View Full Version : New Book on history of robot competitions - and FIRSt

03-01-2003, 01:01 PM
Hi all, I'm a Newsweek writer with a new book, "Gearheads: the Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports," published this month by Simon & Schuster. I don't intend to sound overly commercial here, but I think this is something the FIRST community will want to discuss on the forum. My book explores the history of robot competitions going back to Woodie's 2.70 contest at MIT. It tells the real reason Dean came up with FIRST, how he enlisted Woodie, and their fateful clashes with those involved with the more combative versions of the sport.

To get more information or to write me directly, you can check out www.gearheadsthebook.com. But I will check back here occasionally to respond to anyone who wants to discuss the issues I raise in the book.

Good luck to all with this year's FIRST season!


03-01-2003, 01:15 PM
The site gives me the impression you are focusing on the gladiatorial aspects of robot building with FIRST-like competitions as a comparison. Is this correct? Or does it equally focus on all? Or does it focus on the ones like FIRST?

Well designed site. Did you make it?

Rich Wong
03-01-2003, 01:27 PM
Great, a book for summer reading to
cut down the FIRST Competition withdrawals.


Jeff Waegelin
03-01-2003, 02:29 PM
Well, if done right, this could be some good publicity for FIRST. I'll have to check that book out sometime.

David Kelly
03-01-2003, 02:32 PM
I just purchased this book at Borders for $14. It looks pretty good. Seems to be a lot about Battlebots and Robot wars. There is a pretty good section about FIRST and there is one picture of team's 121 and 335 competing in last years game.

Mr. Stone, an error I did see was on page 209 where you are describing the 2000 game as "coompetition." The game was actually called "Co-Opertition." But it's no biggie :) I look forward to reading your book.

Adam Y.
03-01-2003, 02:36 PM
Im getting the book because it looks like a good read about the differnt types of competition.

03-01-2003, 03:30 PM
coompetition... coopertition. this is why i could never learn a foreign language. :rolleyes: Thanks for pointing that out, i will get it fixed in the next printing of the book.

Jeff, in answer to your question, i would describe it as a tour through all forms and levels of the robot-building world. The book begins with the anarchist mechanical artists of the Bay Area's Survival Research labs, and then moves through the various versions of the sport, including FIRST and 2.70. But, yes, the main, driving narrative, woven throughought the book, is the story of one entrepreneur in particular, Marc Thorpe. As his original Robot Wars (not the one you see on TV) wins a community of likeminded gearheads and attracts the attention of TV producers, he falls into a dispute with his investor and is eventually ruined. My literary goal was to use the philosophy of the various competitions (i.e. "gracious professionalism") to reflect on Thorpe's very tragic but all too normal business story. Perhaps you can tell me if I succeeded in this goal!

FYI, I ran into Dean at a tech conference this week and gave him a signed copy of the book. He looked pleased - he generously helped me with the research. Thanks,

Joe Matt
03-01-2003, 04:13 PM



:ahh: :ahh: :ahh:


03-01-2003, 04:26 PM
Woodie sent me that photo. It's from a competition in the early '70s! Will someone please ask him at an event why the column in the background says "women women women?" i have been dying to know for two years.

Brandon Martus
03-01-2003, 04:31 PM
Originally posted by gearheads
Will someone please ask him at an event why the column in the background says "women women women?" i have been dying to know for two years.

My guess is that the competition was held in a gymnasium, and that picture was taken by the entrance to the women's locker room. Maybe? :confused:

Jeff Waegelin
03-01-2003, 06:22 PM
Originally posted by Brandon Martus
My guess is that the competition was held in a gymnasium, and that picture was taken by the entrance to the women's locker room. Maybe? :confused:

Sounds as good as anything. It's definitely an ...interesting... picture.

Joe Matt
03-01-2003, 09:46 PM
Anyway, I'm going to oreder that book and pre-order 'The Complex' ASAP.

Jeff Waegelin
03-02-2003, 05:58 PM
I just bought the book today at Borders. It's pretty interesting. I haven't gotten very far yet (darn Chemistry homework!), but I enjoyed what I've read so far.

03-04-2003, 07:46 PM
One of my private joys, when time permits, is to visit the Chief Delphi site. I have been reading and posting to this site (infrequently) since itís inception.

I had to share this thought.

Robot Sports is old enough to have itís first history book.

The new book, GEARHEADS, authored by Brad Stone, a writer for Newsweek Magazine, recently debuted. I just finished reading it. If I could have written a book like it, I would have.

