Let it flow

We haven’t met each other in person, yet I feel no need to explain myself to you. I already know how alike we are because of the things you post, your words and pictures resonate with me and make me feel good. That’s all the reassurance I need to write this story. Words don’t come as easily to me as drawing so bear with me because I want to start at the beginning.

I’ve always been drawn to geometry. The simplicity of a circle. The strength and versatility of a triangle, the fixed order of a square — but most of all I love spirals. At every scale of nature they exist to unify physical laws and bring beauty to their worlds — whether being hauled on the back of a snail, sealed inside a rock, disappearing down your plug hole when you brush your teeth or exploding forwards like the helix nebula of a dying star. Spirals delight me.

The simplicity of a spiral

I also rejoice in the man-made geometry of our great religious buildings — just look at those ceilings! They transfix my attention (I’ve never been interested in religious words) and I look at them with awe. They demonstrate a perfect intersection between what I deem spiritual (natural law) and what is material. I’m in good company when it comes to appreciating this, which isn’t surprising as geometry existed before creation so all of mankind has experienced it in some form.

‘Geometry will draw the soul toward truth and create the spirit of philosophy’ — Plato

About fifteen years ago we were approaching winter and I could feel that slump, the sense of tension, of deflation, knowing I wouldn’t be basked in warm sunlight for at least another eight months — how was I going to do it? (I’d never been skiing so hadn’t experienced ‘winter sun’). Winters in England aren’t cruel but they can be long and grey. I needed a strategy to deal with what I could definitely relate to as a seasonally affected disorder.

In this particular autumn, it was the one after September 11th (I remember that) and the media was over baked with negativity, exuding fear through every orifice (though this was pre-social media so it was easier to turn it off). My father-in-law had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, which is a twisted sentence of death and required great resolve.

I also had a couple of friends who were struggling with depression. And hey, I get that, I am a full spectrum person, but it’s not a ball and chain to me like it was to them. If I look after myself I tend to be able to stay on the brighter side of my life. But I know how dark it can be, I really do. It’s a delicate balance. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow is a phrase I discovered to describe my own mind sometimes. I would visualise depression as a dark downward spiral. When you are gripped it’s nearly fucking impossible to see your way back out. Every thing can feel hopeless and especially paralysing is the thought that no one else could possibly relate to you. That’s crushing and isolating and can make you really sad and desperately lonely.

If you visualise depression it can be like a dark downward spiral.

The weather was getting worse. Winter was coming. The Brits like to complain about the weather too (as if that makes it better). They like to complain about a lot of things. They like it if they can blame someone else. I don’t. I like to take responsibility for myself. I like to take a shitty situation and make it better. I guess that’s why I’m an inventor. I have a lot of positive energy and I try to talk things up rather than bring them down. But I can be my own worst enemy. I can also be my best friend… so I started to toy with the idea of being able to visualise bad weather as an upward spiral of light. The polar opposite to my mind’s eye’s picture of depression. The worse the weather was, the brighter it would shine. I wanted to see the wind. I wanted other people to see it too. I had a overwhelming desire to create what I called windlight.

I set about work. At least, I started to draw up some ideas and think about a possible design. The objective being to capture the wind from any direction and to instantly transform it in to a mesmerising upward spiral of light to demonstrate the beauty of renewable energy and give hope that a new world was emerging. I loved the idea of that, an upward spiral of light could be a symbol of sustainability, of something that felt good and could lift your mood. Anything to counteract the grim notion of a dark downward spiral.

Early Firewinder sketches

It took me some time to turn my drawings into a real thing. A few years in fact. Inventing things take ages and isn’t easy. If you don’t know why then PLEASE WATCH THIS. I was working on another invention (I pioneered mobile 360° VR imaging). Then I had a car crash that took me a long time to recover from. That made me have to dig even deeper but when I felt down I would meditate on a positive visualisation of an upward spiral. It just somehow helped me through the months and years of rehabilitation. It helped me to park my frustrations by visualising something positive, albeit only in my mind’s eye. I have a powerful imagination that I’ve fostered since I was a very small child. I think my greatest triumph is holding on to it and not allowing myself to become cynical. I can always imagine better.

When my VR imaging business failed in 2007 (I was many years ahead of the curve) due to circumstances out of my control— I realised that now was the time to pick myself up, dust myself down and focus on the windlight project that had been burning like a star in my mind’s eye.

I pulled together a small team — an electronics wizard, a brilliant friend called Joe with commercial sense and a little cash for patents and prototypes and me — and together we bravely worked to bring my idea to life and The Firewinder Company was born. It made a glowing spiral in a gentle breeze and a pillar of light that span so fast that it appeared to phase backwards in a strong wind. It was hurricane proof and most impressive to see.

