TramBot (Originally published in 1998 or 1999)

The TramBot—When my nephew Dave Matheson (a veterinary grad student at Prince Edward Island) stopped in for a day-long visit, we constructed a TramBot that ran on a string stretched across an upstairs room with a light-activated set of “grabs”—perfect for bombing runs. This was inspired by the “Bomber Fly” seen in assorted Lego media.

Yes, I Always Over-Design

If you’ve seen the Bomber Fly in the Lego publications, then you will immediately notice that my creation is much bigger, and probably heavier. I developed a fear of minimalism after my very first RIS creation quite literally shook itself to pieces in under 10 seconds.

Features and Innovation Details

  • The forward-reverse pulleys are driven by a belt drive, although a geared drive would have been fine in this case.
  • There are bumpers connected to touch sensors on each end that reverse the drive pulley motor when triggered. Because the string is at about a 45º angle to the wall, we added the tires to keep the bumper rods from slipping. (Before this was done, the bumpers would sometimes just glance off the wall without triggering the touch sensors, as the robot tried to keep moving.)
  • We solved the problem of timing on the “grabs” (the name alludes to Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation Thunderbirds program—see by using a belt drive, and setting the motor run time to one second longer than the absolute maximum necessary. This allowed the grabs to automatically re-synchronize, be movable by hand, and grip objects of various sizes.
  • The grabs are light-triggered. We used the Lego light sensor, and programmed it so that a flashlight beamed on it would trigger the grabs’ open or close sequence. This allowed for precise payload delivery.


My sons Isaac and John, my Nephew Dave, and I perform some final adjustments and testing.

To Boldly Go …

Crazy to Get to Space

Remember Scotty’s remark about his nephew in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? (No, of course you don’t.) Scotty explains to Kirk, after an inappropriately emotional response by Midshipman Preston: “My sister’s youngest, Admiral. Crazy to get to space.”

“Come on, R2, we’re going.”

Although I never pursued a career as an astronaut, I certainly remain, “Crazy to get to space,” and the description from Khan still resonates with me. I may yet get there, in my lifetime, especially with companies like SpaceX competing to make the cost of getting to orbit as low as possible.

For now, I’m going to have to settle for a proxy. Eliszabeth* MacDougal, one of the human family members I inherited when I married Sarah Latimer, has a friend, Cian Branco, who offered her the chance to send something small up on the Terrior Improved Orion rocket as part of the RockSat-C program. Eliszabeth realized this would be thrilling to me, and passed along her opportunity.

I ordered a new Lego R2-D2 minifigure, and a few parts to complete another mini-me as an astronaut, and shipped them off to Eliszabeth. They will be going up on Thursday, June 23, 2016, somewhere between 6:00 and 10:00 am, from the NASA facility at Wallops Island, Virginia. (My son, David, and I stood on our roof in the cold in October, 2014, to watch a night launch from Wallops.)

Geeking out!

Thank you, Eliszabeth!

New: I have just learned that my minifigs will have company on this voyage: Benny, from The Lego Movie will also be on this flight.


*Yes, this is the correct spelling.


Update: (June 23, 2016)

:: sigh :: Postponed until tomorrow.



Update: (June 24, 2016) I got up early to watch the launch today! In my mind, I was thinking, Saturn V. Long, slow acceleration. This is, uh, quite a bit smaller, and it zoomed upward so quickly I missed the rocket itself in the launch video screen capture. (The video will be posted soon by NASA/Wallops, anyway.) The crew was worried about missing the launch window due to weather, and debated skipping the camera alignment step. In addition to the pad camera, there was a UAV (drone) flying around, as some of the pictures below show.

The rocket got to its apogee of 119.08 km (74.0 miles) almost immediately. The payload detached successfully, and hit splashdown in the Atlantic, where it would be recovered, only 8 or 9 minutes later.

Very exciting! I reiterate my gratitude.

Here’s the official NASA post: NASA Successfully Launches Suborbital Rocket from Wallops.

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Update: (June 24, 2016, 16:05) Just got the official word from Cian: “Hey Doug, will send pics a bit later, currently wrecked. Your minis all went up and returned fine. I have pics of reintegration. Cheers!”


Here's the recovered payload module, showing where my guys were attached in their Crew Module.
Here’s the recovered payload module, showing where my guys were attached in their “Crew Module.”
The Crew Module was carefully sealed with electrical tape.
The Crew Module was carefully sealed with electrical tape.
 Another view of the Crew Module.
Another view of the Crew Module.
Here's how the minifigures actually traveled.
Here’s how the minifigures actually traveled.
 And here they are, reassembled, along with Benny, who was glued into another part of the payload module
And here they are, reassembled, along with Benny, who was glued into another part of the payload module.

Video of the Launch:

Video from an observer to whom I am grateful.

Here is the launch from the NASA/Wallops feed!

Building a Future with LEGO: My Nephew Andrew Roberts

(Excerpt from the Community Advocate Newspaper, Friday, February 3, 2012, article by Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer.)

