If the Software
You Need Doesn't Exist, What's a UVA Art Major to Do?
(Editor's Note: In a world of giant, impersonal software companies, it isn't often you hear about a self-styled "weird and crazy guy" in your own backyard who has the audacity, passion and interest in a subject to think that he can 'do it better' than the pro's. But according to all reports, Alfred Scott, of Richmond-based Sequoia Aircraft, has created a revolution in the world of drafting. We asked Alfred to tell us how he came to write WildTools, and in his own words here is his story.)
by Alfred Scott
This article appeared in the December 1997 issue of The Virginia Engineer.
Years ago -- before I had good sense and an idea of how much time and money would be involved -- I thought it would be fun to bring back the Falco as a kit plane. It was a classic machine-of-perfection designed by the Italian engineer, Stelio Frati, a legendary genius whose airplanes are prized for their beauty and handling. The Falco is often called the "Ferrari of the air", and rightly so because it has inspired a level of obsession rarely accorded any machine.
It began with a naïve letter from me to Frati, asking if he would be interested in selling plans for the Falco. We quickly agreed to do it, but Frati, ever the perfectionist, said the drawings would have to be redrawn. Frati sent me a few sample blueprints -- beautiful, highly detailed India-ink drawings. We signed an agreement, I told my friends I had an agreement with the famous designer Frati, and then I waited for the new drawings to arrive.
And I waited. I was a Speech-and-Drama major from U.Va., who barely made the grades to graduate, and I knew nothing at all about drawing. But I bought a Rapidograph pen, spent two weeks tracing just one of Frati's drawings, and sent it to him to admire.
Nine months went by, and I had received not a thing from Frati. Finally, at the suggestion of a friend, I just called them up. Carla Bielli, Frati's long time assistant, answered. "Oh, Mr. Scott. Every day Mr. Frati talks about you and the Falco drawings. But there is no time for the drawing, he is so busy, and he doesn't know what to do."
"Well, would it be all right if I did the drawings," I asked. Oh, that would be fine, said Frati, who didn't know that I had only done one drawing in my entire lifetime.
But so it began. The drawings arrived from Italy and I began the arduous task of tracing, revising, refining and re-engineering parts of this wonderful old machine. I worked with ink on mylar, with the lettering typed on a typewriter and then pasted on the mylar with rubber cement -- principally because my handwriting is nearly illegible. The drawings are as beautiful as the Falco, and I took great pride in doing the work well. Over the years, I've probably spent at least 10,000 hours bending over the drawing board while producing these things. It's painstaking, slow work, and it's often physically painful as well because of eyestrain and backaches.
I traced the old Italian drawings and converted all of the text to English. Over time, we added features to the design -- a new instrument panel, rudder stops, electrical systems, a piece here, a fitting there. The engine installation alone took over 2000 hours to detail all of the hoses, fittings, pushrods, cables, filters, engine baffling, grommets -- I like to tell people that designing an engine installation is like designing a bowl of spaghetti with a fork in it. And then when all of these things were done, I had to go back and redraw everything to integrate the changes into the existing drawings. And then there's the 300-page construction manual, with hundreds of drawings of the construction at each stage so the amateur in his garage/shop could understand what was required.
Throughout this process, we have always had some sort of electronic devices around the office. First there were programmable Hewlett-Packard calculators. Then we bought an IBM word processor, a machine the size of a desk with a six-inch screen on which you could see three lines at a time. I kept hoping that we could somehow use the machine for our drawings, but it was never to be.
We subsequently bought some Macintosh computers and put them to work for word processing and mailing lists. It was an easy-to-use machine with superior graphics, and I kept hoping that I would be able to do drawings on the computer and somehow use them with our construction manual. That was always the promise of the machine, but whenever I tried any of the programs, I was struck with the feeling of being defrauded -- even when the programs were free, beta-test copies. While you could draw some things, there were always so many 'parts of the puzzle' that were missing.
Over the years, I bought, tested and looked at every CAD or illustration program I could find. In every case, they were always long on promise and short on delivery. You were always led to believe that somehow this program was the best, and that you could 'do it all' with the program. Yet when I actually tried to use it, I was left with a feeling of wanting to line up every person at the software company against a wall and mow them down with a machine gun -- so intense were my feelings at the distance between the promise, the possibilities and the actual thing that resided on my machine.
