Professional Tinkerer, Adam Hocherman’s Marbleocity
Ignites The Imagination Using Crazy Physics of
The Rube Goldberg Machine
In the recesses of my kid memory, one of the coolest short films produced by Jim Henson during the first two years of Sesame Street was the marble run. It depicted a red ball traveling along a metal track and through various trios of obstacles.
For a child, of course, there was some educational benefit to the repetition of counting 1-2-3 as the ball zigged and zagged its way to the finish line (There was more than one version, both with surprise endings, one of Henson’s trademarks). Fun fact: according to Brian Jay Jones’ book Jim Henson: The Biography, the run was actually created for the film by Henson’s son in the family’s living room. But more fascinating to me was the elaborate, roller coaster setup and Rube Goldberg-ian stunts that led to the finale.
Adam Hocherman, tinkerer, engineer, entrepreneur, inventor, and founder of Kickstarter success story Tinkineer, would argue that the marble run itself is educational and an inspiration to all budding makers.
Raising Nerd wholeheartedly agrees!
I met Adam during my trip to Toy Fair 2017 (the Nerd gift that keeps on giving). In addition to seeing many engaging STEAM-related toys, I had the opportunity to talk with some innovators behind the toys, like Adam, and learn more about their own creative inspirations.
Adam’s marble run building kit, Marbleocity, stoked my curiosity and spoke to my long-time love of detailed, small-scale machines and automata. It’s a love that too often went unfulfilled while I was a kid since, other than a few LEGO space play sets (numbers 462, 483, 493 and 497, to be exact), I didn’t have anything as cool as a model train, race car track, or actual working roller coaster!
I saw the majestic wooden structure of Marbleocity’s Dragon Coaster (and connected Skate Park!) from across the showroom and was instantly drawn to it. Marbleocity is glorious to look at with all its twists, turns, and potential energy. And it was even more impressive while in action.
While touring the sprawling booth of PlayMonster, the Beloit, WI-based toy and game company that acquired Tinkineer in March, I had a chance to see a motorized demo of Marbleocity. This toy coaster is an amazing blend of creativity, building, physics, and DIY fun.
Adam’s take on the usual marble run toy owes a lot to his early experience as a seasoned product tester, aka, a kid. Marbleocity is truly an awesome labor of love, imagination, and its inventor’s childhood tinkering passion-come-to-life. Add to that a fun, graphic novel-inspired instruction guide that weaves STEM principals into a cool narrative, and I knew I had to share his and Tinkineer’s Nerd story with our readers.
Even though National Inventors Month just ended, we’re proud to extend our celebration of fantastic makers a few more days to make room for chief Tinkineer Adam Hocherman. Be sure to check out Tinkineer’s website and join their mailing list. And if you want to ask Adam a question yourself, he encourages parents to contact him via LinkedIn. Nerd on!
Raising Nerd (RN): Besides being the name of the company you founded, what is a Tinkineer? What inspired you to launch the company and product like a toy coaster through Kickstarter? What makes Tinkineer, the company, different from other STEM toy/model kit developers?
Adam Hocherman (AH): The word Tinkineer is a mash-up between the words Tinkerer, Engineer, and Pioneer. I thought the name did a nice job of portraying the way I think about an enterprising young boy or girl – someone who is fascinated by something in their world and has a passion for trying to discover how it moves, operates, ticks or works in much the same way that a detective has a passion for solving a mystery.
The Tinkineer line is different from a lot of other STEM products out there, which I refer to as “STEM light.” To my mind, it is not sufficient to identify your product as related to STEM (many are) but then not provide a deeper connection between the academic lesson and the play value of the toy or model. Our Marbleocity kits really dig into the physics that underlies each model through an engaging comic format that both educates and entertains.
RN: Can you tell us about your academic background and journey to becoming a STEM toy creator/designer?
AH: I have a B.S. in mechanical engineering and an MBA, both from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. While an undergraduate at Cornell, my “ah-ha” moment came in my junior year. I was a member of the Formula SAE Racing team – a project team which designed, built, and raced an open-wheel racing car from scratch, each year. I’d seen the car on the quad as a freshman and was just amazed that students only a couple of years older than me could build such a complex thing.
