Inspired by a backyard inventor, a band of California young people are completing a decade's labor of love on their own solar collector, a dazzling cathedral of mirrors and metal that turns sunlight into energy.
Howard Frank Broyles (reclining, right), the inventor, and his jubilant crew perch on the structural support of Sunfire's vast glass parabola. Above: Sunfire with its array of 240 parabolic glass mirrors.
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The California teenagers who built Sunfire could have made it more believable if they had made it less beautiful. When the solar collector's vast glass parabola reaches up to the sun, and its 240 mirrors bedazzle a pair of high-pressure boilers into making steam, the idea of a bunch of kids building this cathedral of clean energy seems as preposterous as that of a single stonemason building Chartres.
Yet they did, and their 40-foot-high, 20-ton machine is nearly finished after almost 10 years of work. Now the kids and their adult mentor, a backyard inventor who started Sunfire on a $10 bet, are setting their sights on delivering it. As soon as they have the last bugs worked out, they hope to disassemble it, pack all 20 tons of it into cargo containers and ship it to one of the most isolated human habitations on the face of the earth, Pitcairn Island, in the South Pacific. There they will set it up again and turn it over, as a gift, to the 65 people who live on the island, most of them descendants of Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers who, almost 200 years ago, put Captain Bligh in a whaleboat and took over H.M.S. Bounty.
Solar energy would be a blessing for Pitcairn, which has an energy crisis far worse than our own. The island depends entirely on foreign oil about 60 barrels a year and, since the Arab oil embargoes, can no longer be sure of its supply. Sometimes Pitcairners run their two electric refrigerators and 16 freezers only a few hours a week to retard food spoilage. Sunfire's first contact with the island came in 1972, one year before the first embargo. Pitcairn's shortwave radio operator, who had been hearing ham gossip about a big solar collector being built in Southern California, called a radio station in Glendale to ask if there was any way for the island to get it. The operator was Tom Christian, Fletcher's 44-year-old great-great-great grandson. Tom and the kids have been in radio contact ever since.
The bet that set Sunfire in motion was made in the late 1960's by a lean, energetic man named Howard Frank Broyles. At that time, Broyles, who is now 48, was working as an engineering aide at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Engineering aides are the technicians who set up experiments for rocketeers, astrophysicists and other lab luminaries; waiters at the table of science. But Broyles, who has always been deficient in humility, kept grousing that the Government was not taking solar energy seriously enough.
"They were claiming you'd have to spend $70,000 or $80,000 a kilowatt to build a solar collector," he recalls, "and that you'd never get one to provide more than 15 percent of the power needs of a residential house. I said that all you needed was an inventor instead of a pack of bureaucrats and you could build one of those things for $500 a kilowatt. I said I could build one myself.
"At that point, someone said, 'I'll bet you $10 you can't.' Whoever it was, I said, 'You're on.' "
Broyles figured that his own house, a 15-room monster, needed 5,000 watts of power; that would be Sunfire's performance criterion. He would build a five-kilowatt machine at a cost of $2,500.
Broyles plundered local libraries for information on solar energy, and decided to build a machine called a concentrator, which uses mirrors to focus sunlight on a boiler, where the resultant heat converts water into steam. The steam powers a steam engine, which drives an alternator that produces electricity. In 1970, Broyles plunged into action, welding pieces of steel pipe together in his backyard while his children and friends lent a hand. It was just the sort of improvisational science he loved, and he needed work he could love just then. He and his wife were near the end of a marriage all but shattered by tragedy. Two of their six children had died of leukemia. Then a 4-year-old son drowned in their swimming pool.
After their second child's death in 1967, Howard and Jackie Broyles brought foster children into their home: 27 in all, some for a few months, some for years; one, Michele, became their adopted daughter. In the wake of the $10 bet, these youngsters were the beginnings of the Sunfire work force.
The tubular steel framework quickly rose above the backyard fence like the start of another Watts Tower. Cars stopped. Neighborhood children drifted in. One was 10-year-old Tim Benson, the preacher's son from down the street. "Howard was a genius to me," recalls Tim, now 17. "He was always doing off-the-wall things. He and my dad built a cannon one year to show the kids what an old-fashioned Fourth of July was all about."