In the book, Brad Chronicles the story of Robot-Sports through the eyes of the people who shaped it. And he does it well.

This is a story that belongs to all of us, and especially to people who traffic this forum and who have trafficked this forum in years past, people whom I respect, remember and admire.

Bradís book is about the community that surrounds the Sport of Robotics. An extended community we are all a part of.

This young author has done us all a good turn. He has told our story, and in my humble opinion, told it with a reporters impartiality.

Mech-Sports, was born to the children of the 80ís and 90ís. It will mature with them, and they will become responsible for the direction it takes. Brad Stone has taken the time provide them with a historical perspective, while it is still fresh enough to record with accuracy.

The young writer from Newsweek has written a book that will, in time become a resource for anyone who cares to look back to the genesis of robotic sports in order to understand it, anytime in the future.

This is our story really. One that Mr. Stone has chronicled to date, but a story that is far from over. Each and everyone of us who participates in robotic sports events is a part of this continuing story and we are all responsible for the remaining chapters.

I would like to thank Brad for the months of research it took to write this book, for the insight into the history of this, still emerging, sport, and for recognizing that the significance of mech sports lies in the fact that good, decent, hard working and (sometimes) intelligent people simply like the camaraderie of other good, decent, hardworking and (sometimes) intelligent people. Brad clearly reports that robot sports are successful because people (like to) build robots.

I am certain that some young students reading this will, in time, write a thesis about this (Robot Sport) phenomenon we are all a part of. One, or more of you will endeavor to understand the motives, and the consequences of what we are doing.

One of you will one day be the custodians for university programs like 2.007 or perhaps be the producers of a Techno-Extravaganza of unimaginable sophistication. Regardless, you will have a shared historical perspective, you will have recognizable roots and a history born of the vision of artists, University Professors, Entrepreneurs and, most important, yourselves.

When that time comes, recognize that what you have been a part of, has a history, and that that history was shaped by the visions and dreams and expectations of the people who birthed the phenomenon as well as those who participated in it. GEARHEADS offers a close up look at those visions, dreams and passions.

Letís remain active in the creation of our own history, and letís take a moment to celebrate the men and women who take the time to chronicle our achievements and our folly.

Thanks Brad, for recognizing our passions, and for providing us with a mirrored look at who we are.

Jeff Waegelin
03-05-2003, 10:25 AM
I just finished the book, and I really enjoyed it. I was a little turned off by parts of the portrayal of FIRST. The FIRST community came off as somewhat stand-offish and disdainful of robotic combat. Having seen some posts here (some that I recognized in the book!) and knowing Dean's attitude towards BattleBots, though, I can see where that would come from.

All in all, though, it was a very good story. The backgrounds on major players (Including Dean and Woodie) were very good, and the overall theme of Marc Thorpe's challenges with Robot Wars made for a very good story. I'd give it a look.

Elgin Clock
03-05-2003, 04:12 PM
Originally posted by gearheads
Woodie sent me that photo. It's from a competition in the early '70s! Will someone please ask him at an event why the column in the background says "women women women?" i have been dying to know for two years.

It was the 70's man, ya know, womens lib and all!!! lol
That is an interesting picture to say the least.

03-15-2003, 10:47 AM
Hi all, just wanted to revive this thread and tell you that in next week's newsweek, i've got a story on robotics and an accompanying piece - plugging the book, of course - on the wide world of robot competitions. FIRST and 2.70 are mentioned prominently and, heres the big draw, the photo that we used is the second classic picture that Woodie gave me, the partner of the one posted in this thread. And it is every bit as priceless!


03-15-2003, 07:00 PM
I just read this book last week and as a one-time FIRST student a few years ago, I re-registered on this board to see what people were saying about it. Im surprised theres not more discussion.

The chapter on FIRST is very good but somewhat critical. It traces Woodie's history and tells the story in his past that is responsible for his vocal distaste of all forms of violence in our culture. Then it moves into Dean's story and the reasons he had for starting FIRST. Seems he was feeling bad about his other charitable effort, a science museum in New Hampshire. The two joined forces and started FIRST. They had two goals: 1) inspiring kids with the correct values, and 2) getting robot competition onto TV to begin to change the cultural priorities of the nation (science not baseball, football etcetera).

As the FIRST movement grows, however, it becomes clear that the two goals conflict each other. The more they concentrate on driving home "the right values", the less appealing it is for television. One of the most interesting revelations of the whole book, in my opinion, was how several tv producers visited FIRST in the late 90s and had their eyes opened to the possibility of broadcasting robot competitions. But each came to the same conclusion, that the FIRST games were too complicated to show to a mass audience. So they went off and put other events on TV. This is apparently how both Robot Wars and the show Robotica got on TV. How ironic is that? its a sad commentary on our society in a sense.

