How to Start & Grow Something UPLIFTing that Never Stops Inspiring
I’ve always been drawn to geometry. The simplicity of a circle. The strength and versatility of a triangle, the fixed order of a square — but most of all I love spirals. At every scale of nature, they exist to unify physical laws and bring beauty to their worlds — whether being hauled on the back of a snail, sealed inside a rock, disappearing down your plug hole when you brush your teeth or exploding forwards like the helix nebula of a dying star. Spirals delight me.
I marvel at the geometric structure of great buildings — just look at those ceilings! And I’m in good company when it comes to appreciating this, which isn’t surprising as geometry existed before creation so all of mankind has experienced it in some form.
‘Geometry will draw the soul toward truth and create the spirit of philosophy’ — Plato
About fifteen years ago we were approaching winter and I could feel a slump in my mood, the understanding that I wouldn’t be basked in warm sunlight for at least another eight months — how was I going to do it? Winters in England aren’t cruel but they can be long and grey.
Normally I just take a deep breath and run more – exercise is my go-to wonder drug for mood lifting – and it works. But this particular autumn, the one after September 11th, the media was over baked with negativity, exuding fear through every orifice (this was pre-social media so easier to turn off). My father-in-law was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, which is a twisted sentence of death and it brought a dark cloud over us.
I also had a couple of friends who were struggling with depression. And hey, I get that, I’m a full spectrum person and although my life has been pretty trauma-free I’ve undergone incredible pressure as a striving inventor and it’s taught me how important coping strategies are in keeping a balance and building up resilience – I am not exactly an overnight success.
But depression is not a ball and chain to me like it was to them. If I look after myself I tend to be able to stay on the brighter side of my life! But I know how dark it can be, I really do. It’s a delicate balance. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow is a phrase I discovered to describe my own mind sometimes.
I would visualize depression as a dark downward spiral. When you are gripped it’s nearly fucking impossible to see your way back out. Everything can feel hopeless and especially paralyzing is the thought that no one else could possibly relate to you. That’s crushing and isolating and can make you really sad and at times desperately lonely.
As winter drew in the weather got worse. The Brits like to complain about the weather (as if that makes it better). They like to complain about a lot of things especially if they can blame someone else. I don’t. I like to take responsibility for myself, take a shitty situation and make it better. I guess that’s why I’m an inventor. I have a lot of positive energy and I try to talk things up rather than bringing them down.
But at times I can be my own worst enemy. So to encourage myself to keep thinking positively I imagined visualizing bad weather as an upward spiral of light. The polar opposite of my mind’s eye’s picture of depression. The worse the weather was, the brighter it would shine. I wanted to see the wind. I wanted other people to see it too. I had an overwhelming desire to create what I called windlight…
I was despondent about the growing global disregard for the natural world and as ever, the media’s narrative was fear based, which wasn’t helping. To get people to care you need them to love something and I knew that the mindset of business-as-usual, wasn’t going to save us.
I wanted to inspire people to fall in love with renewable energy so I started to draw up some ideas and think about a possible design. The objective being to capture the wind from any direction and to instantly transform it into a mesmerizing upward spiral of light to give hope that a new world was emerging. An upward spiral of light could be a symbol of sustainability, of something that felt good and could lift your mood. Anything to counteract the grim notion of a dark downward spiral and impending environmental catastrophe.
So Firewinder became my very own totem of hope and it really worked for me because I got to put my creative energy into something uplifting. It was never going to save the world but if it could inspire a few people that would be good enough.
It took me a few years and dozens of prototypes to turn the idea into reality.
I was also working on another invention (I’m a pioneer of mobile 360° VR imaging). Then I had a car crash that took me a long time to recover from. When I felt down I would meditate on a positive visualization of an upward spiral. It just somehow helped me through the months and years of rehabilitation – certainly, for the time I couldn’t go running. I became at peace with sitting down still because I couldn’t do a lot else.
I managed to park my frustrations by visualizing something positive, albeit only in my mind’s eye. I have a powerful imagination that I’ve fostered since I was a very small child. I think my greatest triumph is holding on to it and not allowing myself to become cynical.
When my VR imaging business failed in 2007 due to circumstances out of my control— I realized that now was the time to pick myself up and focus on the windlight project that had been burning like a star in my mind’s eye.
I pulled together a small team — an electronics wizard, a brilliant friend called Joe with commercial sense and a little cash for patents and prototypes and me — together we worked to bring my idea to life and The Firewinder Company was born. It made a glowing spiral in a gentle breeze and a pillar of light that span so fast that it appeared to phase backwards in a strong wind. It was hurricane proof and most impressive to see.
Before we went into production, I visited Borobudur temple in Java on honeymoon, where I chatted with a Buddhist teacher called Jack. Naturally, I talked about my work. Jack loved the idea of Firewinder but had one question for me. ‘Does it turn clockwise?
Taking Jack for his word I re-engineered the wing to turn in a clockwise direction while maintaining an upward spiral.
By virtue of good design, Firewinder became recognized in the eco-design world and went on to win the Green Design Award in the US in 2009. I remember getting whooped with applause at the awards ceremony in LA.
But we hit an issue with a bearing that seized up after several months of outdoor use (our suppliers had cut a corner) and we couldn’t sell any more products. At the same time, the world went into recession and toxic repayments on a bank loan literally strangled us. This was before crowdfunding. The business stalled and the project started to spiral down (commercially speaking).
Before we packed up the lights we installed several dozen on the top of Glastonbury Tor one bitterly cold January evening. It was magical and on the second night, the wind blew so hard they could be seen from two miles away. Locals reported extraterrestrial lights and the BBC turned up to film it. Hundreds of people came to witness what was a spectacle.