One regular visitor was Ed Lind, a neighbor who had a barber shop in Glendale, and one of Ed's customers was Herb Ford, who did publicity for "The Voice of Prophecy," a Seventh-day Adventist radio program then in Glendale. Its staff maintained shortwave contact with Pitcairn Island, which was converted by Adventist missionaries in the late 19th century.
In the best of times, life on Pitcairn is precarious. The islanders grow vegetables in minuscule gardens (the whole island is less than two miles square) and go fishing in outboard-powered longboats. Their main export is postage stamps. Freighters call as infrequently as every nine months. When Tom Christian heard about Sunfire through "The Voice of Prophecy," he asked a staff member to relay his urgent interest to Broyles and the youngsters.
"At first, we wondered if we should sell them the machine," Broyles says. "But that didn't seem practical, so the kids said, 'Let's give it to them. There has to be a demonstration anyway, so why not demonstrate it over there?' " Even though they had nothing to demonstrate still without mirrors or boilers, the machine was only a spindly framework with heroic hopes hung on it the kids and their leader radioed their decision to Christian.
"Tom was thrilled," says Broyles "But he wanted to know about the output. We were so brash. We said five kilowatts. And we all believed it. The only concrete problem we discussed was how the tides in Bounty Bay would affect the whaleboat when we brought the machine ashore."
As word of the Pitcairn project spread around the Pasadena area, more young people came on board. A whole physics class from Crescenta Valley High School made Sunfire their class project in 1974. The energy crisis was new. California youngsters who had never thought of the sun as anything but a big bulb to get tan under were thrilled to be working with solar energy.
Broyles wasn't quite that thrilled to be working with them. There were too many, too soon, and they didn't take care of his tools: "Earlier in my life, I would have kicked them in the behind and told them to get out. You get your machinery out there, and some kid breaks it in half, screws it up, drops something on it. It really hurts, especially if you're someone lacking in good cheer."
If Broyles lacked good cheer then, it was because his marriage had finally come apart. Another couple might have clung more closely together after the children's deaths, but the differences between them were too great. She was vivacious, social, eager to make a career for herself. He was a dreamer, a scientist without a degree, an inventor who had never made a cent from one of his inventions The yard was littered with pieces of his latest one. When Broyles left the huge old house that was never fated to run on solar power, his wife agreed to store the pieces for a few months until he found a new home.
He found a home for himself a little sailboat shop in Altadena that he converted into a machine shop-cum-sofa. Finding a home for Sunfire was more difficult. The machine needed room to grow. With support from Jim Akers, the physics teacher at Crescenta Valley High School, Broyles appealed to his employers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
J.P.L., a center of Government research in solar energy, said no. But a friend outside the lab scored an end run by introducing Broyles to the lab's director, William H. Pickering.
One of the giants of American space science, Dr. Pickering had led the development of Explorer 1, this country's first satellite, and the unmanned space vehicles that roam the solar system. But Dr. Pickering was not the austere presence Broyles anticipated. Warm, gentle and courteous, he had always taken pride in a streak of nonconformity at his lab. The idea of an oddball inventor and a ragtag bunch of high-school kids building their own solar collector delighted him. An Explorer Scout post had already attached itself to the lab. That could provide the project with the insurance it needed to work on J.P.L. property. All the Sunfire crew had to do was join the Scouts.
They paid their first dues, and in November 1975 they brought the pieces of their project to the lab in a motorcade of family cars. Sunfire had its own working space on an outlying parking lot, an electrical hookup and permission to check out tools and equipment. They could only work on a "noninterference basis," which meant mostly after hours and on weekends. Still, J.P.L. was ideal as the project's new home. For Broyles, whose own children had pulled away from him during the turmoil of divorce, the Sunfire kids were a new family. "They were very tender about my feelings," he says. "They were unswerving. Right or wrong, they seemed to trust me."