Anyway i think the book is worth picking up, and it answers alot of the questions i always had about FIRST. Its a bit critical of Dean in the end and whether thats fair or not should be open to discussion.


Adam Y.
03-15-2003, 08:22 PM
The more they concentrate on driving home "the right values", the less appealing it is for television. One of the most interesting revelations of the whole book, in my opinion, was how several tv producers visited FIRST in the late 90s and had their eyes opened to the possibility of broadcasting robot competitions.
Yeah the problem is that if you can't explain a game in five minutes then it really is not fit for television. The simplicity of the games was how they got on tv. You can explain most sports in one or two sentences but it takes a lot of time to get the gist of a First competition.

03-25-2003, 12:49 AM
I posted this on the Silicon Valley regional thread as well:

If anyone is looking for some fun after Friday's prelims, I am having a book party and reading at Stanford book store for "Gearheads."

From 5 to 7 p.m. we are having a robot expo, with robots from Stanford and the local builder community. From 7 to 8, I am doing a reading and book signing.

Everyone is invited!

brad stone

Friday, March 28
Stanford Bookstore, Stanford, CA
519 Lasuen Mall
5:00 to 7:00 PM. Robot Expo! Email me if you want to bring a machine!
7 PM reading and signing

03-25-2003, 02:49 AM
I picked up a copy. (By pickedup, I special ordered) It shall be my airplane book enroute to SJ. Depending on how it is, I may try to get over there and get it signed.


04-01-2003, 12:41 AM
Wetzel, i did not see you at Stanford. I shudder to think whether that reflects your opinion of my manifesto. Do tell - what did you think of the book?!

04-01-2003, 03:36 AM
In all honesty, I completely forgot. I read about half the book on the plane, and was so busy with the regional that I didn't have time to read more. So far it is an interesting read. So far, it has been all about the business side of Robot Wars. I have a 6 hr drive to LA on Wensday, and should be able to read more.

My lack of time to goto Stanford should not be interpreted as disaproval of the book.

/me goes and reads some more

04-03-2003, 12:13 AM
Here's a little anecdote I can share. I went to the Silicon Valley regionals last weekend, and asked Dean whether he had read the book. (I had given it to him last month in Monterey at a technology conference.) He said he had, and told me he had "good news and bad news." The good news, he said, was that everything I wrote about FIRST was accurate, and that I even reminded him of events & feelings in the evolution of FIRST that he had forgotten about.

The bad news, he said, was that he had considered buying 10,000 copies of the book to distribute to prospective sponsors, teams and students. But he said - and I had to reluctantly agree - that what I wrote was not exactly appropriate for FIRST marketing literature. Still, it was a stab in the heart... 10K copies sounds mighty nice right around now.

Anyway, folks, pick up the book and tell me what you think! And if you have any questions, criticisms or whatever, I am here checking on the forum ocassionally to address them.


04-04-2003, 04:20 PM
I have just about finished reading the book, and i want to say that is one of my new favorites. the book has brought new light on to robotics competition to me. I am now on a frantic search to see any thing from SRL(go buy the book to find out what SRL means) pics ,videos, i want to see some of the things they did. I wanted to say Brad has written a very, very good book you all should go out right now and buy the book, run go now don't finish reading this run now and get it.

I wanted to thank MR.stone for writing the book, it has really given me something to think about such as how the whole robotics thing started,and how it has evolved and meant so much to so many people.

I really liked the book and i think anyone interested in robotics will to.

04-05-2003, 03:12 PM
I just finished the book, and really enjoyed it. My only complaint is that it was a bit repetitive, in that several stories were told in context of something else, and then got their own chapter later on. Other than that, it was very enlightening (and interesting to see how FIRST was indirectly resposible for battlebots going off the air).

The Gearheads Book Party and Robot Extravaganza (http://www.gearheadsthebook.com/party/) sound really cool -- to bad its the same day as the Championship!

Adam Y.
04-05-2003, 03:15 PM
I am now on a frantic search to see any thing from SRL(go buy the book to find out what SRL means) pics ,videos, i want to see some of the things they did.
They have a website after doing a little research and wondering who was that person. Just type it in a search engine.

