My life has been filled with exceptional opportunities. As a boy my father built a home and included, as the most important room of the house, the 'hobby room', which was filled with tools, a darkroom and space to create.
My undergraduate years involved studying chemistry. My thinking was that if I studied chemistry I would learn physics and mathematics as well. It took me four years to realize my error.
Upon graduation in 1957 and with fading interest in chemistry I learned that Ramo Wooldridge Corp. in Redondo Beach, California, was hiring people. Sputnik had just been launched and the US had entered the space race. New hires were being trained to program the computer that was supporting the effort. I had seen a computer once and when I learned that the SWAC computer existed at UCLA I had taken a course to learn to use this early computer. So off to Ramo Wooldridge I went.
Five years at Ramo Wooldridge allowed me to do some interesting programming, most in octal (the basic language of computers). My first project was to design an operating system for the Univac computer that would allow the computer to be used continuously. Prior to that the only computer supporting the US space program was brought to a halt while the next programmer loaded his/her deck of cards into the card reader. My second project was to write a symbolic assembly program that would allow programmers to write in alphanumeric code instead of octal. This was prior to Fortran. One of the most exciting experiences of this period was when I translated my assembler into symbolic code and had it assemble itself. A true feeling of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. My final project was to design and program a Russian to English language translator.
But the yearning to know more and the desire to teach drew me back to graduate school. A friend had taken a theoretical physics degree at UCLA and had talked of a certain professor, Robert Finkelstein. I had heard a lecture by him and I decided that theoretical physics it would be. With great relief, Robert Finkelstein took me on as a student and five years later I had a degree in high energy theoretical physics. My thesis title was 'Quantization in Clifford Space-Time and Problems in Group Theory'. These were wonderful years that I cherish greatly. After a year of teaching at UCLA and another at Northridge State University I knew that I had another direction to follow.
One wonderful thing about my teaching years was that I had a summer with salary and no commitments. That first summer of freedom I learned to fly gliders and became a glider instructor in the desert north of Los Angeles. My weekends were spent in the back seat of a Schweitzer taking people for rides and teaching soaring. I also bought a small metal lathe and table saw and plunged into designing a toy battery operated gyroscope. One of my gliding students, a leather craftsman in Hollywood, taught me the techniques of leather work. These were my early years as a designer.
My first creations in leather were sandals. I had grown up in a home with several chairs designed and made by Georgio Belloli, an Italian sculptor and architect who lived in Guanajuato, Mexico. His designs were in leather and steel. I learned later that Belloli’Äôs chair is very similar to that of William Katavolos. I felt that I could improve upon his designs. My first effort was a three legged stool. After completing the stool I realized that by raising one corner high enough to be a backrest I would have a chair. From that point on the designs came one after another, all in leather and steel.
I began to recognize that the theoretical physics that I had studied was finding its way into my furniture designs. The notions of quarks, of the eight fold way, of symmetry theories, perturbation theories and symmetry breaking theories had been an influence in my design evolution.
During this period I had not lost interest in the beauty of mathematics. As a result of consulting that I had done for TRW in probability theory and random processes I had taken an interest in a random walk problem that I thought might be solvable. The classic random walk involves a drunkard walking along a straight line and reversing direction randomly. The problem is to find where the drunkard is after many reversals.
The problem that I set myself was to consider a particle that bounced around in a two dimensional plane, undergoing scatters at random times. After much effort I found a solution in what is called 'closed form'. Physics and mathematical problems that are non-trivial and that have closed form solutions (i.e. not approximate solutions) have great beauty. My 'Random Walks in Space and Time' I consider my most elegant contribution.