Broyles is a quietly charismatic character, a Lone Ranger of the energy fields. He regaled the youngsters with stories about his grandfather Frank L. Miller, who, he says, was the model for the bad guy in "High Noon," except that he was a good guy. He told them about his inventions, and about the homemade airplane he taught himself to fly, and the dusty desert towns of his youth with their hot rodders, night draggers and closet inventors, "guys in alleys always building stuff." All his stories were marked by a spirit of spit-in-the-eye independence: It's not enough to dream your dream, you've got to go out and build it.
The Sunfire kids were building, but in 1975 it was still Broyles's dream, not theirs. After all, his helpers were only 15 or 16 years old. Mark White, one of the two high-school students who ultimately became leaders of the project, was more concerned with being a yearbook photographer than a solar technologist. Mark's father, a sales engineer for Lockheed, spent half of each year abroad; Broyles became his surrogate father for the other half. Mark's mother watched the restless boy spread out one project after another all over the house a ship model under construction here, a clock being fixed there and she worried about his lack of stick-to-it-iveness.
Neil Dipprey, the other emerging leader, was a soft-spoken, introspective boy whose father was a division manager at J.P.L. Neil loved to go to the library after school and get books on history and wars, especially World War II. He was between girlfriends and had loads of time on his hands.
Each weekend, Mark, Neil and 20 or 30 other kids would show up at the Sunfire site and do whatever Broyles asked them to. They had had a little high-school physics and math, but no practical experience.' We had no idea what we were doing or why we were doing it," Mark recalls. "We just assumed there was a master plan in a drawer somewhere."
But there was no master plan. Broyles had been improvising the whole thing. And now, unknown to the kids who worshipped him, he had growing doubts about the machine they were putting together. The harder he looked at the theoretical numbers, the less they added up. The concentration of heat seemed too low: not enough reflecting surfaces, and inefficient aluminum-foil ones to boot.
"I started having nightmares," Broyles says. "The machine wasn't going to put out anything like five kilowatts. I was afraid the kids would be crushed. It also began to sink in that I'd involved J.P.L. in this folly. Then I discovered I'd put the boiler in the wrong place. The machine wasn't going to work at all."
The kids were not crushed. To the contrary, they began to realize that their beloved leader, the man they called Herr Doctor, was as fallible as they were. The drawer was empty. It had been empty all along. And since there was no master plan, that meant the kids were free to devise one themselves not as helpers but as full partners.
First, they designed new parabolic racks for the mirrors, six or seven times larger than the old ones. To build them, they raided scrap yards and scavenged some structural steel. They built a massive new base, and a new transport mechanism to swing the racks from east to west, to track the sun. Heavy-duty bearings from diesel trucks replaced the roller-skate variety they had used before. Parts from a Model T, a Corvette and a windmill had already gone into Sunfire's power train. Now a beer keg became a reservoir for the boilers, and another beer keg became a potbellied stove for the construction shack, which the kids dubbed the Oval Office.
To replace the 80 aluminum foil reflectors of the previous design, they devised an array of 240 parabolic glass mirrors to focus the sun's rays on twin boilers in a line of heat, rather than a single point. That would yield temperatures high enough to produce ample steam, but not so high as to require exotic materials or to cause the boilers to go up in smoke.
Each mirror had to be ground individually. The process was not only complex, it was expensive. The kids were able to use a J.P.L. computer for their calculations they claim that part was simple, as if any high-school kid should be able to work out parabolas on a computer. But glass was needed for the mirrors, which would have to be silvered professionally. A machine shop was needed with a mill, governed by the computer tape, that would produce aluminum masters for the young people to use as templates in each of the 240 grinding operations.
Some of the money had come from Boy Scout paper drives and car washes, which the kids loathed since that took time away from their working on Sunfire. The project had a windfall of sorts. When a local doctor who had been building a boat in his backyard died in an accident, one of his sons, who knew of the solar project and admired it, donated the boat to Sunfire. For tax purposes, he gave it to the Explorer Scout post, with the understanding that the post would sell it and turn the proceeds over to the solar-energy project.