Working on the team allowed me to experience the power of designing and building (relatively) simpler sub-components, which later assembled into a complex whole. For example, I was part of a three-person team that designed the drive train for that car. Its mounting points and connection interface (to the engine/transmission) were defined early, but then we were freed to focus on how to design just that aspect of the car without worrying about the suspension, frame, aero package, etc. The Marbleocity kits seek to teach the same idea. The maker assembles sub-assemblies (say, a coaster dip) that are then installed to the larger model.
RN: Have you always been interested in building things? What kind of tinkering did you do as a kid?
AH: I was. I suppose it was pretty obvious that I would take a path similar to the one I did. I used to enjoy building R/C (radio controlled) cars, electric trains, balsa-wood airplanes, and whatever else I could get my hands on. And, of course, there were plenty of LEGO sets involved, as well as other lesser-known building toys such as Capsela.
I also enjoyed dis-assembling toys, appliances or discarded machines to see how they worked in more detail. I remember when I was about ten years old my buddy Ben and I disassembled this handheld racing game he had. It had a roadway printed on a strip of acetate that revolved the way the sandpaper on a belt sander does. There was a little physical race car on a lever that you controlled with a tiny little steering wheel, trying to avoid obstacles. This was the state of the art. It was 1985.
RN: Who were your early mentors/influencers? How did they inspire and/or encourage you to pursue a career in toy/product design?
AH: Definitely my dad, and in an indirect way, his father. My dad was a lawyer by trade, but very handy. We built many of the above-mentioned items together, often over long periods of time.
I understand that we both got our mechanical aptitude from my grandfather, who was an immigrant and a Holocaust survivor. He wound up in Brooklyn as a machinist at the end of his career. But in Eastern Europe, he owned a sweater factory. My father told me stories of how he would look at a mechanism, sketch it on napkin and then go home and build it. Or how he converted the sweater factory to weave steel wool in the summers, so as to create another product line he could sell. I knew him, but he spoke Yiddish better than English and he passed away when I was still a boy.
RN: Who were your favorite designers, artists, tinkerer and/or inventors did you like/try to emulate growing up then and why? Any other favorites today?
AH: As a kid I was always intrigued by Rube Goldberg and that interest descended directly into the creation of the Marbleocity product line.
Later in life I read about people like Leonardo DaVinci and our founding fathers Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. These were truly renaissance men, and it was always amazing to me that someone could both be a profound legislator and an inventor, or a renowned painter and inventor.
Today, I am in awe of Elon Musk, but who isn’t? That guy must accomplish more before breakfast than I do in a week. He might be an alien (which could explain his interest in space). I’m honestly not sure how he juggles so much and so well.
RN: What was most challenging for you as a student trying to figure out what you wanted to be when you grew up? What is the biggest challenge for you today as an inventor/product designer or tinkerer?
AH: The challenge as a student when I was in college (mid-90s) is that I went through a very, very theoretical program at Cornell. It was really only through the project teams (that not everyone participated in) that I got a sense of what real engineers might do. And prior to that, I basically selected my profession (engineer) without knowing anything about it.
People used to say to me, “Oh, you like to invent things? Then you should become an engineer.” Today, there are STEM products, web resources, and a billion hours of on-demand video content available to give young people a much better idea of what they might get into. As for me, I just got lucky that I chose correctly.
RN: Tell us about the Marbleocity product line and why it was your choice to be Tinkineer’s first? How is Marbleocity different than other marble run products out there? What made you decide to use wood rather than some other, less expensive material for the product?
AH: The decision to create Marbleocity was a bit of an epiphany I had. I’d just sold my first company, also a product company. I was thinking about what I liked and didn’t like and rattled off a list of qualities that I thought would make for an interesting product and/or company: educational, a kit, wood, made in America, etc. The Marbleocity concept hit them all.
The kits use wood because it differentiates the experience of building a Marbleocity model from most other STEM and science kits. The wood is very tactile. It even smells good – we hear that from customers a lot because the laser-cutting process leaves a residual “campfire” aroma that you can smell when you open the box. It’s all part of an “experience” that I hoped would set it apart from competitive items.
RN: Marbleocity’s assembly instruction booklets are a bit unique in that they include elements of a graphic novel, a STEM tutorial, and link to online resources. What went into this guide’s development and why did you decide to include so much content in something that typically serves as a simple, one-time use how-to pamphlet?