Marlborough – Prior to November 2011, Andrew Roberts worked for County House Research performing in-court background checks. By the end of November, though, he retired to pursue his lifelong passion, building Army tanks with LEGOs.

Lego tank and APC, designed and built by Andrew Roberts.
A sample of the many tanks that can be built with Andrew Robert’s LEGO kits.

Roberts’ love for LEGOs began at age 5 when he was given a big bucket of the brightly colored building blocks as a gift, and he has been playing with them ever since. About two years ago, Roberts heard about a man who was building World War II tanks out of LEGOs. Intrigued, he decided to build his own LEGO tank which he then put on eBay – and it sold. He made another and it sold as well, snowballing into something bigger than Roberts could have anticipated.

… Read the full article at the Community Advocate Newspaper site.

Andrew Roberts poses with a Lego M1 tank he designed and built.
Andrew Roberts has made building with LEGOs a full-time business.

To see or purchase any of Andrew’s sets or instructions, visit his eBay store:

On the day in 1958, The World Changed

For devotees, [today is the anniversary] of an event in Copenhagen that transformed toys and revolutionized childhood itself.

It was at 1:58 p.m. on January 28, 1958, that then-Lego head Godtfred Kirk Christiansen filed a patent for the iconic plastic brick with its stud-and-hole design. Since then, the company has made a staggering 400 billion Lego elements, or 62 bricks for every person on the planet. And if stacked on top of one another, the pieces would form 10 towers reaching all the way from the Earth to the Moon.

This Lego Logo is composed entirely of Minifigures.

(Image credit Lee LeFever, Creative Commons License.)


Early Childhood (Pre-Lego) Formative Toys

Which of your early childhood toys had an impact on your adult life? Do you think the toys were wonderful because of your innate personality or skills, or do you think the toys helped get those skills going?

Recently, I finished reading The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made: The Life and Times of A. C. Gilbert, the Man Who Saved Christmas, the biography of A.C. Gilbert, best known as the inventor of the iconic Erector Set.

That got me thinking about the toys of my youth, and it probably comes as no surprise that most of the ones I most treasured involved building in some way or another. Of course, now I do more “building” with software than anything else, as programming applications is in many ways very much like building things out of Lego, but programming hasn’t eclipsed my lifelong devotion to Lego.

The toolbox my dad gave me at age 2.

One of the first toys I was given wasn’t really a toy at all, but rather a toolbox full of real tools (some of which I still have, just as I still have the toolbox). “How it happened was like this …” When I was born, I was diagnosed as being mentally retarded. My early foster care seemed to confirm this (due to lack of stimulation). My adoptive father declared, “Well, if he’s not going to be able to work with his brain, we’ll teach him to work with his hands.” So, for Christmas, five months after turning two, I was given a set of real tools. Screwdrivers, a folding rule, a hammer (the one thing that wouldn’t fit in the toolbox), and a pair of pliers. I have very early memories of getting in trouble for taking the screws out of the bottoms of the kitchen chair cushions and losing them. I was allowed to take the handles off the kitchen cabinets. When I first started, I wasn’t strong enough to get the screws tightened well, and the handles would often come off in my mother’s hand.

Good, old fashioned, gravity-fed Hot Wheels® track.

Hot Wheels® track was another great building toy. Although I often drooled over pictures of the Hot Wheels® super charger, I had untold hours of fun constructing dual gravity-fed tracks and racing my favorite cars, all the while developing a better understanding of rudimentary physics. Even more longed-for than the turbocharger was a loop; I even tried building one myself when I was a little older, but couldn’t get it to work right.

The Playskool Take-Apart Car
The Playskool Take Apart Car

The Playskool Take-Apart Car provided many hours of screwdriver-and-wrench assembly experience. The axles were large screws. The headlights and taillights used smaller screws and nuts, as did the wooden sides of the car. One of the trickier parts was getting the tabs for the hood and trunk in the holes when assembling the sides. The one drawback to this was the lack of interchangeability of the screws, although the headlight, taillight, and side screws were all the same size, and the bolt holding the removable engine block in matched the screws that held the wheels and spare tire on, although the bolt head itself wouldn’t fit in the same places. The jack provided (the middle tool visible in the photo) was completely useless. As I was writing this, my wife Nichelle told me that she had one of these, too. These days, I’d recommend Lego Toolo as the nearest equivalent experience.

I had a 100-piece bag of colored wooden blocks.

Wooden blocks are an essential childhood building toy. Generally, my goal was to build the largest tower I could, often getting it to my own height, or nearly so.

Tinkertoys have now made a bit of a comeback.

The only real problem with Tinkertoys was that I didn’t have enough of them. The small set I had just wasn’t enough to build the dreamworthy models pictured on the can. Part of this was supply. I know it’s impossible to believe, but stores in the 1970s were typically horribly supplied. (Computerized supply chains, a need to compete with online retailers, and cheap manufacture and import have radically changed this.) My father and I went out to a number of stores one day to find more Tinkertoys, to no avail. (He bought me a Tonka excavator instead, a conciliatory splurge I’m sure my mother would have never tried.)

