Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 is an entrepreneur, TV personality, author, beatboxer—and he makes military devices that would put Batman to shame. As a cofounder of Boston-based Atlas Devices with fellow mechanical engineering alumni Bryan Schmid ’03 SM ’05, Daniel Walker ’05 SM ’08, and Tim Fofonoff SM ’03 PhD ’08, he designs military equipment for special operations forces and industry experts. Ball won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for the ATLAS Powered Rope Ascender, now Atlas’s signature product. At the pull of a trigger, the portable scaling device can hoist up to 600 pounds at many feet per second. It gives military personnel swift and controlled climbing capabilities as they navigate caves, scale tall structures, and perform rescues.
Ball is ascending quickly, too. As the host of the Emmy-winning PBS show “Design Squad,” he teaches kids basic engineering principles. Thanks to this success, HarperCollins now publishes his giddily readable children’s chapter book series Alien in My Pocket, which teaches grade-schoolers about science and engineering through an adventurous storyline. Book five will be released in January.
But his first major experiment was with his own voice. Ball has been a prolific beatboxer since high school, and loves to incorporate his rhythmic sounds into presentations on TV and for school groups nationwide.
Ball spoke with MIT SPECTRVM about the role of creativity in engineering.
You launched Atlas Devices in 2005, while you were still at MIT. What does the company do?
We develop and manufacture advanced rescue and access equipment, primarily for military users. Our products are used across all four branches of the US military and by many foreign nations as well. Our first product, which we developed while at MIT, is the ATLAS Powered Ascender. I describe it as the real-life version of Batman’s grappling setup.
Where did you get the idea?
A group of us entered the Soldier Design Competition, where MIT students compete against cadets at West Point. There’s such a legacy of awesome project competitions at MIT. We got third place, which earned us a bit of prize money to start our company and really get the project moving.
Within my mechanical engineering major, we had access to a lot of advanced manufacturing equipment. Our professors are experts in their field and also entrepreneurial, and the mentorship was phenomenal. Three-quarters of our founders were working under Professor Ian Hunter at the Bioinstrumentation Lab. He was a huge influence. He built an environment with almost no limits. The only limits in his lab were our imaginations.
Meanwhile, you’re also a TV host for PBS’s “Design Squad.” How do you get kids to use their imaginations to think about engineering?
Generally, if you ask a kid what an engineer does, they can’t tell you. Or they say we drive trains, if they have a sense of humor. There are no shows about engineers on TV like there are about crime scene investigators or lawyers or doctors. We wanted to show boys and girls the awesome, hands-on, team-based nature of engineering. So, for the development of the show (and as my first UROP experience), I did fun things like build a machine that would cook scrambled eggs at the touch of a button and an alarm system that would send lasers bouncing around when a burglar walked in.
“A third grader told me that he faked sick to stay home from school to read the books!”—Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07
It’s not every day you meet a beatboxer who’s also an engineer.
I grew up in a musical family. My younger sister is an opera singer. My older sister is a pianist. I studied 12 years of classical piano and 5 years of jazz. Music was another creative outlet. I spent a month working on how to sound like the famous beat-boxer Rahzel. It opened my world up. I grew up in a small town in Oregon, and tourists would come through and I’d perform on the sidewalk, collecting change in a hat. Now I do it for kids. My big message is that science and engineering are great because they help you figure out how to do awesome stuff no matter what it is—like beatboxing!
Why do you visit schools?
I do school visits to talk about Atlas and our “Batman” gear, and also for my book series, Alien in My Pocket. The books especially resonate with a lot of kids from second to fifth grade. It’s all about a fourth grader named Zack and his best friend, Olivia. An alien who wants to conquer Earth crashes into Zack’s bedroom and finds out humans are about 20 times bigger than he expected. At the end of each book, there’s an experiment based on the book that kids can do at home—like trying to launch a spaceship with bottle rockets. I’m beyond thrilled to hear the positive response the series gets from readers. A third grader told me that he faked sick to stay home from school to read the books!
What do you do in your free time?
My wife and I have a nine-month-old son. Right now I’m working on ways to decelerate his head more gently on its way toward the coffee table…and I may also build a cell phone charger powered by his jumping harness for an episode of “Design Squad.” Gotta put that energy to use!