By this time, though, the marriage of convenience between scouting and solar energy had gone sour. They were different kinds of kids, as disparate as Pat Boone and Willie Nelson. The Explorer Scouts loved organization, ceremony. The Sunfire kids, with their urgent, sometimes arrogant sense of purpose, saw themselves as a subversive rabble. When the Scouts insisted that the $4,500 from the sale of the boat belonged to the post, rather than to Sunfire, the rabble declared war. In a series of swift political maneuvers, the Sunfire kids toppled the post leadership, installed Mark as chairman and took control of all finances. On the last day of Mark's term of office, Mark and Neil wrote a check for what they felt was Sunfire's rightful share of the boat money, $2,800.
Not even this, however, covered their mounting expenses. Money was becoming a troubling issue. As they watched Broyles shell out his own cash for equipment that couldn't be scrounged, they felt guilty, and they wondered whether they should try to save him from himself. The bet was already a dead letter. Expenses were running as high as $9,000 a year high indeed for a man earning less than $15,000. But Broyles was content to live like a pauper to keep the project alive. Sunfire had taken on a life of its own that transcended finances.
The machine had also grown too big and complex to be dominated by any one person, even the man who started it. In the summer of 1976, Neil, whose gifts for organization were already apparent, became Sunfire's overall coordinator. Mark supervised construction, while Broyles concentrated on the steam engine, converting it from an old Honda-350 motorcycle engine in his machine shop.
It must have been a strange time for him, watching his young helpers pick up the reins of power, but Broyles looks back on it with pride and deep affection: "It was part of the learning thing where I could let loose of trying to do it all myself. I finally realized I better keep my hands out of things, because the kids were doing it better than I was."
The pace of construction accelerated. The superstructure outgrew the ladders. The kids built a 25-foot crane, even though it took a whole summer. Danny Zufall, a gentle boy with a severe stutter who'd been Sunfire's lead welder, was killed in a motorcycle accident. The kids welded his name on the base, in memoriam.
They did the same for 65 year-old John Gossland, who had been a supporter of their work. A week before Gossland died of cancer, the Sunfire kids bribed a nursing-home attendant to let them bring him over to see the machine one last time. They wheeled him up close and held his head so he could see the inscription "With love, John Killian Gossland" welded on the front.
The love that Sunfire inspired in people like him was more for the spirit of the enterprise than for what the kids actually achieved. To a coldly objective eye, the machine that had once been a small, rusty superstructure was now a large, rusty superstructure in an out-of-the-way parking lot. It still had no mirrors. No one at J.P.L. took it seriously enough to visit. But all that changed during Sandblast Summer, the summer of 1978, when Sunfire got a face lift.
"Howard had gone out and bought this sandblaster," Mark says. "We got ourselves two tons of sand and figured, 'O.K., we're going to get out there at 6 o'clock on Saturday morning and we're going to spend all day sandblasting, and then on Sunday we can paint.' Well, we spent the whole summer sandblasting."
When the work was finally done, the kids painted the superstructure a sparkling, virginal white. Suddenly it looked respectable. It looked more than respectable: it looked scientific. J.P.L. scientists came to gawk, ask questions, take notes. The kids fell in love with the beauty and promise of their own machine. Sunfire was going to be finished, after all.
At the end of Sandblast Summer, Mark, who was attending college near J.P.L., took over the manufacture of the mirrors. He transformed it from a one-mirror-a-week operation to an assembly line that produced 20 or more each weekend. Neil, in college in San Diego, devoted all his spare time to researching the problems of getting the machine to Pitcairn and installing it there.
The transportation problem seemed insoluble. When Sunfire was a tad, the kids had blithely assumed that Dr. Pickering, with his close connections in the Defense Department, would get the Navy to ship it to Pitcairn. Once it got there, Tom Christian and his people would load the machine into a whaleboat and haul it ashore in Bounty Bay. But the largest pieces of the new Sunfire would never fit into a whaleboat. And it wouldn't matter if they did. Pitcairn Island, the kids learned, has no harbor. The only entrance to Bounty Bay is through a 50 foot break in the rocks, across dangerous shoals.
Logic dictated the use of a large cargo-carrying helicopter, but that required an aircraft carrier to get it there. Although the kids knew that Sunfire had a friend in Dr. Pickering, they guessed that even his contacts in the Defense Department couldn't commandeer a carrier. It was Neil's job to explore alternatives.
