Arts & Culture
Tim Anderson, Bay Area DIY superhero
There’s a sprawling industrial park on the waterfront in Alameda that once was a Navy air base. What had been the base's air traffic control tower was taken over by a gaggle of MIT engineers working on a variety of high-tech projects. One is an airborne wind turbine, being developed by a company called Makani Power. Tim Anderson refers to himself as Makani's pro bono night watchman. He feels strongly America needs to get off petroleum, and he has other ideas about other changes this country should make.
"The two big things, of course, that are wrong with this country are not enough bamboo and not enough monkeys," he says. "Yeah, the United States just does not have enough monkeys. Don't you think we'd be better if we had more monkeys running around?
Anderson is tall, young-looking, and in his late 40s. I spent a week with the guy wandering around the Bay Area's DIY underground. And during that time he appeared to be wearing the same pair of brown duck shorts every day. Turned out he has five pair of them. One of the sleeves of his favorite red shirt is long, and the other is short -- a casualty of welding sparks and battery acid. Outside he wears a dark brown felt sombrero with white decorative embroidery that is fast unraveling. Anderson keeps a pair of clogs handy, but mostly he goes barefoot.
"I fell in a manhole, an open manhole cover in Guatemala a few years ago," he says, "and I hurt my knee and ever since then my knee periodically hurts. And probably it hurts less when I'm barefoot, especially whenever I hurt my feet. I think it changes how I walk and then my knee stops hurting. So probably I've just been classically conditioned by a funky knee to go barefoot just because my knee hurts less, you know."
Anderson was raised by educators. His father was a college professor, and his mother, Mary Anderson, started five Montessori schools in Minnesota. She admits, Tim was not an ordinary kid.
"He was reading excessively," she says, "and at one point in his young life, we had to limit him to three hours a day of reading. But he would just read anything: history, biography, radio technology. He just seemed to be interested in everything."
Mary Anderson remembers her son at the age of five devouring one volume of his children's encyclopedia. It was filled with things for kids to make.
"I remember he wanted to make paper out of cloth," she says, "and all I knew about it was that he had asked for rags. That didn't sound very dangerous, and I didn't question him, but later I found out that my blender was ruined. He had tried to shred the rags, tear them up, cut them up as well as he could, and then he had put them in the blender with whatever water and vinegar and whatever his recipe in the book called for. And then he had blended this and spread it out on cookie sheets to dry. And he actually made a type of paper."
Tim Anderson’s education was pretty much like that. He spent part of what should have been his junior high years apprenticing with a blacksmith -- in Japan.
"Missed two years of school," he says, "but it was okay, because my mom wrote me a note."
This is what Anderson does: he learns by doing and making. In high school, he made a surfboard out of soft foam. For riding river rapids in Minnesota. To surf, of course, you need a wet-suit. So, he made one out of scraps of neoprene he bought from a nearby factory. After high school he got a job that was, well, unconventional.
"I was a cow bra repairman," he says, referring to a mesh, bra-like device used to guard against mastitis. "And I put this on my resume, which is probably one of the things that kept me from ever getting a job with my resume. It's like, 'Well, this one's a cow bra repairman. How fortunate.' You know, 'Our cow bra division definitely needs some new blood."
Anderson went to college but says he slept a lot in class. He studied electrical engineering and computer science but came away with a degree in neither. After college he wandered, taking a motorcycle sojourn in Europe. Eventually he ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his sister was getting a graduate degree at Harvard.
"My sister," he says, "who is a very wise woman, gave me some simple rules to live by: Don't touch anything and don't do anything! Don't do anything!"
While visiting his sister in Cambridge, Anderson started hanging out at MIT, which was somewhat logical for a guy who was planning to make a robot that would paint works of art. There, he met an engineer named Eric Wilhelm.
