Distinguished Alum Bill Wattenburg:
The Answers Are Right under Your Nose

Inventor, author, and KGO talk show host spoke
on campus during Founders Week.
(photo Jeff Teeter)
When scientist and inventor Bill Wattenburg is called on by the Pentagon, Livermore Laboratory, or UC, Davis to solve an engineering problem, he draws on a notion he first learned as a CSU, Chico engineering student back in the late fifties: usually the simplest solutions work the best.

This was the focus of his talk to Chico State engineering students when the distinguished alumnus was on campus for Founders Week.

Wattenburg, who graduated from CSU, Chico and went on to a Berkeley Ph.D., said Chico State is still one of the best engineering schools in the country. This is because of its hands-on work in the laboratory: "The actual building of things," as he put it, "rather than just talking about them."

To illustrate what "the actual building of things" has meant to him, the inventor, consultant, researcher, author, and talk show host for KGO Newstalk in San Francisco, began with his own experience.

Soon after he left Chico State, Wattenburg recalled, he moved some equipment into a Berkeley warehouse. Needing to protect it but finding burglar alarms too expensive, he looked for a better solution.

He found one in the existing wall wiring. By circumventing what was then considered the "purist notion" of using only high frequency 120-cycle wiring, he dropped to a 60-cycle frequency and invented the predecessor to the modern day burglar alarm.

Wattenburg never forgot that the answer had been right under his nose, and still looks close to home to solve such disparate problems as nuclear test failure, the quick rebuilding of earthquake damaged freeways, and the invention of robots for desert warfare—all projects he's been involved in.

As the world grows more complex, he explained, engineers and scientists not only tend to overlook the simplest solutions to problems, but they often don't even have the tools to discover them.

"The simplest procedures have been lost," he lamented, giving the example of being asked by the Edison power company to hook up a new live transformer—a skill that used to be routinely taught in engineering classes, before the days of computers.

Yet even computers rely on circuit power. "What happens when the lights go out?" asked Wattenburg. "You'd better know how to fix them."

For Wattenburg, "fixing the lights" has meant more than transformer hookups. He cited the time he was called on to troubleshoot during a Nevada test site countdown.

"We got to ground zero," he said about the countdown, "and nothing happened. We had three hundred people with the most sophisticated equipment in the world and couldn't figure out why."

Help came from an old timer who said the problem was probably not that complex. Wattenburg decided the man was right, and soon discovered that someone had merely neglected to set a twenty-second over-ride timer.

Sometimes invention as well as prevention has been right under Wattenburg's nose.

After the Northridge earthquake, he was asked to find a quick way to repair split freeway towers.

"It was costing twenty million bucks a day in lost productivity," Wattenburg recalled, "and they figured it would take five months to repair." That was with traditional methods.

Instead, Wattenburg hit on the idea of using discarded railroad flatcars hooked together Lego-like into modular units.

A flatcar, he said, "is the best engineered structural module in the world. It doesn't twist or bend, and takes one hundred tons in the middle. And there's a surplus of them all over the world."

Best of all, the repairs cost $30,000 and could be put up in four hours. His simple solution is now being adapted in South America and the Caribbean.

Lately, Wattenburg has put his energy into some ongoing inventions for the Pentagon. One is a sand robot easily made for $2,500.

Unlike the spider-like failure seen in the movie Volcano, which toppled and fell when faced with loose shale, Watenburg's robot uses the sand beetle principle. That's what his robot, stabilized by screws, is designed to do. A version might hide underground and raise a periscope for spying, or wait for a tank before unscrewing itself as a bomb.

It's an idea that could, as he put it, "be the end of ground warfare.

"These are the kinds of things I learned to do in Chico," he summed up. "My message to students is, you can learn the same thing in your labs."


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