Scientist and inventor sees endless future possibilities

Inside the ALMANAC

Claremont resident John Dick is fueled by possibility and having a hand in its creation. His questioning outlook and scientific acumen have given him the rare opportunity to shape a bit of the future.

This visionary mindset is part of what drove him to a career in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked as a physicist for more than 20 years before retiring in 2008.

“I have always been obsessed with understanding things—looking at things from scratch and truly understanding them,” he explained. “As a physicist, you demand of yourself that you understand things from absolutely the bottom up.”

Mr. Dick has taken that call to heart, in both work and play. Childhood free time was spent trying to invent the space drive, and jury duty decades later yielded the inspiration for what would become his globally-recognized SpringWalker, a lower-body exoskeleton allowing the wearer the ability to make superhuman strides.

As a principal scientist at JPL, Mr. Dick focused his lifetime of tinkering into action, building resonators and developing frequency standards, the like of which are still at work in NASA’s Deep Space Network today.

A scientist by trade, a gadgeteer and inventor by hobby, there is endless room for experimentation for Mr. Dick. According to the creative connoisseur, even if the idea does not immediately produce an invention like his SpringWalker, he has to give it a try.

His visionary inclinations and out-of-the-box thinking have gained him a considerable amount of media attention over the years and even a scientific method named in his honor, “The Dick Effect.” In May, he returned to his alma mater, Bethel College, where he was recognized with the Distinguished Achievement Award for his innovation in the field of science.

This distinction started from humble beginnings. Mr. Dick grew up in the countryside of Montana as the oldest son of 8 in a Mennonite family. John Jr. followed in the footsteps of John Sr., inheriting his father’s innate curiosity for gadgets. John Sr. spent his time tinkering with the latest gizmos with his son figuring out why they wouldn’t work.

Much of young John’s time on the family farm was spent this way, with his mind lost in thought about the mechanics of the objects around him as he worked in the fields. The majority of his 8 hours a day on the tractor was spent solving mathematical equations and puzzling over his own scientific questions.

He slowly found answers to his questions through grade-school and high-school math and science courses, becoming a member of the high school science club. However, it was in college that he finally had an opportunity to put his thoughts into application by building a supercharged Van De Graaff generator utilizing rubber pads and protective gear used by electrical workers on high-voltage power lines. The end result was a device his pal Robert Neufeld recalled, “could literally make your hair stand on end.”

Mr. Dick’s talents were recognized early at Bethel College, and occasionally put to the test. Mr. Neufeld remembers a professor once pranked his friend by giving him a fake test filled with questions from the Putnam Exam, a highly competitive math competition where “most contestants score 0 points of a possible 120,” Mr. Neufeld explained.  

“As we left to go to lunch, John complained about the difficulty of the exam,” Mr. Neufeld recalled. “When he started talking about specific exam questions, we just couldn’t keep the secret any longer! It was good preparation, though, because our 3-person team was 69th in the nation that year, largely due to John’s performance. The top 3 teams were UC Berkeley (where John would receive his PhD in physics), Harvard and MIT.”

After earning his PhD, Mr. Dick put his skillset to work at Caltech, building a superconducting ion accelerator on a much grander scale than the Van De Graff he had built in college. After the completion of that project a decade later, he moved on to work at JPL, a career shift that revitalized his inventive spirit.

“Caltech is a wonderful place, but you go to a social event there and someone says, ‘We know you are hot stuff, otherwise you wouldn’t be here, so impress me.’ There’s a lot of pressure,” he noted. “You go to JPL and you talk to somebody in a social context and he says, “You can do that? If I give you a number, will you do that for me? It’s a place with things that need to be done.”

He thrived at JPL, despite having to balance the responsibilities of working on projects destined for space and assuming roles at home as a dutiful husband and doting father of 3.

“I spent quite a lot of time in the lab…but I never felt pressured. The research business is a wonderful business to be in, because you can fool around and nobody would mind as long as you come up with something every couple years,” he joked. “At JPL, you could look at something just because you were interested in it. I really enjoyed that.”

However, not all of his higher-ups at JPL were so pleased with the extent of the experimental scientist’s inventive interests.

“A boss of mine read me the riot act one year for doing everything from scratch. I hadn’t been there very long and he was convinced I was being irresponsible. ‘You are not to do it wonderfully,’ he said. ‘You are to do it right!’”

Several years later, Mr. Dick got the last laugh: “I did a presentation on a brand-new frequency standard I had done completely from scratch…which worked really well and is still used in the Deep Space Network. He was suddenly a big fan.”

His gift of innovation gained him a trio of fans back home. When not working on the International Space Station or the latest cryogenic oscillator, Mr. Dick kept his daughters’ toy box filled with handmade trinkets. Daughter Maggie Dick remembers a whole box of electrical parts that corresponded with each other, a motor that clipped to a battery and sputtered to life or a musical box that, when engaged, would play short music clips.

For their weekly allowance, his daughters would have to log on to the family computer to answer questions provided by the “computer ghost” about their daily chores and duties. If they answered correctly, the computer ghost would offer a clue to the hiding place of their reward. Beyond the clever creations, he was most of all a steadfast support system and admirable role model, his daughter shared.

“He has always been very supportive of my endeavors,” she said. “I have always felt, partly because of him, I could do whatever I wanted to do.”

Mr. Dick has never been a man with perceived limits. In between projects and patents, he has found time to write several groundbreaking scientific articles. In 2010, he worked as the science advisor to Tron: Legacy, inspiring an update to the film’s teleportation device.

Though science and math take up a large portion of his time, Mr. Dick has found time to tinker with other passions. After having played in a recorder group at UC Berkeley, he returned to his musical interests later in life, learning the classical guitar and in his 40s taking up the piano. For his 55th birthday he revisited his musical upbringing and gifted himself with voice lessons, and he is currently a tenor soloist at the Pilgrim Congregational Church of Pomona.

Whether in music or science, his desire to continue creating remains unquenched.

“You have to pressure yourself. You have to care in order to be technologically successful,” Mr. Dick acknowledged. “That’s the guy I’ve been over the years, the guy people can look to and ask, ‘John what do you think?’ I do enjoy that role.”

—Beth Hartnett


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