However, The Firewinder Company was no more and the stock we had left went into storage. Firewinder made it into a number of rather nice coffee table books about sustainable design but sadly the project was laid to rest.
In the years proceeding, I focused on other inventions, grew a family, had a television series and continued on my meandering path – always open to new ideas and always aspiring to create eco-innovations.
In 2015, I launched another renewable energy powered LED invention called the Million Mile Light. Inspired by my love for running I wondered if I could you the energy you expend running to create light. The answer was a resounding yes. MML is motion powered and creates a pulse of light to keep you visible — whether you walk, hike or run. It’s neat. I love the simplicity and the symbolism of it. Be the light! The hard lessons I learned with Firewinder I was able to apply to the advantage of this design. I developed it with my friends Ben and Jono who are both engineers. We successfully launched it on Kickstarter .
With such commitment to my work, I admit that in recent years I’ve found the pressures on me increase and life has become far more stressful. I have become acutely aware of the need for me to keep a good mental balance and if I only use running as an outlet I am going to run myself out.
The key to calm is often to have a rest and it’s something I find really difficult to do. Unless I’m on holiday in the sun, which is usually for one week in the year. It’s not enough. I have two very energetic boys and we all live in a two bedroom flat which can be hectic. So I have been doing my best to practice meditation at home – it works – and I don’t need somewhere special, it could be doing the washing up. But it’s a state of mind I can much more easily reach through running or if I’m in deep nature and as I’ve got older, running eights miles is one heck of an energetic way to find relaxation and well, looking at the washing up doesn’t exactly get me in the mood to let it go either.
I’ve tried meditation apps and I like watching geometrically satisfying videos and animations – but I really don’t want any more screen time in my life! So I have been playing with the idea of creating a kinetic sculpture of some sort that would evoke relaxation indoors. To encourage me to stop thinking and encourage my flow. It’s often when thoughts and emotions get bottled up and blocked that problems begin. I can visualize flow in my imagination but it would be even better if I could actually see it. Sit me by a river any day, but I don’t have one in my living room.
Tom Lawton’s Showreel from Tom Lawton on Vimeo.
Then this summer Ben came to visit me and he brought with him a remarkable solar-powered engine he had built. Ben is an ingenious chap and his engine design was so simple, efficient and elegant — as well as being totally silent – it naturally lent itself to being used with a spiral. He had already envisioned this and left it with me. Of course, it had to be encouraged to spiral upwards, in a clockwise direction.
This first prototype was so lovely. It sat on a window sill at home for days, waking up in the morning when it was cast with the first rays of sunlight, spiraling silently through the day and going to sleep when the sun sets. It had a really calming feel to it and everyone who encountered it was taken by its satisfying effect.
Knowing that the energy powering it comes from the sun and seeing the precision motor suspended above the base demonstrates what beauty can be achieved with the tiniest amount of power. I was transfixed and completely in love with it. There was no question that I had to bring it to life and so UPLIFT was born. But we have no real idea if there will be demand for it so it’s more an exploration around the concept of uplifting art in the form of kinetic sculpture — and it’s something we want to bring to the world but mainly because we love it.
Uplift’s relaxing motion creates a calm, never-ending spiral, which is mesmerizing to watch as it unwinds and flows.
In the months proceeding, I have been fine-tuning the design. Working every night filling up three sketchbooks… and counting. While Ben has honed the technical essentials for the solar engine over the past twelve months there’s still been a huge amount of work in refining the design to make it really special. As ever, the art is in keeping it simple.
Using custom-made glass, precision machined steel and brass parts, a laser cut a walnut wing with a geometrically perfect form and a turned black walnut base we have a design we are delighted with.
The electronics are remarkably simple — working in very low light, however, due to its simplicity, the wing can just as easily turn clockwise as it can anti-clockwise. There’s no mechanical way of preventing this without introducing noise. The silent operation is sacred.
We tested a more advanced electronic system that would carefully control speed and direction of rotation. But it added more cost and complexity. The elegance of the system was compromised and more components required more power. We kept it simple.
While we didn’t want to accidentally evoke any bad spirits by having the wing flow downwards it made me question the notion of good and bad spirits! I mean, what are they? It’s just made up, right? Does it really matter which way the wing turns? I like the sentiment of good spirits but I perhaps Uplift should just be neutral and visualize the flow. You, as the observer, can then decide if you want to make it flow up or down. The flow is always there, powered by the sun.
There is no wrong or right way. As steam rises, whirlwinds and smoke flow upwards — molten lava, waterfalls and whirlpools flow down. If you live in the northern hemisphere the sun moves clockwise across the sky, in the southern hemisphere the sun moves the other way. So it’s up to you!
Personally, I prefer an upward spiraling wing akin to the Firewinder so we developed a means where you can interact with the wing using a magnetic wand allowing you to choose the direction.
We’ve also tuned the engine to a slow, gentle speed. By rotating the motor at 30 RPM the effect is 60 upward waves per second, which is in time with a healthy resting heart beat. It fluctuates a little with available light so responds to the sky.
My plan now is to build a limited edition batch of these ourselves here in my hometown of Malmesbury, Wiltshire. We want to start small and don’t necessarily have an intention to put them in mass production — we plan to go live with a Kickstarter campaign before the end of March.
If you’re interested to learn more, please sign up here so that we have your email and feel free to reach out to me because I would LOVE to know what you think? My hope is that this project grows into something beautiful and uplifting that never stops inspiring.