Before we went into production, my wife Charlie and I visited Borobudur temple in Java on honeymoon, where I chatted with a Buddhist teacher called Jack. Naturally I talked about my work. Jack loved the idea of Firewinder but had one question for me. ‘Does it turn clockwise?’

‘Like a prayer wheel, it must turn clockwise to evoke the good spirits.’ — Jack

Taking Jack for his word I re-engineered the wing to turn in a clockwise direction, while maintaining an upward spiral. A clockwise rotation matches the direction the sun travel across the sky (as observed from our point of view in the northern hemisphere) and was the basis for the first sun dials, which naturally evolved in to the first clocks. It made sense to me that the spiral should turn clockwise so I was happy to oblige.

Flashback. Me aged thirty — visiting Borobudur on honeymoon in Java.

By virtue of good design Firewinder became well recognised in the (very niche) eco-design world and went on to win the Green Design Award in the US in 2009. I remember getting whooped with applause at the awards ceremony in LA. It was a wonderful feeling to have a pat on the back for a project that we’d sacrificed so much for to bring to the world (you don’t get paid to invent things — so I earned an income any which way I could).

But we hit an issue with a bearing that seized up after several months of outdoor use (our suppliers had cut a corner with the specification). We couldn’t sell any more products. At the same time the world went in to recession and toxic repayments on a loan from a particular UK bank literally strangled us. This was well before the birth of crowdfunding. The business stalled and the project started to spiral down (commercially speaking).

But before we packed up the lights we made a wonderful installation on the top of Glastonbury Tor one January weekend. We approached English Heritage and the National Trust who both advised us that no one had ever illuminated the Tor before because neither electricity nor fire were allowed there, but as our device was wind-powered they saw no reason to restrict its use. It was magical and on the second night the wind blew so hard it could be seen from two miles away. Locals reported extra terrestrial lights and the BBC West news team turned up to film it. Hundreds of people came out in the cold to witness what was a spectacle.

Firewinders on Glastonbury Tor one chilly January evening

But alas, The Firewinder Company was no more and the hundred or so Firewinders we had left went in to storage. Firewinder made it in to a number of rather nice coffee table books about sustainable design and I discovered a couple of other products that were directly inspired by it. So I am hugely proud to have brought the project to life. But ultimately I put the project to rest, notching up all the lessons you can from a wonderful experience but ultimately a commercial failure.

In the years proceeding, I focused on other inventions, grew a family, had a television series and continued on my meandering path.

In 2015 I launched a different renewable energy powered LED invention called the Million Mile Light. I developed it with my friends Ben and Jono who are both engineers. It was inspired by my love for running. We successfully launched it on Kickstarter. MML is motion powered and creates a pulse of light to keep you visible — whether you walk, hike or run. It’s neat. I love the simplicity and the symbolism of it. Be the light! The hard lessons I learned with Firewinder on reliability and quality control I was able to apply to the advantage of this design.

But I never had any plans to revisit Firewinder and so time passed.

Then this summer Ben came to visit me and he bought with him a remarkable solar powered engine that he had built. Ben is an ingenious chap, a micro renewable energy engineer who loves to tinker and we share a joy of ultra efficient innovation that does something remarkable with a minuscule amount of power. It’s the opposite to being into drag racing or Formula One I guess.

Ben’s engine design was so simple, efficient and elegant — as well as being totally silent - that it naturally lent itself to being used with a spiral. He had already envisioned this, he left me the engine and I immediately set about making one. Of course, it had to be encouraged to spiral upwards, in a clockwise direction.

The first UPLIFT prototype

This first prototype was so lovely. It sat on a window sill at home for days, waking up in the morning when it was cast with the first rays of sunlight, spiralling silently through the day and going to sleep when the sun sets. It had a really calming feel to it and everyone who encountered it was taken by its positive effect.

‘It’s so satisfying’ — Poppy

Knowing that the energy powering it comes from the sun and seeing the precision motor suspended above the base demonstrates what beauty can be achieved with the tiniest amount of power.

UPLIFT wakes up in the morning

Ben and I agreed to collaborate to make the project a reality. We shared exactly the same dream for it to be… well to just be what it is… but we wanted to make it perfectly, exquisitely. We showed Jono, who loved it. Then, fortuitously, my friend and colleague Matt came to see me about some other projects and I showed it to him. His first impression of the solar spiral, which we were playfully calling ying-yang, was so positive that he too was inspired and offered to help us bring the creation to life — and so UPLIFT was born. But this wasn’t a commercial venture — more an exploration around the concept of uplifting art in the form of kinetic sculpture — but a project we all felt like undertaking. An experiment if you like, not a business plan. Will other people like it too?

In the few months following I have been devoted to fine-tuning the design. Working every night filling up three sketch books… and counting. While Ben has honed the technical essentials for the solar engine over the past twelve months there’s still been a huge amount of work in refining the design to make it really special. But, as ever, the art is in keeping it simple.

