Innovative Lives

Question Everything and Never Give Up: The Story of Inventor James McLurkin

by Elizabeth J. Sherman

The Story of Inventor James McLurkin
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.
Why was eight-year-old James McLurkin's desk facing the wall? Because already at that tender age, James was a hard-core troublemaker.

"I spent almost as much time outside the classroom as in it," he recalls without remorse. "Although somewhere I realized I didn't want to get suspended, and I never was." But that didn't stop him from skating close to the edge.

Bored by school, James was not about to cooperate. Once, for instance, he pulled out a container of water and pair of scissors in second grade and calmly started putting decals on a model plane he had just built. When he eventually got the plane back, he still remembers with chagrin, one of the decals was permanently smudged.

"School was always awful and it still is," is McLurkin's blunt assessment. "Every report card said 'not working up to potential,' and even though I was in the gifted programs and got A's in science, the rest of my grades were usually pretty bad." Who in those days would have believed that at 23, troublemaker James McLurkin would be a respected expert in microrobotics employed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

Pity the poor parents

If James did poorly in school, it was not for lack of effort on his parents' part. Both his mother and father are second-generation college graduates, and although they divorced when he was quite young, both kept a firm finger on their son's academic pulse. His mother, who works as a speech therapist on Long Island, New York, changed neighborhoods several times to make sure James went to the best schools. His father, an electronics major in college and now a business manager for AT&T, consistently urged his son to spend less time fooling around with "toys" and to concentrate more on his studies.

But with a kid that pig-headed, what could a parent do?

By seventh grade James's teachers were so disgusted they recommended him for honors in only one subject -- science. It was not until ninth grade, when James asked to be put into honors math and clearly showed he could hold his own, that his school career began to pick up.

But although his grades began to improve, James was never fully present in school. What he learned -- and that was quite a bit -- he learned by doing.

"I wasn't trying to do some esoteric research, I was having fun. Mostly I was trying to build better toys than those you get in stores, which are always lamer than what you really want. My first memory is of building with an erector set, and I was always getting into things. I hoarded broken bits, made messes, built things, burnt up bathrooms. And then my parents bought me a world-class collection of legos -- the key to life."

When he was in sixth grade James spent Christmas at an older cousin's and discovered computers. After three days with a book on programming basics, he began writing his own video games and was permanently hooked. It took him less than two weeks to convince his father to buy him his first computer -- an Atari 800XL with a 1050 disk drive and 64 kilobytes of memory.

"I subscribed to a magazine called Antic, which put out a new video game you could type in every month. One classic I copied, for instance, has the computer trying to find out what animal you're thinking of by asking questions. 'Does it have feathers? Does it live in trees?' -- working down the animal tree in a logical progression." While learning how to program, James was learning how to think.

Picking up speed

About the same time his parents gave him a single-speed BMX bicycle -- a model he still favors for the kind of maneuverability that allows him to ride up walls and flip off of MIT's "Great Sail" Alexander Calder sculpture. But the BMX was terrible for distances.

"I needed that bike for mobility. I was putting thirty miles on it every weekend and knew that if I could add two gears, I could go much faster. I was told it couldn't be done -- but if there is one thing I'm grateful for in my personality, it's that I don't listen to those who are older and wiser."

Throughout much of his life, James McLurkin -- who is good-looking and engaging -- had, by his own admission, few friends, until he got a girlfriend in high school. He has, in fact, lived largely inside his head, dividing his time between biking binges (which tested the limits of his endurance) and experiments (which tested his mother's -- such as "the stink bomb and fire phase," or the battery-powered water-gun he hooked up to the lights to go off when his mother came in to wake him up in the morning...).

Like fellow-inventor Tom Massie, James spent most of his time in his room, which was piled high with the remnants of earlier experiments. But his bicycle mania thrust him into a (literal) crash course in mechanics, ratcheting him up from the world of toys to real experiments with real forces, many of which led to close encounters with the pavement of a very personal kind.

"I was particularly irked the time an extra sprocket came off and I crashed at 30 mph," he recalls, "because someone else had welded the sprocket on for me. This taught me three things: that the forces I was dealing with were really big; that metal is not as strong as it looks; and that if I wanted it done right I should do it myself. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was figuring out torques and forces, trying to determine, say, how much force it would put on the frame and how much the frame would flex if I jumped six feet high -- things I hadn't thought about at all when I was younger."

On another visit to his cousin James discovered the world of electronics. Since he already knew how to program well, knew assembly language and about voltage and currents, putting together circuits was not that much of a leap. And he had a powerful desire to build a digital speedometer for his bike.