Frank Christensen, of Christen Eagle kitplane fame, was similarly interested in the subject of drawing on a computer. He bought an IBM FastDraft system and used it for some of the Eagle drawings and all of the Christen Husky drawings. When he moved to a Macintosh, he looked at all of the various CAD and illustration programs, and he settled on a program called PowerDraw -- now known as PowerCADD -- that was produced by a small family business in North Carolina. I became a beta tester for the software, later wrote some macros, and when they developed the ability to write your own external tools, I was the only one outside the company involved in the process.
We would make suggestions for improvements in the software, and I would write tools which would solve various problems, but in time it became evident that the little software company had neither the interest nor intention of refining the software to the point that it would become a really useful thing to have. Yet it contained an element of genius in the way the basic program worked, and it was clear that they were doing a lot of things very well.
To put it mildly, I finally threw up my hands and gave up on the idea of suggesting, cajoling or screaming at software companies. I did something which, in retrospect, was an act of madness and passion. I wrote my own.
Not the whole program, mind you, but I used PowerCADD as the base and wrote a complete set of drawing tools called WildTools which adds to the base program. I began by duplicating all of the basic drawing tools that come with the program, adding a minor improvement here, and another there. Over time, it became obvious to the coterie of CAD fanatics who hovered about the program that I was adding features at a faster rate than the software company, and people began making suggestions to me.
I would incorporate the suggestions and over a period of time, WildTools grew to an enormous stack of paper -- now over 3000 pages of programming and larger than the base program. In the process of working on this, I became aware of the enormous benefits of opening yourself up completely to criticism and seeing it as a friend of the product. Often wars would break out, and I would get screaming e-mail insults from people who felt strongly about something that I didn't yet grasp.
In programming, I found it easy to see the product that was something completely removed from myself, and I came to see the rain of insults and flame mail as a virtue. Whenever I'm on the receiving end of it, I always remind myself that criticism is a form of showing interest in a subject and that you can learn a lot more from your critics than you can from your good buddies.
A friend once told me, "I learn something every day that my CAD system won't do". (I don't know if you've ever noticed, but 'computer' is 'frustration' spelled backwards.) The frustrations with drawing were endless: a curve I wanted to draw smoothly, an intersection between two shapes that I wanted to fillet with an arc, trimming a curve, or extending a curved line without changing the shape of the original curve, arranging my dimensions in a neatly stacked grid, creating a parallel offset curve, and all the unnecessary steps involved with making the program do your bidding. I wanted to draw, to concentrate on the thing I was depicting -- not fight with a computer!
WildTools began as a process of eliminating frustrations. When I began, I wanted to put my fist through the computer screen every ten minutes or so. But when we came out with the first version of WildTools a couple of years ago, the business of drawing on a computer was dramatically easier and all of the basic frustrations were gone. You could draw pretty much anything.
Then over the next year, I continued to add to the tools and somewhere in the process something magical happened. Everyone involved in the process describes it in essentially the same terms -- that somewhere in the course of that year the business of drawing on a computer crossed a threshold. Drawing on a computer started to be simply wonderful. It became fun. People routinely report productivity gains of 25, 50 and 100% over the course of a day. Falco pilots and WildTools fanatics have in common the same sense of enthusiasm and haughty arrogance that no one else has what I have.
Then in February, I was working on an isometric drawing for the Falco brake system using WildTools, which has some specialized tools for isometric drawing. In some ways the process was easy and in other ways it was difficult, and I began to analyze why and how these things might be made easier. In this process, something 'snapped' in my brain, and I suddenly realized how to 'do 3D in a 2D program', and over the next three weeks I created the basics of WildTools 3D, a set of over 60 tools which makes child's play of drawing isometric and axonometric drawings.
Today, as I write this, I am working on a new Nuts & Bolts palette, with a set of tools for all the standard structural steel shapes (wide flange, angles, channels, etc) so that you don't have to break out the 'steel book' every time you want to draw one of those things. And there is a series of tools for all the common screws, bolts, nuts, etc., so that you can draw a bolt as easily as a line.
At no time during the development of WildTools did I stop and ask if any part of the process was worth the effort in terms of the money I might receive. It was, pure and simple, an act of passion and madness. Not everything in life can or should be judged by the bottom line. I look at WildTools in amazement, as if it were created by someone else. To this day, I don't understand how it came to be that a Speech-and-Drama major from drunken U.Va. did this thing. But what fascinates me is the process, of how you can never stop learning from other people, and how much better you can be at anything if you include other people in the process.