04-06-2003, 12:21 AM
I jsut found this thread today, and I went to the book overview and it called Dean Kamen a supergeek!! :( This guy was a multimillionare in his 20's--he is a genius and I don't think he deserves to be called a supergeek. That's my two cents on that.
I look forward to reading the book and I'm excited by what other people have said about it. Thank you for doing this and helping to (hopefully) promote FIRST to more people!!

Elgin Clock
04-06-2003, 12:45 AM
My local Barnes And Noble didn't have it today. They told me "Well it came out in February, but none were ordered for this store....."
The nerve...
Don't they realize we have a major influx of robotics enthusiasts within a 50 or more mile radius here???

<sigh> I guess I'll have to try some nearby Waldenbooks stores tomorrow.

I'm hoping to read this on the plane down to TX.

Melissa Nute
04-06-2003, 07:57 AM
Originally posted by gearheads
Woodie sent me that photo. It's from a competition in the early '70s! Will someone please ask him at an event why the column in the background says "women women women?" i have been dying to know for two years.
Notice how in the pic, the woman thing is only a poster b/c it is ripped at one point on it...

In the 1970s a play called The Women came out...it could always be advertisement for that

Joe Matt
04-06-2003, 11:18 AM
B&N said they didn't have it in stock (*grumble*grumble*) but said they can order it for me in 3-8 days. That means I will get it Tuesday at the latest! Man, my luck... :(

04-06-2003, 01:54 PM
It's so frustrating that some Barnes & Nobles aren't carrying it. 1) I think they underestimate the broad appeal of robotic sports and 2) had previously carried some puffy, photo-driven robot competition books that didn't sell well.

If you find a bookstore in your area doesn't have it, TELL Them they are fools and better order this runaway hit book! ;)

For now though, I suggest you go to www.booksense.com, a coalition of independent bookstores. Search for Gearheads and then put your zip code in, and it will tell you the closest store that has it. You can also try Amazon.

Good luck in Houston!

04-06-2003, 05:14 PM
You can order books atBarnes and Noble for no extra cost, and this time of year it has a very quick turnaround.

Got mine in 3 days.
Gonna read more on the flight home tonight, red-eye funtime.


Joe Matt
04-06-2003, 06:21 PM
Man, I hope my comes before I have to leave on Wednesday.... :(

Jeff Waegelin
04-06-2003, 06:46 PM
Way to wait until the last minute, guys... I bought mine about the time this thread started... It's a good read, though. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Joe Matt
04-06-2003, 07:17 PM
Because I just got time to buy it! :D

Ken Patton
04-07-2003, 12:42 PM
I recently got a copy for my birthday (thanks Mom).

It seemed pretty accurate. I don't think it was disparaging towards FIRST, but I think there could have been a lot more FIRST-related content. There was a whole lot on the personalities and lawsuits, etc. related to the other competitions that to me detracted from the robotics aspects. I want to hear about competitors, not lawyers.

I don't think Dean got enough credit for his idea of "creating demand" for technical/engineering careers. Other guys were quoted as encouraging such things when Dean had already been at it for some time.

Why no descriptions of the FIRST games through the years? This would give people a deeper insight into Dean's and Woodie's master plan.

Not enough pictures.

If the author reads this, I hope you don't take my comments negatively. Just the fact that it had a chapter on FIRST put it on my must have list.


Koko Ed
04-07-2003, 12:45 PM
I bought it and I'm going to use it as a reference for a report I'm doing for my Science Technology and Values class.

Joe Matt
04-07-2003, 12:57 PM
Yeah, don't take the comments negatively (if you are a writter then you are used to this!) but mabey you could creat more books on the subject? A version two mabey? How about a book on each competiton itself?

Aaron Lussier
04-08-2003, 06:49 PM
Originally posted by Kyle
I am now on a frantic search to see any thing from SRL(go buy the book to find out what SRL means) pics ,videos, i want to see some of the things they did.

hehe yea SRL woo wee man do I ever want to see some of there stuff live, I've seen some of there stuff on real TV its quite amazing even for just TV.

04-09-2003, 05:22 PM
Thanks for all your comments. I take all criticism constructively! There is undoubtedly more of the FIRST story to tell. Regarding Ken's comments on wanting more FIRST content, i streamlined that section because i was trying to tell the larger story of what happened to all these robot entrepreneurs when their events got big... and i wanted the book to be fast-moving and suspenseful, so that non-robot people would keep reading as well.

Mike Soukup
04-13-2003, 03:27 PM
On the plane back from Houston this morning I was reading Brad's wonderful book and came across a message board quote at the bottom of page 211 that sounded very familiar: "I know that Dean and company believe that Battlebots is all about violence and celebrating what's wrong with society, but many people fail to notice the positive aspects of Battlebots. The pits at a Battlebots competition are much like a FIRST competition. People are looking to help others."

