The Mythbusters' Guide to Gonzo Engineering
For Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, DIY isn't just for their Discovery Channel TV show—it's a way of life. Jamie and Adam guest edited the September issue of Popular Mechanics, and gave PM exclusive tours of their workshops. In this feature, the Mythbusters show us around, explaining the history of the show and demonstrating how they develop—and test—their favorite ideas.
By Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage
On a dead-end street in an industrial corner of east San Francisco stands an unremarkable two-story building. A modest sign identifies the premises as the headquarters of M5 Industries, a special-effects company started in 1994 by Jamie Hyneman—today best known as the star of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters—and where his co-star Adam Savage was once also employed. Another, smaller sign politely urges sightseers to go away. There are no tours, autograph signings or opportunities to purchase souvenirs inside.
Except for spooky robots guarding the stairs, M5’s second-floor offices could be those of any small company, with cluttered desks, a computer room and a small kitchen. Whiteboards are everywhere, crammed with top-of-the-brain doodles, rough technical drawings and the complex logistics of planning the MythBusters shooting schedule. In recent years, special-effects work has taken a back seat to the relentless demands of the show, and M5 today functions primarily as home base for the MythBusters production team. (The show’s secondary segments, involving the team of Kari Byron, Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci, are produced at a different location.)
On this Monday morning, the crew is deep into an episode testing the question of whether golf-ball-like dimples on a car body could reduce aerodynamic drag and improve fuel economy. Compared to crashing two semi trucks head-on (episode 41) or trying to tip over a remote-control city bus (episode 115), today’s challenge might seem straightforward. But Jamie and Adam still have to clear some daunting engineering hurdles—while sticking to the show’s breakneck production schedule.
MythBusters attracts nearly 2 million viewers per episode, making the six-year-old series one of the most enduring hits on cable television. Its two stars have become global celebrities, much in demand for speaking engagements and conferences. So visitors to the workshop may wonder: Where is the entourage? Where is the army of shop workers to do the grunt work? A handful of production coordinators handle the office telephones, but the usual Hollywood scrum of personal assistants, publicists, cappuccino wranglers and the like is nowhere in evidence.
Jamie, it turns out, is already at work in the machine shop downstairs. I find him at a worktable, using calipers to measure the diameter of a bowling ball. He switches to a golf ball, taking measurements that he transfers to a pad, muttering numbers to himself. He and Adam intend to experiment on a real car, but like all good eggheads, they also want laboratory data. They’ve booked time at a nearby NASA wind tunnel, where their first test will try to establish just how much those dimples really do reduce aerodynamic drag on a golf ball.
Unfortunately, they’ve learned that an actual golf ball is too small to produce accurate data. Solution: Jamie has decided to drill dimples into the surface of a bowling ball to create a giant, scaled-up model of a golf ball, one big enough to test in a wind tunnel. Which leads him to the question he is now pondering: Just how deep are those dimples in a golf ball, anyway?
First, Jamie tries to set ball bearings into the golf-ball depressions. When none fit, he switches to washers and discovers that an 8-32 washer is a perfect match. He scales the tiny washer to a larger one and clamps it to the 5/8-inch spade bit that he’ll use to drill the dimples in the bowling ball. After tracing the new curve onto the bit, he grinds away extra material—a custom tool in 10 minutes.
He hauls out an old bowling ball that the MythBusters shot out of a homemade cannon (episode 118). They sanded the ball to fit in the cannon, so it’s not smooth enough to repurpose—a favorite MythBuster strategy—but it’ll do as a test piece. Using a sheet of thin plastic, Jamie makes a template to mark where the dimples should go and tries a few test depressions. Satisfied with the technique, he yells upstairs to see if his lone intern is back with a fresh ball. Nope. Jamie grimaces. He has 51/2 hours to finish the build.
Meanwhile, Adam breezes into the wood shop and sets a plastic remote-control model car down on a workbench; trailing behind is Huxley, Adam’s medium-size mutt. Since the NASA wind tunnel is too small to accommodate a full-size car, Adam is going to use the toy to make a mold for two model cars—one with dimples, one without. He moves to a table saw and cuts a piece of Trupan, a lightweight fiberboard that he’ll use to fill some of the mold’s casting volume. Huxley doesn’t bark or bolt at the sound of the saw—a real MythBuster dog. In less time than it takes to read this sentence, Adam test-fits the workpiece in the model and adjusts the saw fence three times. He cuts the rest of the pieces so quickly that it seems remarkable he has all his fingers.
On TV, Jamie, 52, comes across as the cerebral engineer, while Adam, 42, plays the role of the manic artist. In person, that distinction is even more pronounced. Adam races into every task, often working by eye and tweaking the design as he goes. And no build is considered finished until he has added some trademark visual flourish. His internal throttle is always on full. “There’s nobody faster than Adam,” says Alice Dallow, the director of the show’s Jamie and Adam segments. “He figures it out on the fly.”