AH: Because the devil is in the details. This gets back to what I referred to as “STEM light.” We could have included a black-and-white exploded view of the product and the words “Conservation of Energy!” on the box and called it a day.
That’s “STEM light.”
Instead, we include a detailed, full-color booklet that opens with an engaging graphic novel featuring our characters, the Tinkineers. The characters tell a story that relays real physics concepts – complete with some basic formulas – which relate directly to the model that you are about to build. The characters then take you through that process, step-by-step. It takes a long time and a lot of resources to develop these types of printed materials, but it all gets back to creating something that’s really special in many different aspects.
RN: What would you say is a tinkerer’s most important skill to develop?
AH: The ability to see complex tasks as merely a series or combination of simpler sub-tasks. This skill serves us well as engineers but also in life, more generally. If you can master this skill then no task, no chore, no feat, no problem set or homework assignment will ever seem as difficult.
RN: What fulfills you most in your work at Tinkineer? As an entrepreneur and teacher at Endicott College?
AH: The actual hands-on product development work is what I enjoy most, without question. I find the creative process of thinking about a problem, devising a solution (or a product, as the case may be) and then implementing that product or solution to be enjoyable and personally fulfilling.
From a more altruistic standpoint, one thing that’s different about Tinkineer versus the last company I sold is that I have a lot more interaction directly from the customer. My last company made clocks and night-lights for very young children. For obvious reasons, we didn’t hear directly from them. We’d hear from their parents, which was nice, but not the same.
At Tinkineer we’ve gotten some really engaging and flattering letters (even YouTube videos) both from children and parents describing how much they enjoyed the project. My favorite ones are from people who have completed a model with their son or daughter. I always think, “Wow. What we’ve provided here enabled this quality time between a parent and their child.” As a parent of young children, myself, I know how rewarding and valuable those moments are.
RN: What advice do you have for Nerds out there that dream of pursuing a career like yours? What activities, experiences, hobbies or other education should they pursue to help them become a tinkerer?
AH: Honestly, I think two really important skills that reward entrepreneurship are 1) attention to detail and 2) communication. These two skills are essential for so many careers, but entrepreneurship, in particular.
In terms of hobbies, activities, and experiences: adopt a roll-up-your-sleeves and “just do it” attitude. Need to fix a lawnmower engine? Just dive in! Need to renovate a bathroom but have no prior experience doing home improvement? Read a few books, watch some videos, and go for it! What’s the worst that could happen? You’ll have to call the contractor that you didn’t call in the first place and, hey, you’ve already done some of the demo!
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe failure is just an important part of the learning process. Tell us about a time where you, as a tinkerer, had such a learning moment and how you used that event as a way to help motivate or propel you to future success?
AH: There are shades of failure. I can’t think of a single product that I’ve designed that wouldn’t benefit (or did benefit) from a subsequent redesign or incremental improvement project.
I don’t really believe in the MVP concept for the types of hard-good product that I bring to market (see The Lean Startup). However, there’s a saying that goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In my experience there is almost no amount of testing and re-testing that can ultimately substitute for thousands of individual consumers using your products in their own way. Launch a solid, high-quality product, but expect to have to revisit it.
RN: In your work with and for kids and students (including some of your employees still in high school and college), what do you do or say to help inspire them to pursue their creative passions, whether STEM-related or in other fields?
AH: I like to think that I impart the same core lesson whether running a company, teaching in front of a college class, or through the comics contained in the Tinkineer products. And that is: Large problems are the same as complex machines and are to be approached the same way – as discrete, smaller chunks…one at a time. And also the old adage:
“Luck favors the well-prepared.” ☺
RN: In addition to Tinkineer’s website and YouTube channel, what learning resources and hands-on experiences (media, apps, books, museum exhibits, camps, events, etc) would you recommend for parents looking to inspire and challenge their school-aged tinkerers, particularly for parents who’d like to inspire not-quite-there-yet Nerds?
AH: YouTube is certainly an endless trove of videos about tinkering, fixing, and/or the way things work. I remember recently asking myself how our carbon steel marbles are made (they are actually ball bearings). Of course, there’s a detailed YouTube video about this. Answer: They’re made out of extruded wire, which is formed, ground and polished. Who knew?!