This isn’t quite the same, but is not entirely dissimilar to the giant Erector set I loved.

One favorite building toy I haven’t been able to find a picture of was a giant, plastic Erector set, which came with a large, cloth storage bag. My favorite thing to build was a large robot, using gears as eyes and a short beam for a mouth. The large, red gears supplied also served as hubs for the wheels, and they didn’t fit together very well, either seeming hard to fit or too loose. The e-rings provided to put over axles were brittle, and easily broken. To be honest, I was never the best builder with this; I remember working with my dad one some of the pictured models, but really did enjoy it.

The voltmeter my Dad built to test mats for automatic doors.
The voltmeter my Dad built to test mats for automatic doors.

During my childhood, and until his retirement my father worked as a maintenance man (later exclusively in refrigeration) for Fernandez Supermarkets. One of the things he built out of an old cheese box was the voltmeter pictured above, which was used to test the circuits on the mats that used to trigger the automatic doors. Another non-toy, this was essentially “mine,” and had an internal 9-volt battery, which allowed me to experiment with simple circuits, conductivity, and voltage. (My kids currently play with this on occasion.)

Then, when I was 5, my world changed.

My first Lego set, the #480 rescue helicopter
My first Lego set, the #480 rescue helicopter

My neighbor-and-friend Chuck Altwein gave me my first Lego set just before Christmas, the #480, Rescue Helicopter pictured above. This was followed by the general building set #125 from my parents. Another Christmas brought #190, the largest Lego set at the time, which I only decades later realized was actually a farm (it was all about parts, really). Another Christmas or two produced some of my other favorites, Universal Building Set #404, the Space Cruiser (my first “classic space” Lego set), the Galaxy Explorer a year later, and later still Lego’s first castle.

Although I got away from Lego in very late high school and through college, I would jump back into them in 1998. While I was well-and-truly-grown, Lego and MIT developed the most accessible consumer robotics platform made up to that time, the Lego MindStorms Robotic Invention System 1.0. I was blessed to have the now-defunct Construction Site store in Waltham accept a phone order and deliver one of the first 50,000 nearly-impossible-to-get units released in the United States at rollout. Now I’ve actively continued my Lego collecting for years, and am a proud owner of the MindStorms NXT, and use it in coaching First LEGO League and teaching robotics with other self-created programs (such as Robot Sumo) at the Academy for Science and Design, a public charter school in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where my son Isaac attends.

If you’ll pardon the indulgence, I’ll return to my original questions:

Which of your early childhood toys had an impact on your adult life? Do you think the toys were wonderful because of your innate personality or skills, or do you think the toys helped get those skills going?

Comment away!

FIRST LEGO League: We Won!

Since the school year began, I’ve been teaching Lego Robotics two morning’s a week at Isaac’s new school, the Academy for Science and Design Chartered Public School, in Merrimack New Hampshire.

Many of you know I’ve been teaching Lego Robotics twice a week at the Academy for Science and Design, in Merrimack, N.H. As a function of the class, we had two teams competing in the FIRST LEGO League branch of the FIRST Robotics program, founded by Dean Kaman. (See .) The ASD is a chartered public school, now in its second year of operation.

At the “MindStorms Madness” qualifying tournament in Merrimack, N.H., on Saturday, the two teams from the ASD came away with three trophies:

The team I officially coach, Robotic Revolution, won first place in the Technical category (Robot design and programming), and will go on to compete at the state competition on December 6 at Nashua South High School.

The other team I taught (but did not officially coach) won 2nd place in Technical, and got the top score during the seeding matches. (Sadly, they were eliminated in the finals.)

The photos from the slide show above are available here on PicasaWeb.

I’ll update this post with more details about the team and the event sometime in the next day or two.

Amazing Worldwide (Web) Updates

In a typical day, I come across many fascinating things that aren’t exactly well known. This is a list of things which interest me, and probably does not reflect interest in the general population. Of course, thinking about that alone is of interest to me, so … (Ah, recursion!)

Cyborgs Are Real
Way cool neuroscience.

Gizmodo Goes to Lego
Far more here than I could summarize, including a video tour of the Lego factory.

Star Wars is Nearer than You Think
Actually, Star Wars weapons fire charges of ionized Tibanna gas, but you’ll get the idea.

Microsoft 3D Modeler
And you thought everything from Microsoft was evil.

The Large Hadron Collider Rap
Almost as good as “White and Nerdy.”

ShapeWays 3D modeling
These aren’t quite replicators, but affordable 3D “printing” is now at our disposal.

Marketing and Stop Signs
What happens when the marketing department designs a stop sign? (Software and graphics design often go this way.)

The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer
Gamers will understand the reference. Others may learn something.

Keeper of the Star Wars Canon
Imagine having to hold the continuity of a universe together single-handedly. (Well, it helps to have some database skills.)

The Mythbusters Weren’t Allowed to Bust This.
What “the man” doesn’t want you to know about RFID.

I have Joined the Dharma Initiative.

I Have Decided to Become President

What do you think of, “Grow up, you babies!” as a campaign slogan?