The south half of the ground floor of m5 is a wide-open space filled with obscure fasteners, actuators, batteries, welders, stacks of plywood—all the tools you can imagine, even an automated CNC milling machine. It’s a serious bit of kit, a dream shop for any backyard tinkerer.
The space is meticulously laid out and organized. Everything is labeled. Most tools rest on open shelves for quick retrieval. It’s neat, almost surgically antiseptic. Jamie talks about the place as though it’s a church, which probably resonates with anyone who has a favorite shop. “It’s a living, breathing organism,” he says. “Its character has been formed by the experiences inside.”
The south wall is dramatically defined by metal shelves that rise to the 20-foot ceiling. On those shelves are 600 labeled crates—Foliage, Suits and Booties, Tank Parts. One container, way up high, is labeled Blendo. Tucked inside is the killer robot that started it all.
When Adam worked for M5, he and Jamie collaborated on the mischievously named Blendo and entered it twice in an annual San Francisco event called Robot Wars. The now-defunct competition featured robots dueling to the death, the nerd version of a steel-cage match. Blendo’s outer skin is an inverted wok; two opposing blades jut menacingly from the base. The bot spins as it moves; in the ring, it shredded opposing machines, flinging shrapnel into the crowd. Both years, after Blendo won its first two matches, organizers awarded it the heavyweight prize—and then prohibited it from completing the competition because of concerns about safety. But in 2002 when Discovery Channel producers were casting a new show called MythBusters, somebody remembered Blendo. Jamie got a call. “I figured the odds of the show turning into anything were lower than the odds of getting hit by lightning,” he says. “So, excited? Well, no, not really. I rarely get excited.”
In retrospect, Jamie’s first choice for a co-host—Adam—seems surprising. After all, Adam had lasted only a few years at M5. As much as Adam’s speed was a huge asset in the notoriously fast-paced special-effects industry, the two men sometimes butted heads over the mess the Adam whirlwind leaves behind.
While they’re not best friends—“We don’t hang out,” Jamie says—they have learned to appreciate each other. “There’s nobody that either of us would rather work with,” he continues, “because we know we’re both capable in our own style.” Adam adds: “We can drive each other nuts, but there’s a commonality between us that makes collaborating such a pleasure. We both work very hard to get a concept into our heads, and then we work very hard to trade back and forth what we’re thinking through a process called arguing.”
“That back and forth is comparable to a couple of dogs that have gotten hold of a towel and then start yanking on it,” Jamie says. “The process shakes out a lot of things we would otherwise miss, and by the time we’re done arguing and batting things back and forth, we’ve got the solution.”
Jamie is extremely methodical, a classic engineer type, taking in information, turning it over in his mind and then outputting a response. “He thinks everything through before he starts,” Dallow says. “And his build will be as simple as you can possibly imagine. He’s not interested in fancy color schemes.”
Jamie is the Spock of the team; logic trumps all with him. He shows little emotion—unlike Adam, who sometimes wears a T-shirt that reads, “I’m the excitable one.” It’s not that Jamie lacks passion; he’s just deadpan about it. A discussion about a favorite project—say, the life-size robots parked under the stairs—can turn into an entertaining and instructive lecture. He built the wheeled bots, which look straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie, in just three weeks for a GE commercial. Their signature feature is what Jamie calls a superjoint, which simulates an elbow joint. (He’s applied for a patent on the design.) With two cordless electric-drill motors (“one of my favorite powerplants”) mounted in line with the upper arm and hooked to the side gears of a differential gearbox, he designed an arm that functions like the real thing. Spin both motors in the same direction to raise the forearm; reverse one motor to rotate the hand. “It’s twice the power for any movement without adding any weight,” he says.
Jamie finds inspiration at swap meets and hardware stores, keeping a “rolling inventory” of material that may prove useful. To solve particularly tough problems, however, he goes into Jamie-land—a metaphorical room of a certain size and shape. “I get on a treadmill and start walking,” he says. “It’s like hitting a switch. Once I’m in that room, I re-create the parts I’m working on. I pull in one part after another and move them around, trying things. An hour later, it’s like I don’t know what happened. I just wake up, soaking wet from the exertion. The problem was solved but I was totally unaware of time passing.”
He grew up in Indiana, studied Russian linguistics at Indiana University (“it was interesting at the time”), owned a Caribbean dive shop and worked as a boat captain. Although landing in the special-effects industry might seem like the hand of fate, it was planned. “I went to the library and researched different industries,” he says. “The effects industry seemed to be the perfect place for my natural mechanical aptitude and the skills I’d picked up along the way. Plus, it was possible to earn a living doing something fun. Everyone should do what they find fun, because if you do, your passion leads to success.”
Adam’s home workshop reflects the inspiration he finds in “a certain amount of visual cacophony.” With limited space at his urban address, he jams an alarming number of tools and old props into a 10 x 12 room off an underground, single-car garage. In the suburbs the space would be a good-size walk-in closet.