I also like the website Instructables.com.
In the physical world, it’s easy for parents to forget about resources like your local science museum. Many museums have rotating exhibits, which keep things fresh. Recently, the Da Vinci traveling exhibit came through Boston, for example.
Around here there’s also a funky museum on the MIT campus that has a room full of mesmerizing kinetic sculptures. It took me so long to finally get down there to see what that museum had to offer. And when I did, I was so pleasantly surprised. What’s right in your backyard?
RN: What are your hobbies outside of building and inventing?
AH: I have two young children, ages 3 and 5, so they are a hobby in-and-of themselves! I like to engage them in STEM-related activities whenever I can, and they seem to really enjoy them.
While developing the Marbleocity product line, I had to build a lot of kits. I tended to like to do that at home, at night, or on the weekends because life in the office during the day is very busy and fragmented. My older daughter helps me. She obviously engages with the models in a different way than the intended audience (9-12) but she’s getting something out of it just the same.
Outside of my daughters, I have a vintage pinball machine I like to tinker with. It’s a 1988 Williams Cyclone – my favorite machine from my youth. It plays well today, but there are still projects I have yet to finish.
When I was younger I had time to play the piano and the electric bass in bands or at open mics. Music is a skill that has served me well in many different walks of life. It’s a hobby but I’ve used it in my work too. I once wrote lullabies for a musical toy I developed for my previous company when I couldn’t find off-the-shelf recordings that suited my need. I got frustrated with the search, threw up my hands, and said, “You know what? I’m a musician. I can write a couple of ditties for this product.” And I did.
I’m proud of that work but I communicate the story because that type of “roll-up-your-sleeves” attitude is critical to any entrepreneur. You have to be resourceful and “do more with less.” But I digress. Someday I’d like to get back to playing in a band, but it’s tough for me to find the time at this particular stage in my life.
RN: As a Tinkerer, what are your favorite media sources to help you stay current with news, events, and industry trends?
AH: I read the New York Times for news and WIRED Magazine for tech and trends. WIRED’s email newsletter is great – there are always 2-3 articles that grab my attention each day. I use a little widget in my browser to send interesting articles to my Kindle and then I read them at night before drifting off to sleep.
Other than that, I peruse Kickstarter but I have a hard time engaging with blogs and my diet of social media is almost nil. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I just don’t enjoy reading things on screens (the eInk of the Kindle being the exception) but for the most part I find drinking from the fire hose of social media to be too much and the cost (in time) to be not of great value.
RN: If you were given the opportunity to take on the ultimate dream build or other maker project, what would it be?
AH: I used to like to work on my own car. I used to replace the brakes or take apart a door to replace a busted electric window actuator. I always thought restoring an old car would be a fun thing to do. It’s a lot like pinball machine restoration.
RN: What’s your favorite theme park to visit? What’s your favorite theme park ride and why?
AH: Well, these days my most frequent theme park visit is to Story Land up in NH (this is a Boston area mainstay for parents of young kids) but I’m too tall to ride the rides.
The Dragon Coaster Marbleocity kit was modeled after the real coaster of the same name located at Playland in Rye, NY. It claims to be the world’s oldest wooden roller coaster and still exists today. The comic that comes with the coaster models we make also refer to Playland – it’s where that story takes place. Growing up, we used to go there because it wasn’t far from where I lived outside of New York City. It was a campy, kind of run-down place back then and it probably still is. That’s part of what I liked about it – it seemed frozen in time. There’s another place on the Eastern seaboard like that called Old Orchard Beach. I like that place as well, for the same reason, and have been back there more recently.
RN: Have you ever wanted to build a full-scale coaster? What kind would you build and for whom?
AH: Haha! That has actually never occurred to me, but if I was to build one, it would most certainly be a wooden one.
RN: What’s the next product you’d like to develop for Tinkineer and/or Play Monster?
AH: I can’t say, exactly, but there is something really exciting brewing which I hope to launch via another Kickstarter towards the end of this year or early next. If you like Marbleocity you’ll fall out of your seat for this!
In between then and now we have a couple more Marbleocity models in development that I am also excited to bring to market. We’re going to do some entry-level models and then hopefully turn attention to the large, interconnecting models #3 and #4 (alluded to in the original Kickstarter launch). So there’s a lot brewing!