The furniture designing continued until 1973 when the comet Kahoutec caught every one's attention. By this time I was living in a studio in Santa Cruz, California and had made most of the chair designs that I had envisaged. I wanted to know where to look for the comet. The local university supplied me with the celestial coordinates of its motion but this was of no practical use to me. After some hours I concluded that what I needed was a transparent celestial globe immediately surrounding an earth globe. With such a device I could plot the celestial coordinates of the comet and after positioning the two globes based upon the time of day, I would be able to know exactly where to look for the comet. I set out to make such a device. In the process I learned about vacuum and injection molding of plastics. After three prototypes of what I called the Uniglobe (the name was later trademarked by a travel agency) and writing a user's manual for the device, I had a pretty good understanding of positional astronomy. I passed that understanding on to others while teaching celestial navigation on the beach at Santa Cruz Harbor. The UniGlobe was used as a teaching tool.
While playing with the Uniglobe I realized I could put a pointer on the celestial globe in the current position of the sun along the ecliptic and by rotating the globe cause the shadow of the pointer to fall back upon itself. At that moment the pointer was pointing directly towards the sun. The relative relationship of the earth globe to the celestial globe and the use of a rotating time ring around the equator allowed me to tell the current time. I had made a sundial.
The next step was to simplify the idea. This process brought me to the current design of the Wenger Sundial, a clear globe with the earth's continents scribed on the surface and time lines to tell the time. The sun's position is determined by causing a shadow of a pointer to fall on the center of the globe. The pointer points to that spot on the earth where the sun is directly overhead and indicates the time via the time lines.
Using a polycarbonate globe made by a local company I set out to make my first sundial. Xeroxing maps of the world and cutting out sections that were laid on the plastic surface I traced by hand the outline of the continents and then using plastic ink I darkened the lines. My first base was a pyramid. This was a natural object to use for the central pointer and it allowed the proportions of the Great Pyramid to be incorporated into the dial. That pyramid was built with a ratio of height to circumference of 2pi.
A dial was placed in a public park in Santa Cruz and enjoyed by many. Unfortunately vandalism won out. Another dial was made for the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. After several years of service that dial too succumbed to vandalism. My days of hand tracing the continents were over. I put the sundial away, but in the back of my mind I knew that the time would come when I would make the sundials in glass. This time did not come for another 26 years. In the mean time I had become interested in the cube.
The cube structure had great interest for me. I had assisted in making several geodesic domes and had had the opportunity to live in one for some time. The construction process did not appeal to my desire for simplicity. I had made a model of the truncated hexahedron a few years prior and set out to make my first cube. Out of 4x4 fir beams I cut the desired lengths and with care began to tie them together with the help of many small temporary gussets. The structure was very unstable until the final diagonal was installed at which point everything became stable. After removing the unnecessary gussets and installing the final gussets which had been carefully cut, I was left with a beautiful object.
The next step was to design metal brackets that could be attached prior to assembly, brackets that would minimize the time of instability during assembly. My work since ceasing furniture making had been carried out in a cooperative woodworking shop in Santa Cruz. An empty space came vacant next door and I re-establish a metal shop using tools from my furniture making days. Many sets of brackets were made in this shop. In September, 1979 a Sunset Magazine article on the cube generated widespread interest that persists to this day. I still get calls from people who saw and saved the article. I believe that a designer in Russia saw the article and used the idea to design a covered outdoor picnic area at the VDNKh in Moscow. While touring the VDNKh I caught site of the structure and jumped off the tour bus causing great concern to the tour guide. It was a tremendous thrill to see it.
About 1979 Unix and the C programming language were designed. These marvelous tools drew me back into the computing world. I purchased an early Unix computer and began to design and create software. During this period I operate from my home Unix computer one of the first dialup Unix servers for Santa Cruz. A return to consulting in Silicon Valley and a return to the academic world in 1985 focused my energies on computing. As Computing Director of the Humanities Division at the University of California, Santa Cruz I was able to assist faculty in incorporating computing into their teaching and research activities. After fourteen years at UCSC I returned to the design of the Wenger Sundial.
Design and construction were carried out in my studio in Santa Cruz using glass globes and laser scribing methods. In a sense, the 26 year wait allowed new tools and techniques to be developed to allow the more modern method of fabrication. The making of sundials continues.