posted a video of the full-half-hour show on YouTube. RAD first appears at about 15:30. Carol appears at several points in the video, including a brief close-up with RAD at 25:00 and again at 26:05 and 30:00. My book The Delphi Programming Explorer makes a cameo at 30:34. RAD himself was later featured in an article in Constructor Quarterly (the Meccano hobbyist magazine) in the September 2000 issue.

After the live presentation to the students at the school where the video was filmed, several of the boys came up on stage so I could show them how RAD worked. One earnest 8-year-old asked me, “What number Erector set do you need to build that!” (By my calculation, he should be just about through engineering school by this time. I hope I gave him a nudge.) All in all, it was terrific fun, and as his 15th birthday approaches RAD still sits on my workbench, fully functional if maybe a little out of adjustment. I’m guessing he will always rank as the single most peculiar mechanical thingamajig I have ever put together. Many thanks to Sue for letting me get involved. I hadn’t seen the video in over ten years, and it was terrific to see it again.


  1. Tom R. says:

    Jeff, how you managed to keep the mouth movements in sync with the voice was pretty amazing! This has got to be one of the best Meccano puppets I have ever seen! Come to think if it, it is probably the ONLY Meccano puppet I have ever seen. Great job and a great memory for you too.

    Now that you have the Raspberry Pi maybe you can upgrade him to autonomous operation.

  2. Erbo says:

    RAD…possibly the inspiration for Rho Alpha Delta? 🙂

    1. Only that all my life I’ve been a tinkerer and citizen scientist, so the notion of “R&D” defined a lot of what I do. I was at Xerox during PARC’s golden era, and I saw magic coming out of that group all the time. (They had a facility in Webster where I worked, and I used to lunch with those guys now and then.) I’ve had less contact with pure scientists than scientist-engineers of the sort who work at corporations rather than universities, and that’s shaped my perception of both science and engineering.

      So yes, the Ralpha Dogs emerged directly from my own worldview, as did the Bitspace Institute shortly afterward, and The Head of R&D about the same time.

  3. […] reading for grade schoolers. It was for that same show that I built The Head of R&D, as I mentioned here some time back. We ate a lot of dinners together, drank a lot of Dornfelder, laughed a great deal, […]

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