The San Diego libraries yielded nothing but a few pictures of Pitcairn in an old National Geographic But Tom had mentioned in one of his transmissions that Britain's Corps of Royal Engineers had done some work on the island's road and jetty in 1972. Neil tracked down the officer in charge, Maj. Hugh Cowan, at the Royal Engineers' depot in England. Major Cowan wrote back with advice and a sketch map of the island.
Bounty Bay, he warned, is treacherous at all times of the year. The largest vessel that might reach shore safely is a landing craft with a 17-foot maximum cargo space, nowhere near large enough for Sunfire. Worse, the only road leading up from Bounty Bay to the little town, Adamstown, is steep, and it narrows to 10 feet.
There was no stopping the construction, however. The end seemed in sight for the faithful band of workers that included Richard Soikkeli, a tall, serious young man who had been raised by his grandparents; Dave Speakman and his younger sister Bev, both like many of the Sunfire youngsters intense and purposeful; and Lauri Rohn, a sharp-tongued, witty young woman who was also in college at San Diego. The mirrors went up in the summer of 1979. Most of them had been ground by Mark, Lauri and Dave Fedors. They were mounted on their racks by Anne Wood and Sonia Balcer. A relative newcomer to the organization, Sonia was a brilliant, painfully shy teenager whose father was suffering from leukemia. Broyles taught her machining and welding, and she was enthralled by the power of the welding arc and the flow of the molten metal.
The mirrors made Sunfire look indecently sexy. More visitors came, many of them scientists working on J.P.L.'s own multimillion-dollar solar-energy projects.
The first scheduled full-power test took place this spring. A friend of the project arranged for it to be filmed by Haskell Wexler, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer and documentarian. Sunfire started tracking the sun, the boilers fired up quickly, the steam engine turned. Then it staggered, sputtered and quit, the victim of a recalcitrant crankshaft. Wexler settled for a study of the kids' stricken faces.
A few weeks later, with no camera around to intimidate it, Sunfire ran for more than two minutes, at pressures as high as 1,500 pounds per square inch, before the engine's valves began to stick. Weeks of frustration followed. The engine was hauled down, pulled apart, adjusted, reassembled. On July 6, the kids felt it was ready again.
Preparations took almost all afternoon. The kids grew frantic: Sunfire can only track the sun for seven hours a day, the hottest hours. Once those hours are over, about 4:30 P.M. this time of year, the sun gets so low that one end of the machine's 40-foot span touches the ground and can track no farther.
At 4:20, Lauri climbed the scaffold and perched herself on top, where she could see how the sun's rays were hitting the boilers. As she called out declination angles, like Mark Twain calling depths on the riverboat. the kids cranked the machine up and down its huge pole, then swung it from side to side (an electric motor will eventually do this automatically) to focus the sun. Broyles watched from a distance.
At 4:24, they got the sun in focus. Sunfire came alive, steam hissing urgently. Mark pressed a starter button to bring the engine up to speed. It cranked, coughed ominously, kicked back a few times. Then it caught, clattered into action and smoothed itself out into a docile purr. The kids cheered. But the sun was sliding out of focus, and the machine was at the end of its traverse. Boiler pressure dropped. At 4:31, after three minutes and 17 seconds of bliss, the engine slowed, staggered, stopped.
Did the machine turn out its full 5,000 watts? No instruments to measure output were hooked up, since the first concern was simply getting the steam engine to run reliably. But the important thing is that Sunfire's basic design has proved sound, and its use of a line focus, rather than an unmanageably hot point, is a significant innovation.
Dr. Pickering, now an energy consultant after retiring from J.P.L., is enthusiastic about this. "Systems like Sunfire will be used in the future," he says. "J.P.L. is working on one like it right now. The great significance for me is what this says about American kids. We can view the younger generation with alarm and say they're not getting educated, they can't think for themselves. Well, Sunfire says some of them can and do."
