Andrew Anselmo works by day as an engineer and by night performing origami. Math is the key to both.
SOMERVILLE, Mass., and PROVIDENCE, R.I. — We all know how much math goes into engineering. Indeed, it's often the math that scares people out of becoming engineers. But math is all around us; we just don't often see it. Take the Japanese art of origami. By following a few mathematical rules, you can, with training, work, and patience, create beautiful things by simply folding paper.
Andrew Anselmo combines both engineering and origami. By day, he's a mechanical engineer who develops data-acquisition and control systems for Boston-area clients through his company, Clipboard Engineering. By night, he transforms into an origami performer, often appearing outdoors at Waterfire Providence.
Having attended Waterfire numerous times over the last several years, I'd seen Anselmo perform from his perch alongside the Rhode Island School of Design. Only recently did I meet him when donating an oscilloscope to maker space Artisan's Asylum, where Anselmo's office is located. I visited him again for this interview in August 2017 and saw him perform at Waterfire on September 3.
Andrew Anselmo at his office in Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts.
How did you get into engineering?
Anselmo: My uncle drove a 1967 Jaguar XKE and I saw how cars worked. I then started taking bicycles apart. If you can learn how to take a bicycle apart, you can learn about mechanics.
After graduating from Cooper Union, I went to graduate school at Columbia University, where I studied computational fluid mechanics.
How did you get from fluid mechanics to developing data-acquisition and control systems?
Anselmo: Starting with a summer job at Hanscom Field in Massachusetts, I was involved with a project involving crystal growth. That's where I noticed people recording temperature and current measurements by writing them on clipboards. I helped to automate the data collection.
I then spent about two years working on Wall Street, which wasn't for me, so I started teaching algebra for a short time in upstate New York. I really wanted to get back into engineering. So I contacted Evergreen Solar and worked there for 10 years. By that time, I was ready to move on, so I left and started Clipboard Engineering.
What's it like having your office in a maker space?
Anselmo: It's phenomenal. You have access to all kinds of tools and equipment. Plus, there are people here with expertise in many disciplines, not just engineering. We have artists here, too. For example, if I have a question about what to use for a voltage reference, there's someone here to ask. I once asked about using a particular part and was told, "That's old school; use this newer part."
The open office can be a little distracting. In a typical office, people walk down the halls carrying paper. Here, you might see someone carrying an electrified nerf gun.
I've also learned to make good use of my space. Parts must be well-organized, and I have hooks for holding wires. But always have an empty shelf. Don't fill up all available space just because it's there.
Paper clips and magnets from hard drives make good wire holders.
How did you get into origami?
I had seen origami as a kid and was fascinated by it because of its mechanical and geometrical aspects. People started to notice when I made a dollar bill dollar sign and then created the National Instruments logo in origami. A friend invited me to perform at her party. She was a Waterfire street performer at the time. I started standing on a box performing origami and have been doing that for several years. It's become a side business. I stand on a box at Waterfire and people hand me money. I perform at weddings and parties and have even flown to St. Louis and Austin.
Someone once asked, "What's the worst thing that can happen with origami?" I replied, "A paper cut." Following that offhand remark, I received a call from Chicago asking me to perform for the Hemophilia Federation of America, which was a bit surreal.
How does origami relate to engineering?
Performing origami is more about giving than making money. I enjoy making kids happy with it. There's also the mechanical engineering aspect of it that I enjoy.
Imagine trying to build a circuit with the minimum number of components. That's origami. You have a limited amount of space and materials to work with. It's like having to design a PCB with size limitations and you have to use through-hole components.
Robert Lang is one of the giants of origami. He wrote a book about origami design and wrote the book about it. He once came into my post-doc lab at Hanscom and he noticed the origami on my bulletin board, so he gave me his card. That's when I realized he was the Robert Lang. Thomas Hull is a mathematician who also applies math to origami, as does Erik Demaine at MIT.
Origami and the math behind it come into play wherever you need to fold something. For example, a solar array that needs to go into place needs to be folded. The same applies to automotive air bags and even to the paper bags you get at the grocery store. If you were to make that design out of metal, it wouldn't collapse.
This metal origami bird sits atop Andrew Anselmo's office.