"You can just walk in and use most things," says Wilhelm. "The library's open. A lot of the shops are open, especially if you get to know the people who work there, and the machinists, and if you look like you know what you're doing, nobody asks any questions. It's a great place to go and build things and use tools and meet people."
Pretty soon Anderson was hanging out at a place known as MITERS, the MIT Electronic Research Society. MITERS was a "hacker" space before the term existed.
"You walk in, and there's things hanging from the ceiling," says Wilhelm. "There's tools everywhere. There's bicycles hanging and all sort of contraptions. As an engineer, you kind of look around and think, “Okay, this is my place.”
At MITERS Anderson worked on his painting robot, which he called Van GoGo.
"I was begging junk out of the halls," he says, "and the guy who ran the LMP lab for manufacturing and productivity machine shop happened to be looking for an electronics guy, and I showed him my painting robot. I was doing motor control -- computer motor control -- of DC brush motors, and that's what they need for their machine. And so they offered me a job."
Their machine turned out to be a 3D printer. Anderson was hired as an electrical engineer at the MIT lab in 1992. It looks a lot better on his resume than cow bra repairman. Saul Griffith was working on his doctorate at MIT during Anderson's Cambridge years. "I met him at a party one night," says Griffith. "All I remember is meeting this odd guy. There were myths and rumors that he slept in a stairwell and only ate free food and could make anything with bailing wire and rubber bands. And all of those myths are basically true."
Tim Anderson slept at MIT for a few years.
"MIT doesn't care where you sleep," he says. "They care if you're causing problems, Nobody likes problems. But, it's a very accepting place. If you're doing something you care about and you want to sleep right next to it, people like that. They understand that people need to sleep, especially if they're working really hard on something they care about."
MIT's 3D printing technology ended up being licensed by a couple of high-tech entrepreneurs who named their start-up Z Corporation. Before long, Anderson was working there. CEO Marina Hatsopoulos says he was instrumental in building the prototype 3D printer. Hatsopoulos noticed that, even though Anderson rented a room to live in, he often slept at the Z Corp offices.
"I thought he was crazy," she says. "I mean, I just thought he was such a nut. And the more I learned about him, the more I realized it's not for show. It's, like, who he is. When we started, I actually thought he just needed some structure in his life and that he could turn into a normal person. That was just all wrong. He's not meant to be a corporate guy. And so, it took me a couple of years to really appreciate how he is and that he's just very eccentric and that's what makes him so unique."
In 2005 the Z Corporation was acquired for millions of dollars and Anderson came into some big money. These days he lives in the Bay Area. But -- even with his financial windfall -- he’s still not very into nesting. He doesn’t seem to put much value on where he sleeps.
"I've spent years living in vehicles," he says, "and I have no trouble sleeping, so I don't really care very much where I sleep. When I sleep, I close my eyes. It doesn't matter much where I am. I like living in vehicles. It's really convenient, especially in the winter. You don't have to worry about food spoiling. You know, the truck is your refrigerator."
Sometimes Anderson stays with a girlfriend. Sometimes he stays in a small yurt he built from a discarded futon frame on a vacant lot he owns in Berkeley. And sometimes he rests his weary bones in his workroom at the control tower which comes rent-free with his unpaid night watchman gig. It's a 10 by 15 foot room with cement walls. Outside his window are palm trees and the Alameda waterfront. Against one wall is a jukebox-size piece of electronic equipment with the words Z Corporation on it.
"The machines are pretty popular," he says. "All the car companies have them and all the shoe companies have them and a lot of colleges have them."
On a shelf above this 3D printer worth tens of thousands of dollars are primitive steel tools. Elsewhere in the workroom are power tools, a sewing machine, computers, a hide from a wild pig and Anderson's old painting robot Van GoGo. Hanging out with him here and asking about all this stuff is like show and tell on acid. Tim Anderson has gained almost mythic stature in the DIY world for re-purposing stuff found in the waste stream. He has a manual paper shredder, which is really just the plastic teeth from a broken electric shredder he connected to a hand crank.