Meanwhile, the work goes on in the Pasadena smog. It is grimly appropriate that this gleaming symbol of hope for a cleaner world has been built in an area so profoundly polluted that you can hardly see a clear sky from June to October. At least 250 young people have passed through the project, and the distance they have all come together is enormous: a long night of the soul for Howard Broyles, an entire adolescence for the kids. Mark, whose mother now concedes that he can stick to it, and Neil, who will receive his mechanical engineering degree this fall, the degree Broyles never got, are closer than brothers. Sonia, who is increasingly outgoing, considers Sunfire her salvation. "At first," she says, "it seemed like an interesting technical project. The more I was in it, though, the more I could see the power of the human spirit, creating something out of junk."
In a sense, they have all been acting out the dream of independence and creativity that came down to them from Broyles's father and grandfather. Broyles knows this. "All their lives they're going to be one hell of a pack of kids," he says gleefully. Already, Mark and Neil are organizing a company of their own to mass-produce Sunraider, a smaller, more advanced version of Sunfire that will sit on a rooftop or in a backyard, turn out 2,000 watts and sell, they hope, for $5000 or so.
Broyles still lives in his sailboat shop, surrounded by his tools, machinery, papers and an aging Corvette that is getting a rebuilt engine. He was laid off from J.P.L. recently, but his 17 years of seniority will allow him to collect full salary for almost six months, so he is able to spend most of his time working on Sunfire. As if entering another adolescence while the kids are leaving theirs, he has no idea where the fates will carry him, but he is happier than he has been in decades.
He has never paid off the $10 bet, which is not very sporting, except that he really is not sure with whom he made it. Instead of spending $2,500, he may have blown as much as $50,000 over the 10-year period. But he hastens to add that, even with the free labor, it cost a lot less than the Government's early estimate of $400,000 to build a five-kilowatt machine.
The kids wish they could have built Sunfire for nothing. Yet they are also proud of what they got for the money, and talk about how flabbergasted people would be if the Department of Energy built one like it for the same amount. They know they will need still more money to finish the project. Further test runs this month have been successful and Sunfire is approaching completion, but the kids do not have cargo containers for the trip to Pitcairn, and their own resources are running out. Yet they have said no to every offer of aid for Sunfire with political or commercial strings attached, and continue to do so. The machine must remain their own. Only then can they give it as a gift.
Some people have urged them to forget about Pitcairn and give Sunfire to someone they can get it to. Dr. Pickering has been suggesting that a practical alternative would be Samoa, which also needs solar energy and has harbor facilities that would make a helicopter unnecessary. But the kids, as Broyles said, are unswerving. Once or twice a month, they go over to the J.P.L. radio shack and talk to Tom Christian. Conditions have worsened on Pitcairn. The delivered cost of diesel fuel has soared to $100 a barrel, and $150 a barrel for gasoline. The supply of both has become frighteningly problematic. Although Sunfire would not turn Pitcairn into Utopia, it would provide all the electricity needed for the island's freezers and refrigerators, and that would be a small revolution in itself.
The broadcasts keep hope alive on both sides. During one recent conversation, Tom said tensely, "I did hear that there's always a possibility that if you can't make it here, you can make it to Western Samoa or some other place. We would be sorry to see that happen, but under the circumstances, shipping and all that, I'd fully understand." He ended the sentence with a nervous laugh.
Mark picked up the microphone. "O.K., Tom," he began laconically. "We've heard a lot of people suggest that if we can't get it to Pitcairn we ought to get it to some other island. But we've formally rejected all those suggestions. Our goal is to get it down to Pitcairn. I think the idea is that if it doesn't go there, it doesn't go anywhere."
The kids' obsession with Pitcairn has become a way of life. When you're out on the work site and you hear their calm, perfectly reasonable discussions of whether this length of cable will be enough when they get to the island, or what the midwinter tracking angles will be on the island, you have to remind yourself it is not Catalina they're talking about, but a microdot in the South Pacific about 5,000 miles away.
They still do not have a realistic plan for getting Sunfire there. Yet what constitutes realistic planning for Sunfire? The kids hope they will have it running flawlessly soon, and they hope the Navy will see its way clear to carry their gift to Pitcairn as a gesture of international good will. Hope is realistic to them. It must be, to have brought them this far.
Joe Morgenstern is the film critic of the Wall Street Journal. *
New York Times Magazine / August 31, 1980
* Endnote: the text of this article is completely unaltered from the original, with the exception of updated status of its author.
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