Nerds We Have Known

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

The death of Steve Jobs touched a lot of people, to understate an obvious fact.

His life’s work permeates the culture, from the way we live and play to the way many of us do business.
More than anyone, Jobs also made it cool to be a nerd.

To be a little obsessive about the personal drive to tinker and create -- and to insist that things be just right, as you define it.
Nerd-dom is a recognized California trait, here long before today’s computer geeks. What were the customizers of hot rods and low riders but car nerds?

An earlier California nerd subculture gets its due in a new exhibit that opened this weekend at the Huntington Library and galleries in San Marino.

That’s the subculture of obsessives and geniuses who created the aerospace industry in Southern California.

You might think of the aerospace era as a Cold War episode. A war fought by engineers in white shirts and crewcuts who sat for 40 years at metal desks in hangars at Lockheed and Rockwell, and a dozen other local plants.

But airplanes and Southern California have gone together since just a few years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

Flying machines began to appear in local skies almost immediately, doing stunts for the fledgling movie industry and wowing paid crowds.

Daring and colorful characters emerged, among them the flying pioneers such as Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes. Test pilots like Chuck Yeager.
Howard Hughes came to LA to make movies, but he really was an airplane nerd. He liked to set new records in faster, sleeker planes he helped engineer himself.

And finally he built the Spruce Goose, his giant wooden seaplane.

A piece of the lumber used in the Spruce Goose is in the exhibit at the Huntington. But it’s not the largest artifact of the era on display.
That claims belongs to a long surfboard mounted among the photos and industrial ephemera. It’s there, says the Huntington’s Peter Westwick, because aerospace talent made it possible for surf culture to take hold in Southern California.
Many engineers also were weekend surfers, tired of lugging 100-pound chunks of wood out to the waves.  The invention of hollow wings on planes led to hollow, lighter surfboards.

A Caltech engineering student named Robert Simmons moonlighted at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, working the graveyard shift so he could surf during the day.

He learned about polystyrene foam and fiberglass, the new lighter waterproof materials being used in World War II aircraft.
He applied those materials to the aerodynamic principles he was learning at Caltech and became what Westwick calls the most important surfboard designer of the last century.

And he should know – Westwick is moving from aerospace history to a book for Random House on the evolution of surfing and surf culture.
The ties go on. Another Douglas engineer invented the boogie board.

Computer animation in movies can be traced directly to JPL and a programmer who worked on the Voyager spacecraft. That programmer ended up going to work for George Lucas on the Star Wars films.
It’s a long, honorable line from the Wright Brothers and Howard Hughes to Steve Jobs. Here at LA Observed, we salute them all.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.