Innovative Lives

The Magic Touch, High-Tech Style: The Story of Inventor Thomas H. Massie

by Elizabeth J. Sherman

The Story of Inventor Thomas H. Massie
Today, Bill Gates -- a Harvard dropout who founded the fabulously successful software company Microsoft -- is one of the richest men in the world. And more importantly, the world is far richer for having known Bill Gates. But what makes an inventor like Gates? What turns geeks, dorks, and dweebs -- fanatics of the attic and garage -- into the movers and shakers of the world? The following life story suggests that the rare twin gift of practical creativity can occur anywhere and in any person, and that while it needs freedom and opportunity to grow, it cannot be learned or taught. Inventors, it seems, are born not made.
In 1993 when Tom Massie was 22 years old, he and coinventor Ken Salisbury emerged from three frantically creative months with a prototype in hand for the Phantom Haptic (haptic is to touch what optic is to seeing) Interface -- a device that allows the observer to "feel" items pictured on a computer screen as if they were real, three-dimensional shapes. The idea was so original that Tom still worries it may be the best he will ever have.

Through at 22?

Hardly. As a born inventor, Tom Massie can't help being creative.

Like many another curious kid, much of Tom's childhood was spent taking things apart. But while other children want to find out how things work, Tom's curiosity always took him at least one step further. His has always been curiosity with a purpose.

"In the first grade," he recalls, "I took apart a radio my grandmother gave me." Why? "I wanted to connect it to a screen in my window to see if I could get better reception."

Tom was born in West Virginia and grew up in eastern Kentucky, where his father is still a beer distributor and his mother teaches nursing. He, his younger brother, and his friends explored the woods and caves of Lewis County thoroughly. But it was his more explosive ventures that made him notorious. Before Tom was ten, everyone in town was on to him. When he bought up the drug store's entire supply of potassium nitrate -- the major ingredient in gunpowder -- for instance, the pharmacist immediately called his mother to let her know Tom was at it again. Not that there was much she could do about. The scolding he received when he broke his left arm on a bicycle ramp he had devised only made it that much harder for him to confess when he broke his right arm on the same ramp -- this time iced over to form a sled jump. As Tom remembers that particular incident:

"The doctor was so disgusted with me, he threatened not to use painkillers."

By his own account Tom was neither a party animal nor a nerd, and he still conforms to no particular stereotype. He ran track for awhile, had plenty of friends, and played the sax in the band. He even had a girlfriend. But if you were looking for Tom Massie ten years ago, chances are pretty good you would have found him at work on some experiment in his room.

"All of the parts of everything I ever took apart were in that room, and I knew where to find each one. It was best approached in terms of archeological strata -- with the second grade stuff on top of the first grade pile in a corner, the third grade stuff in front of it but out a little from the wall, and so on. In the early years there was a path from the door to the bed. Later I would lean one hand against a wall and jump from one free space to another, being careful not to land on anything that might break." The year the bed disappeared entirely during a science fair project, Tom climbed out a window and temporarily slept in another room.

His long-suffering parents put up with explosions, two fires big enough to bring in the fire department, and a host of evil-smelling chemical spills that permanently did in the rug. Only occasionally, when relatives came to visit, was Tom required to clean up. The rest of the time, stern warning signs and a boobie-trapped door kept his room sacrosanct.

But it was not until he discovered computers, when he was about twelve, that he earned the nickname "High Tech Red Neck" -- a name that has stuck. With computers, Tom's needs moved from the mechanical to the electronic, and he soon outgrew the resources available to him in Lewis County. Yet this very scarcity, he maintains, spurred his creativity:

"When you want to build stuff and you're not old enough to drive, you have to be pretty resourceful about finding parts."

Fewer inventors out there than you might think

Tom envisioned the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as loaded with every possible gizmo he might need and peopled hundreds of fellow-tinkerers like himself. But the goals of school, he soon found--no matter which school--is bound to clash with the business of inventing.

"There I was dropped into an MIT rich with unlimited resources, and the professors were colluding to make sure I had no time. It was a paradox. At home I had all the time in the world and was bored to tears for lack of resources. Then I came to MIT and had all the resources in the world and no time. I was extremely frustrated."

Even more disappointing was the lack of fellow doers, a lack that made him take a closer look at what, exactly, an inventor is.

"When I came to MIT I expected to find a whole school-ful of people like me. But I soon found out there are two kinds of people there -- the vast majority who are good at math and science and therefore decide to become engineers, and those few who are engineers at heart. I'm definitely the second type. If I study math and science, it's only because I know it will be useful to me. I am always thinking, 'when am I ever going to use this?' For the one humanities class we were required to take every semester, for instance, I took French, because there's some utility in that, and economics, because I knew I would someday want to run my own business."

