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A Modern Historic Engineer: Mythbusters Roboticist Grant Imahara Dies at 49

July 14, 2020 by Kate Smith

Perhaps one of the most recognizable electrical engineers in the world, Grant Imahara, passed yesterday at the age of 49. 

Imahara was most famous for his work on the show Mythbusters, which used ingenuity to “bust” well-known myths (such as whether the "five-second rule" has any basis in reality). He was also notable to those in the electronics design world for his work as a spokesperson for distributor Mouser Electronics. 

 

Imahara at the 2010 VEX Robotics World Championship. Image used courtesy of Steve Rainwater.

 

It’s frankly uncommon that an EE can attain Imahara's level of popular celebrity. Yes, there are inarguable EE heroes who leave their mark with theorems like Harry Nyquist or technologies like Harvey C. Nathanson (the father of MEMS). But you'd be hard-pressed to find a layman who can tell you much about these figures.

The best-known modern tech celebrities (see: Elon Musk or Michio Kaku) hail from all corners of engineering and physics. Meanwhile, some of the most famous formally-trained electrical engineers are not known for their engineering at all (see: Mr. Bean)—or are entirely fictional (see: Marvel's Ant-Man).

But Imahara was a rare ambassador who bridged the world of pop culture and the world of engineering in a way that captured the imagination of millions.

Today, we take a look at Imahara's career and role in electrical engineering history.

 

The Irresistible Combination of Robotics and Star Wars

After graduating with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Southern California, Imahara pursued a non-traditional implementation of his training in the entertainment industry. He worked with both Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic on the animatronics side of movie special effects.

One of Imahara’s most famous experiences was working on the robotics behind the scenes of the Star Wars movies, specifically the practical effects of R2-D2. When it comes to "nerd cred," it's hard to beat that combo.

 

Imahara with the R2-D2 robot. Image used courtesy of Zack Copley.

 

He also put his robotics experience to use for non-film on-screen applications, including the creation of a custom circuit design used for the mechanical Energizer Bunny seen in commercials in the late 90s and early aughts.

Throughout his professional path, Imahara demonstrated the versatility of his formal education and found a niche for himself that allowed for a combination of engineering and the arts. His background in robotics in this capacity would also ultimately lead to his involvement with Discovery Channel's beloved TV show, Mythbusters.

 

The Influence of Mythbusters

Mythbusters gained popularity for many reasons, but arguably explosions were a large factor. According to Imahara, the fast-paced, build-focused show aimed to use science to debunk urban legends.

Despite the show's reputation for engineering feats and STEM content during its 15-year run, most of the best-known cast members were actually artists. The core members of the team shared a common background in film, specifically in special effects, and Imahara was no exception. He was, however, the sole engineer on the regular roster for the duration of the show. 

 

Imahara on the set of Mythbusters, building a Lego sphere. Image used courtesy of Charles and Adrienne Esseltine.

 

Perhaps Mythbusters' greatest superpower as a cultural fixture was making engineering tasks look fun to the average viewer through the use of inventive shenanigans. The show introduced concepts from physics, mechanical engineering, and even rocketry through engaging problem-solving segments.

While many episodes featured myths that provided the opportunity to talk about EE fundamentals, it was rare for the show to delve into much detail. As such, Imahara's role on the show often drew on his background in robotics without requiring him to break down engineering concepts at length.

As a note, AAC readers may enjoy the Mythbusters episode "Ming Dynasty Astronaut," which tests the realities of "free energy" devices found on the internet. Feel free to ask the AAC forum mods how they feel about that particular subject. (I'm kidding. Threads on "over-unity" devices are against the All About Circuits User Agreement.)

 

A Legacy of Love for Robotics

Not all electrical engineers can follow Imahara’s career trajectory, but his unique path in life shined a light on the engineering field in a very accessible way. 

Imahara's enthusiasm for technological innovation was evident across his body of work and his presence in the public eye. His participation at hobbyist hubs like Maker Faire, exhibitions like BattleBots, and robotics events like RoboGames made him beloved by aspiring roboticists. 

 

Imahara at Maker Faire 2007. Image used courtesy of John Manoogian III.

 

The outpouring of heartfelt tributes to Imahara from fans around the globe is a testament to his importance to a community of inventors, makers, and engineers. While we'll await the next EE who will represent the field in pop culture, no one will ever be able to replace Grant Imahara as an icon of electrical engineering.