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Sunday, June 07, 2015

Chuck Hull invented 3D printing

Jose Delgado Jr. was born without most of his left hand in 1961. Modern science created miracles which allowed him to have a prosthetic hand, most recently a $42,000 myoelectric device.

Chuck Hull brought the price down to $50.

He is surprised as anyone by this development, because he never intended his invention to do this.

Chuck Hull's story began at 8:39 PM on Wednesday, March 9, 1983, when he called his wife and told her she needed to come down to the lab. She had prepared to go to bed. He teased to CNN that she said, "This better be good."

However, she knew its importance and was enthused. She marked the time down, dressed and headed for the lab. She knew that he was working on a 3D printer which would allow the replication of plastic items at great distances.

The first item he printed was a Munchkin-size cup. He told the Guardian, “It looked like that thing you buy in the drugstore to wash out your eyes.”

Anntoinette Hull kept it and carries it in her purse.

"He held this part in his hand and he said, 'I did it. The world as we know will never be the same.' We laughed and we cried and we stayed up all night just imagining," she told the Guardian. "I knew on that night that he had achieved something grand and that it would hold meaning, and I hold it dear to my heart."

From the get-go, he knew 3D printing would take 25 to 30 years to catch on. He got that right, too.

To build the machine in 1983, Hull scoured the trash for parts to scavenge. He used ink-jet printer nozzles and the like to build the first 3D printer, which he said 25 years later “was so kludged together that it looked post-apocalyptic, like some of the equipment they used in that movie ‘Waterworld’.”

Unlike the movie, his invention did not bomb.

He called the process stereolithography, The concept of 3D printing is simple: use light rays to turn liquid goop into solid pieces of plastic. That is as scientific as I am daring to get.

On March 11, 1986, the U.S. Patent Office issued Hull Patent No. 4,575,330, which was the first of nearly 100 U.S. patents he holds. He was able to secure a $6 million investment from a Canadian who, like him, realized it would take a generation for him to perfect the process and bring it into vogue. He named his company 3D Systems and later listed it as DDD on the New York Stock Exchange.

General Motors and Mercedes Benz were the first to use the machines. As with all new technology, the early printers were expensive, clumsy and inefficient compared today, but Hull stuck to it. That is how new technology develops, one moment of rapture followed by years of labor. He saw the long picture. He figured people who come up with all sorts of ways to use it. He was right. What he did not consider, though, were the medical applications of his invention.

"That was just startling to me, that someone used the technology like that," Hull said.

He understood well why a group in Texas using the printer to make plastic guns.

"My first thought is that people messing with that – I hope they don't hurt themselves. Building and testing guns of that nature could be dangerous. I think the people doing that were trying to make a point. I don't know that people are going to be printing guns around the world but in any case our company, we are not the government or the police agencies. It is more their business and all technology, the governments and the police have to be aware of, it is not just 3D printing," he said.

The patents and the stock in the company made Hull wealthy. But it is the applications of the technology he invented that is most rewarding. Delgado said his $50 printed hand works better than the $42,000 one.

On a personal note, I'm getting a 3D printer so I can download my robotic assistant when the robots begin being opened to the masses.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.


  1. Another great man, and I'd really like to hit that Cool button 50,000 times

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