But if MIT was not exactly inventor heaven, it certainly had a lot to offer, and Tom was soon making the most of it. In his first week there he had the incredible good fortune to hook up with the like-minded and supportive Dr. Ken Salisbury (who would later collaborate with him on the Phantom). That same week he got a job, sponsored by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, working in MIT's Artificial Intelligence lab. Then in his second year, he finally ran across a fellow student of his own stamp--freshman James McLurkin.

The two recognized each other instantly.

"Any differences in our backgrounds were superficial," says Tom. "We knew immediately that our minds work the same way."

As seventh graders, for instance, both James and Tom had yearned for a video game that could show a ship moving across the screen in the midst of flying bullets and other moving ships. But the computers they had could only do one thing at a time.

"How do you get a computer to do all of those things at once? If you're in the seventh grade and you want to write that videogame, you have to figure this problem out."

Both boys solved the problem by moving one ship a little, then another ship a little, then integrating these small movements. Motivated by their need, they independently invented the basic idea for calculus.

More hands-on engineers turned up on the team that developed the MIT solar car prototype. Then -- instead of doing a history class paper -- Tom was able to turn a nonscience requirement to inventing account by building a weaving machine that reproduced Andean weaving techniques.

But Tom really hit the jackpot when he won the annual 2.70 design contest (named for a course number in the MIT catalogue), which pits 250 mechanical engineering undergraduates against one another in a test of wits. Each student in the 2.70 is given a box of parts and asked to build a machine to solve a problem. The year Tom won, the problem was to deliver the most possible ping-pong balls to a goal three feet away in 30 seconds. Quickly seeing that his best bet would be to send all the balls in at once, Tom came up with a machine that delivered 200 balls to the goal in less than one second.

Finally -- to crown his MIT career -- Tom Massie came up with the Phantom. This feat earned him a B.S. in electrical engineering and the $30,000 MIT Lemelson Award for Invention, established by the inventor Jerome Lemelson to foster technological creativity.

"Nothing is in my Phantom that couldn't have been built 20 years ago -- except for cheap, fast, small computers," he modestly demurs. "In a way I was just lucky with timing. The computer on my desk was fast enough to do the simulation."

Phantom's success no phantom

Now 24, Tom is exercising his talents as an entrepreneur, having established the Cambridge-based company SensAble Devices to bring his invention to market.

To use the Phantom in its present prototype form, you insert a finger into a small cone on a sling, then push the finger forward until it encounters an invisible -- but clearly felt -- "back wall." Against this plane, the finger in the Phantom can then feel the square sides and angles of a box or the round bump of a ball, which appear on a computer screen several yards away.

Even more remarkably, with the Phantom you can exert force on these computer images. Standing nowhere near the screen, you can "push in" a "button" and distinctly feel it "click" into place. Flick your Phantom-encased finger and you can bat around balls and squares on the screen that will bump and ricochet off one another with reflected force.

As of now the Phantom allows for touch at a single point only. But Tom has designed a new prototype with four points of contact -- two on each hand. With this new device you could pinch virtual objects with one hand and assemble them with the other. But limitations in the component technology make simulating touch for the whole hand still another five to ten years off.

"The Phantom uses three electric motors," explains Tom. "If somebody improved these motors, a hundred inventors might wake up and realize that something was now possible that hadn't been possible before. As computer speeds improve, so will the fidelity of the Phantom."

So far SensAble Devices' best customers are research labs -- in universities, medical institutions, and business.

"Customers are devising amazing demos," says Tom. "We provide the technology, and they build on it with 3-D graphics and simulations."

The University of North Carolina, for instance, has connected the Phantom to an atomic force microscope in order to "see" and "feel," on a computer screen, particles that are only ten atoms wide. The Phantom amplifies forces and resolution on the atomic scale so that a finger moved an inch can reflect actual movement of only a few ångstroms.

Surgeons are using the Phantom as a training simulator for high-risk operations. One program shows an MRI image of a patient's brain on screen so that trainee can "feel" the brain, push a virtual needle into it, and test just how much force is needed to puncture the outer layer.

In industry designers are using the Phantom to make virtual prototypes of different products -- such as a VCR panel -- whose look and feel can then be shipped around the world for testing and approval without any real object having been produced. In helping to speed the process of bringing products to market, the Phantom has the potential to cut production costs and save millions.

SensAble Devices today has eight employees and is run by Tom and his wife Rhonda, a mechanical engineering graduate of MIT -- who was his high school sweetheart and valedictorian two years after he was. In December 1995, their first child will be born.

Once again, life is cutting into Tom's inventing time. Although he enjoys being an entrepreneur and has definitely decided on business over academia, he is finding that running your own company is a full-time job. And even though SensAble Devices is now big enough to afford a business manager, it is expanding too fast for Tom to be able to branch out into something new. That means time is still a problem. But Tom Massie's future is wide open, and he's loving every minute of it.

"I don't really care about free time or vacations. I'm trying to get to the point where I have lots of time and lots of resources -- that's my ideal. But who needs 'free time' when you enjoy your work like a hobby?"

All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 5 February 1999.

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