by Caitlyn Howell
Often, we read about or talk to inventors who spent their childhoods taking things apart and winning science fairs. We might think that inventors are people who are especially good at science and math. But some inventors come to invention in a different way. Chuck Hoberman, an inventor of unusual expanding and folding structures, is one such creative person. In May 1996, Hoberman shared his experiences with middle school students in one of the Lemelson Center's Innovative Lives programs.
Mind's EyeChuck Hoberman wasn't the kind of child who takes things apart or builds stuff out of spare parts, nor did he ever think about becoming an inventor or an engineer. "I started out really wanting to be an artist," he says, maybe because he was surrounded by creative people. His mother writes children's books, and his father, an artist and architect, "was always thinking of things, and designing." Today, Chuck is an inventor, an engineer, an architect and an artist. And, the family tradition continues: his brother is an artist, one sister is a fashion designer, and another sister is a poet.
Painting, drawing, and making comic books with his brother were Chuck's favorite things to do when he was young. In junior high and high school, he had a great drawing teacher "who taught me how to draw realistically, how to draw what I saw. That was a very important thing to me, because, by learning how to draw what was in front of me, later on, I began to learn how to draw what wasn't in front of me, what was only in my mind," explains Chuck. "When I began to invent, to come up with things that didn't exist before, I had to know how to draw something" with the mind's eye.
Convinced he wanted to be an artist, Chuck went to art school. One day, his sculpture instructor asked the students to make something that moved. Chuck came up with an unusual solution: huge rolls of colored plastic that he unraveled in front of the class. Watching his classmates' reactions to his "sculpture," Chuck suddenly realized that "people respond to movement and motion." This was the start of Chuck's fascination with moveable sculpture. "I just got really obsessed with thinking about mechanisms, gears, pulleys, cables, how can I make something that moves in an interesting way." Frustrated that he did not know as much as he needed to, he went back to school and studied engineering. After receiving his degree, Chuck worked for six years in a factory that made automation systems and robots. This job turned out to be important for him, because he learned how to use a computer and how to work with machinery. But he yearned to continue his art because, he says, "once you've been an artist, you begin to think, 'what can I do creatively, what can I do that's my very own.'" To satisfy this need, he got up early each morning to work on his own art projects before going to his job.
One question bugged him: how do you make something that disappears? He knew, of course, that he couldn't really make a sculpture disappear, but he wondered how to make something that would shrink as small as possible and then grow as big as it could. At first, he experimented with folding a piece of paper. He kept folding until he could fold a piece of paper into a complicated shape that unfolded and refolded with only a twist or pull. Magically, the paper seems to change shape completely and to transform into another object, just by being folded in a certain way. Chuck explains, "It's just a little piece of paper that's been folded, yet it's doing something surprising and unexpected." His simple paper folding led him to fold more complex plastic and metal objects, and Chuck realized he had found his calling.
Toys, Tents, and TrussesChuck Hoberman whimsically calls himself a "folder" because he folds things and because he invents objects that seem to unfold and fold themselves. "An unfolding object," he explains, "is a shape that grows itself. In other words, it's not just something that moves, it's something that completely transforms its size and shape. It does it in a way where you can really watch it go from one thing to another, and you can see all the different states in between." Chuck likes making things that look beautiful but also act or behave beautifully or in a surprising manner. His creations are pleasing to the eye when they are still, but they are even more fascinating and fun to watch as they expand and contract.
One of his inventions, a plastic toy called the Hoberman Sphere, is available in stores across the country. Another one, a motorized geodesic sphere that expands from 4.5 feet in diameter to 18 feet in diameter, is at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. These spheres are always strong, no matter if they are as big as they can be or as small or somewhere in between. Right now Chuck is building a huge, complicated steel structure called a hypar (hyperbolic paraboloid) for the new California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles. This structure will be many stories high.
Besides these spheres and museum exhibits, Chuck has made prototypes (models) of a collapsible flying disk, a collapsible tent made of only one piece of plastic, and a briefcase that folds down to the size of a purse. And, he holds four patents on ways to pleat sheets of metal, plastic, or paper, and two patents on special truss structures (see below to learn more about trusses).
Mind's InventionChuck explains that inventing is challenging, rewarding, and sometimes frustrating. "To the point where you could go into a store and the Hoberman tent would be there and you could buy it-that's like saying I want to go to California, but I'm going to have to visit a lot of states along the way," this New Yorker says. "I never knew how big the country of invention was." "When you first have the idea," says Chuck, "that's the fun part, because that's really like being an artist. You just have a creative idea, a picture in your mind of something, and you think, 'I want to make that'." Deciding what to think about in the first place and then making your ideas real are the difficult parts of inventing. "Half of invention is being able to get the ideas in the first place, but the other half of it is being able to pick between ideas, to pick the ones that have the best chance of success in some way - of being built, of being exciting to people, of being beautiful."
"The reason I became an inventor was not because I had an idea that I wanted to be an inventor and to make these folding and unfolding structures," Hoberman explains. "I was interested in combining different interests into one thing. So, I was interested in art, and I was also interested in architecture, and in technology." Making his foldable structures "was a way to do a lot of different things all at once."
For Chuck, invention is part imagination and creative spark, and part hard work and perseverance. He admits it is frustrating to work for years on one idea, especially with all the calculations and computer work he needs to do. And, he laughs, "there are definitely things I make that don't work."
What's Next?Today, Chuck is working on new projects and thinking of how to improve and sell old ideas. He dreams of building a stadium or amphitheater roof that closes and opens as his spheres close and open. He imagines a small, person-sized sphere that expands once you step into it. He says that his inventions can be used "anywhere you want to have something that collapses down for some reason-anywhere you might want a structure that can grow bigger and smaller."
Hoberman realizes he is lucky because he likes his job and is doing what he wants to do. He has been featured on many TV shows, exhibited his work in museums and art galleries, taught math classes, and won many awards. Of course, he wants to make money from his inventions, but most of all he wants his ideas to be used. "If it's the structures that get famous, and I get a little famous too, then that's OK. But the first thing I'm thinking of is how to make the dream happen."
All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 16 April 1999.