The geometry had to be perfect

Using custom-made glass, precision machined parts, a laser cut wooden wing with a geometrically perfect form and a weighted base we have resolved a design we are very happy with.

A walnut wing with a concrete base

The electronic solution we use is remarkably simple — it’s essentially a bit of circuitry published in the 1960’s called a flip-flop but it works with incredibly low power, so the wing turns in very low light (think Scandinavian winters), however, due to its simplicity, the wing can just as easily turn clockwise as it can anti-clockwise. There’s no mechanical way of preventing this without introducing noise and inefficiency. We felt that the silent operation is sacred.

For a brief while we explored making the electronic design more technically advanced so that we can carefully control speed and force the direction of rotation. But in order to overcome the limitations with the basic prototype we needed to use a configuration of copper coils like a stepper motor and that meant more cost and complexity, a micro computer chip with a more industrial looking aesthetic. We tested it but the approach felt distinctively overkill (it’s very easy to over engineer a design). The elegance and reliability of the system was compromised and more components required a higher overhead of power — so the system didn’t start to work until the light was brighter, which required a bigger solar panel that was unsightly.

While we didn’t want to accidentally evoke any bad spirits by having the wing flow downwards, we also wanted to optimise the design for low light. But it made me question the notion of good and bad spirits! I mean, what are they? It’s just made up, right? Does it really matter which way the wing turns? I like the sentiment of good spirits but maybe Uplift should be neutral and just visualise flow. You, as the observer, can then decide if you want to intentionally cause it to flow upwards or down. You are the cause and you can effect change with your interaction, but the flow is always there, powered by the sun’s energy.

I decided that really, there is no wrong or right way. Steam rises, whirlwinds and smoke flow upwards — molten lava, water falls and whirlpools flow down. If you live in the northern hemisphere the sun moves clockwise across the sky, in the southern hemisphere the sun moves the other way. So it’s up to you!

However, I personally preferred the aesthetic and symbolic feeling of an upward spiralling wing and so we developed a means where you can interact with the wing using a magnetic wand — so you choose the direction.

Using the wand provided, and stowed in the base, you can interact with the wing direction to please yourself.

In building, testing and animating numerous models we’ve also ascertained that a slower, gentle pace is most desirable. By rotating the motor at 30 RPM the effect is 60 upward waves per second, which is in time with a healthy resting heart beat. That seems to feel right.

We are achieving this by using a digital electronic control chip housed in the solar panel enclosure, which is optimised to pulse the single coil at a fixed frequency at all light levels so it can’t ever over-spin in bright sunshine.

An animation of our first UPLIFT design tuned to turn at 30 upwards waves per minute

I have been building more prototypes and further refining the design while we shape our first product offering. The plan is to make it work perfectly on a window sill, you want to treat it like a plant as it thrives in sunlight.

Silent and sustainable operation that lasts forever

Testing different materials and engaging with UK suppliers. The plan is to hand assemble and finish these ourselves. We want to start small and don’t necessarily have an intention to put them in mass production — let’s just see.

Fine tuning the design

We will release the first generation UPLIFT as a kinetic sculpture for indoor spaces in a couple of sizes with a couple of different material variations. Thus presenting folk with a way they can also enjoy the relaxing effects in their own home.

Visualise positive energy FLOW.
An UPWARD spiral to lift your mood.
CLOCKWISE rotation to evoke the good spirits.
Powered by THE SUN.

Just the sun, using no plastic, with a design that is engineered to last a lifetime. The rest is kinetic geometry in motion.

It’s all about POSITIVE ENERGY FLOW and UPLIFT gently inspires the visualisation of that.

We are planning to launch on Kickstarter in March 2018 with a limited edition batch — all handmade and finished here in nmy home town of Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

If you’re interested to learn more, please sign up here so that we have your email and I can let you know when we’re ready.

Feel free to reach out to me because I would simply LOVE to know what you think? My hope is that this project get’s off the ground and grows in to something beautiful and uplifting.

Yours,

Tom

‘Let me bask in the light of your reflected glory’ — my friend Roma Chamberlain
The solar system’s spiralling motion through space. Animation copyright of PortalToAscension

What people are saying…

‘Beautiful. I love it’ — Gemma Rowbotham, Ivory Magazine
‘Wow! What a beautiful way to make visible the energy that powers the world. Talk about an uplifting idea’ — Kate Raworth, Donut Economics
‘That sir is a thing of beauty’ Tom Herbert, Baker
‘Wow. This looks amazing Tom. I’d love to buy one for the Calm office’ — Michael Acton Smith, Founder of Calm.com
‘I love this’ — Mark Shayler, Eco-designer
‘Beautiful’ — Maxine Bennett, Interior Designer