At first glance the workshop looks like the lair of a classic pack rat, but closer inspection reveals an order to the madness. Below a workbench are 22 Sortimo organizers filled with “all the fasteners I’ll need forever.” Shelves cover every wall and even the lone window. Spools of wire hang behind the door. “I hate looking for things,” he says. “A good shop has to have first-order retrievability, so I don’t have to move anything to get to what I need.”
The shelves hold an eclectic mix of artifacts, like a vintage stopwatch and a medieval armored glove, as well as some unfinished projects. In his limited spare time, Adam painstakingly re-creates movie props. He built a working R2-D2 and a copy of the Maltese Falcon. He’s currently reproducing the Zorg ZF-1 egg gun from the movie The Fifth Element and is relishing the art of gunsmithing. (“I’m almost done with it,” he says. “I’ve been working on it for, like, 12 years.”) His off-hours work seems to favor his artistic side, like the King Kong statue he’s painting, but he thinks it’s wrong to separate art from engineering. “Someone who designs a really good carburetor is going through the same process as a painter,” he says.
Growing up outside New York City, Adam had free rein with his father’s hardware-store charge account. He worked alongside machinists and welders, picking up skills on the job. He studied drama at New York University, worked with robotic sculptor Chico MacMurtrie and finally landed in San Francisco’s special-effects community. His reputation for quick problem-solving and construction—“I like screwing it up twice and still doing it better than the guy who did it once”—led to the gig building props for Jamie at M5. After M5, Adam worked at a toy company and then joined Industrial Light & Magic, the special-effects outfit founded by George Lucas. Then came Jamie’s call to join MythBusters.
Back at the worktable, with a cameraman filming over his shoulder, Adam coats the inside of the mold with wax and then with a layer of mold-release spray. The delicate model-car mold is the only one available; if Adam damages it, the shoot is over. So he very carefully ensures that every corner is covered. The two-part polyurethane resin generates heat as it reacts, which could distort the mold. He has to make two models with it, so he pours in a small amount of the resin to form an insulating layer. After a few minutes, he puts on a breathing filter and mixes the resin with glass microballoons, a filler material. He pours in the mixture, sets in the Trupan blocks and puts the mold aside. Cut!
As fun as it is to watch Jamie and Adam produce mechanical oddities, it’s interesting to see how the MythBuster team has reinforced the value of science, engineering and the art of building things. In recent years science and math education in American schools has suffered as shifting priorities have reduced opportunities for students to perform hands-on experimentation.
By investigating urban legends and half-baked engineering “truths”—proving some, debunking others—Jamie and Adam have played an important role in changing attitudes about science. The show’s genius is that beneath the kinetics and risky stunts—spectacular car crashes, explosions and other dangerous merriment—is a cleverly veiled science show that instructs as it entertains, which any teacher will tell you is a real feat. “I like to think,” Jamie says, “that there’s a whole do-it-yourself sort of mentality that is growing.”
If the decades ahead produce another Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, odds are that he or she will have grown up watching MythBusters. The workshop’s office is covered with drawings made and sent by children. “We’ve shown that it’s a lot easier to get hands-on experience than people think,” Jamie says. “You can memorize how to do something, but unless you internalize the information, it’s just a pile of data sitting on a table. Hands-on experience is what allows you to make it part of your brain; it brings that data to life.”
It’s 3:30 pm—just 2 hours from the deadline for wrapping up the day’s shoot. Adam’s mutt Huxley naps, while his equally relaxed owner adjusts the chuck of a lathe in the machine shop. His next task—drilling dimples into one of the cast car models. He’s making a sleeve that he hopes will fit over a drill bit and quickly produce the right dimples. “I very much enjoy cutting a couple of thousandths off a piece.”
The intern has delivered a new bowling ball, so now Jamie is back at the drill press, dimpling the 10-pounder. It takes almost an hour of drilling the holes to just the right depth and repositioning the ball, a sequence Jamie performs 321 times without stopping. While it sounds like assembly-line drudgery, Jamie doesn’t mind. “I enjoy the opportunity to turn off my mind,” he says. In fact, I hear him humming. Could it be “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”?
Meanwhile, Adam finishes the drill-bit sleeve and sets to work on the 24-inch-long car casting. He drills a couple of dimples, but the results are not quite right. He tries a few without the sleeve and learns that he can get the desired result without the piece he’s spent half an hour crafting. “Sometimes you go down a path, and it’s not the right one,” he says. “So you have to start all over again. It’s like throwing money into a bad poker hand. You have to know when to stop.” Adam’s demeanor wouldn’t suggest he has the patience for this repetitive work, yet he plows right through it. “It’s like cleaning up a room,” he says. “You pick up one thing at a time.” In 45 minutes, he drills 732 dimples.
Now it’s 4:30. The only thing left to do is the painting. Jamie sets his ball under the painting booth and goes to work with a spray can, moving slowly, precisely. Adam takes his turn, moving his spraying arm quickly back and forth past one of the model cars. “The trick is to spray past the object you’re painting,” he says. “See? It’s easy.” His hand is a blur.