"Yeah, it's a lot of fun," he says. "I don't know why everyone doesn't have one of these things. It just makes me want to shred everything. And when you've shredded enough stuff, you can put it in a bag and it makes a pretty nice mattress. It would also work for making pasta."
Anderson has two full shipping containers outside the control tower full of this stuff.
"Tim has a peculiar pack rat personality," says Saul Griffith. "And no matter what you need on any given day, he almost certainly doesn't have it but he has something frustratingly close to what you want that he will lend you. That will almost meet your needs."
Anderson has a sailing canoe that he tried to take to Cuba. "The boat had some serious problems," he says. "It was basically a torture chamber."
Anderson has another sailboat docked at a marina in the nearby town of Emeryville. He refers to the 30 foot long vessel as his free yacht, because he came into it for a song when someone fell behind in payments to the marina. In Tim Anderson's universe, free is not only good -- it’s preferable.
"Freedom," he says, sailing the free yacht. "No king. There's no king here. The land animals don't care what you do out here."
Of course, the land animals do care about what you do back on terra firma. Which is why Tim Anderson is making an effort to keep up with the grass on his vacant lot in Berkeley. He uses an old scythe that has been in his family for generations or an electric weed whacker hooked up to a battery. Eventually, he'll erect a glass and steel prefab house on this lot. Anderson is getting it for free from an architectural firm in Boston. In the meantime he can crash in his yurt which looks out on a small plastic pool with mosquito eating fish and some citrus trees planted in self watering containers using an ancient Aztec growing technique.
"This is 6,000 square feet," he says. "4,000 square feet is enough to grew all the food for one person, all the calories you need. And, um, there are people around here who do that."
We are in Berkeley, after all, where the biodiesel filling station sells supplies for beekeepers and chicken farmers.
"One reason I'm living small," he says, "is to acquire the skills to understand how people can live in a way they can feel good about. And I'm starting to feel like I know the answer. Like, don't put the poop in the pipe. You know. Where does the poop go? Compost it. Right? Where do you want to grow your food? Grow it right next to you. Right?"
Anderson describes his plans for the year as 'build house, grow food, get off petroleum,' but his timetable for putting up the pre-fab house keeps shifting. At some point in the week I followed Anderson around his DIY universe in the East Bay, he introduced me to his friend Boris Fain, a computational physicist. Fain thinks highly of Anderson, but recognizes that his friend's unconventional ways can rub people the wrong way.
"Anyone who likes order or has any kind of anal side to them cannot handle him in any kind of way," says Fain. "You know, he's very disorganized, and he has a big flake factor in him, you know, not filling out forms, not being able to pay parking tickets. Now he does but he didn't pay parking tickets or do stuff like that. And then of course there was a really good reason why: authority. 'I don't trust authority. It's inhibiting creativity.' Whatever. But really, you're just not a guy who fills out forms."
Saul Griffith chalks it up to Anderson simply being a pathological maker of things. "I think what people should understand about Tim is he has been a fabulous mentor, not to tens but hundreds of engineers and nerds."
Eric Wilhelm, who now runs the DIY website instructables.com, says, "He's like a machinist who's already built everything you've ever needed to build. You just need to remind him how he did it the last time."
Filmmaker Isaiah Saxon says, "Tim is so brilliant that it's hard to keep up some times. He combines ultimate technological capability with the engineer's ethic to do more with less. Tim is focused on doing more with less and makes a personal game out of it and delights in doing more with less."
So what becomes of this intensely human and intensely mechanical guy named Tim Anderson? He figures he has enough documented DIY projects to fill a few books. And he has another publishing idea he thinks could be very lucrative.
"So, my plan to make a whole lot of money," he says, "is I'm going to write a book about how you don't have to make money and how you can just live really cheap and not make any money. And then that's going to be a big seller."
This story originally aired on March 26, 2012.