From what I remembered, it sounded just like a post I made almost 2 years ago, at least it had the same main point. So when I got home I was excited to confirm that Brad did indeed quote my post (http://www.chiefdelphi.com/forums/showthread.php?postid=422#post422) in his book. He also quoted Mike O'leary's follow-up post in the next paragraph.

How cool is that?

Jeff Waegelin
04-14-2003, 11:41 AM
I noticed that, too. I couldn't remember who the post was from, but I knew it was a direct quote from CD.

05-24-2003, 12:49 PM
On recommendation from one of my team members, I got copies of "Gearheads" for our 2003 team award winners. Got the books in yesterday and wanted to give it a read (make sure that no "bad" content goes out to the HS students, don't you know?).

This is an excellent book. As has been mentioned, if focuses mainly on the commercial aspects of the sport. Gives a lot of neat background info on how the various sporting venues (Robot Wars, Battlebots, Robotics) arose and how they are interrelated.

The book was surprisingly objective. Whereas it seems to work overtime to create a sympathetic character out of Mark Thorpe (the creator of Robot Wars), it does bring out his faults as well. Likewise for many of the other "characters" in the book.

I was a little disappointed with the tone directed at FIRST, as expressed on page 279, "That year [2002], in what was surely a continuing disappointment for the famous inventor [dean kamen], the FIRST competition was broadcast on the seldomly watched NASA TV - the space agency's satellite feed." The book goes to great lengths to discuss how television has under-mined the sport aspect of robotic sport. FIRST has remained true to its ideals and is slowly accomplishing its objectives.

The book gives a fairly accurate history of FIRST from its inception. In an astute insight, the author picks up on the inherent contradiction brewing within the FIRST community, the dichotomy between FIRST's goal to inspire students to become "participants" and the goal to become more "media friendly." For those of you who missed it, you should go to the archive of 2003's kick-off, where Dean indicates the difference between the Superbowl which will be held in Reliant and the FIRST championships. In the Superbowl, there will be 10,000 spectators and 22 participants. In FIRST, there are 10,000 participants.

One erratum, on page 208, the book refers to 1999's Double Trouble, but the events depicted are 2000's Co-opertition FIRST.

05-24-2003, 02:21 PM
I was looking your book's website and your biography says that you have plenty of robotic toys....

I am just curious as to what toys you have???

pics and whatnot

Bad Brad

Pin Man
05-24-2003, 09:16 PM
I just ordered it on amazon today... Just wondering, are there any pictures of teams and if there are what teams???

Joe Matt
05-24-2003, 09:29 PM
118 and 121 are the only teams that are shown, but 335's bot along with 121's bot are shown.

05-25-2003, 10:04 PM
Team 151 used the book as a gift to all of the mentors and people who had helped our team this season. Barnes and Noble must have been suprised at the exceptionally large order of the book.

05-25-2003, 10:15 PM
Has anyone seen it in a bookstore yet?, i saw it at a borders awhile ago and when i wet back last week they were gone.

Carolyn Duncan
06-12-2003, 04:45 PM
I made our local library branch order the book- I think it's one that people should be checking out and reading. I just finished reading it and I have done quite a bit of thinking and comparing. I must first say that I am not a fan of the destruction aspect of Robot Wars and Battlebots but I do like to tune in occasionally so that I can see what people have engineered. Of course it brings me to tears to see it all get torn apart, but I realize that the destruction forces the inventors to make things better. Anyways, I am thinking that since Dean, Woody, & company are having problems thinking up new games, as they have been saying for the last couple years, maybe get opinions from oh I dunno say maybe Marc Thorpe. They don't have to be destructive ideas but ya know it would be a nice gesture. I'm not sure where the legal lines are at right now with him and also his health but hey, it would be a nice gesture and it may bring a bit of publicity to FIRST. Imagine the headlines... could be god for us all. And why not be able to have the builders from the other competitions mentoring teams?? After all their knowledge of mechanics should be passed on to others should it not?? OK, I think that's way more than $0.02 but you guys know me, I can't help it.
Again though great book, when I am substitute teaching next school year I am going to have kids reading that book when they get in trouble. hehehe ;) :D

Adam Y.
06-12-2003, 05:01 PM
Scroll down just a bit. Download the highlo battlebot game. It so reminds me of First just for the mere fact that it confused me.:p