Following his whims, James unwittingly assembled all the tools he would need to build a robot. But it wouldn't be easy. For unlike cars, robots are not basically mechanical. Nor are they electrical like computers and refrigerators. Robots are electrical, mechanical, and require software to go -- and everything has to work at once and work together.

Rover the Robot

James, being James, set out to build his first robot when he was fifteen. For its casing he gutted an old remote-control car he had gotten in the second grade. But what to do for a computer? All of the electronics books in the local libraries were hopelessly out of date, and the twenty chips supplied by Radio Shack, out of hundreds of thousands then available, simply would not do the trick. Flying blind, James began ordering chips based on the pictures and descriptions on data sheets he found at an electronics store. Only much later did he discover a real data book that explained the logic behind the processes and what individual chips can do.

"I remember being in the school library. I knew I had to have a processor, RAM, ROM, an address bus, and a data bus. I drew a box called a processor. Then I drew the RAM and ROM address lines. The microprocessor was a chip with pins on it. A book showed me what the pins did, and I had a printout of a memory chip from the electronics store. I drew my schematic of what should happen -- but it was sheer luck that I got this thing to work."

But work it did. With luck and perseverance, James hand-assembled a machine and wrote a simple program that would take a number, add one, and display it for half a second so that the answer could be read. By the time he was ready to apply for college, he had okay grades, pretty good SATs -- and three robots.


James McLurkin came to MIT ready and eager to meet hundreds of fellow inventors but soon learned that, even at MIT, inventors are not thick on the ground.

"During the first few months I didn't meet anybody who did anything. They were just students. Then I met Tom Massie, a sophomore who had come down to do some problems with a guy on my floor."

It didn't take long for the two to recognize one another. Tom is a white kid from rural Kentucky, James a black kid from New York. But pushing aside these minor differences, they share the same passions, the same tenor of mind -- with one difference:

"Tom's more impulsive than I am," admits James. "He just says: 'Hook it up and let's go,' which shocked me at first. But since I met him, I've gotten more like that myself."

Before they could even go out for pizza (James remembers being ravenous), Tom had dragged him over to the Artificial Intelligence lab and introduced him to Anita Flynn, a graduate student who would become the major influence on James's technical life at MIT. In his sophomore year, Anita hired James to work in the lab under the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

"I didn't realize until about two years ago how much she knew and had done, and how valuable she was to me. She's the absolute best boss in the whole universe. And she really understands people. I still call her to ask what to do with students I supervise."

Ants for the Future

James's twelve "ant" robots of today are a far cry from Rover, his first effort. Measuring a little more than an inch on any side, each ant is powered by its own, tiny internal computer (or processor), which runs three motors -- two for driving and one to control the ant's "mandibles." Each ant has "feelers" and photocoreceptors, just two of the seventeen sensors that allow them to detect and go around obstacles and to move toward light. The ants use their mandibles to pick up any "food" (brass foil balls) they find -- a feat that particularly interests the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Branch of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds James's work.

"Right now, they are little more than entertaining," James explains. "But they will not have to be much more intelligent to be useful. The ideal is to have lots of small machines working together to get the job done."

While building an ant army could be more expensive initially, it is far more reliable than having only one or two large machines. For success does not depend on the competence or survival of any one individual when there are many workers. If a thousand "ants" went out to clear a mine field, for instance, they could succeed even if half or more were blown up or failed to find their target.

"One of the difficult things is to give up on trying to make them perfect. It's easier to overproduce workers than to get them to do things 100 percent right. You have to watch nature to see what's practical and what's not. Nature doesn't worry about things she can't fix."

But robots are complex electromagnetic systems that take years to develop. A motor, for instance, can reset a microprocessor by emitting a lot of electromagnetic interference. The computer will work fine. The motor will work fine -- just not together.

"The fact that I can have twelve robots with this level of complexity that actually work most of the time shows how far we've come in past ten years -- largely because the basic technology has gotten so much better. We now have the little motor controllers we need, and the processors I'm using now -- computers built into one chip -- were simply not available when I first began building robots."

James McLurkin is being paid to pursue his dreams. But while he realizes how lucky he is, he also knows that to fulfil his twin ambitions of building what hasn't been built before and having more "toys," he will one day need to start a company of his own.

"My parents worked very, very hard to make sure I had everything I needed -- and most of what I wanted -- to keep my mind going." Succeeding is his way of paying them back. "And there is another thing I have to do: help minorities in science. I have to turn around and lift up, which becomes more important as technology progresses."

Now that the troublemaker has turned teacher, he offers two pieces of advice to inventors of the future: question everything, and never give up.

He has already found at least one star among the eight undergraduates he's supervised so far. How does he know?

"When they're not listening to you, you know you have a good one."

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

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