- Feature Stories
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- Inspire Innovation
A caravan of cars snakes its way from company headquarters to the nearby marina. Among the riders are a number of the firm's engineers, executives, and cofounders. Car by car, the group of 17 reassembles near a meandering path by the water. It's a picturesque spot on a clear, sunny afternoon—perfect for the company's video. An attractive woman traveling with them shakes her long, blond hair out of the way and prepares herself for the shoot. The others stand by expectantly. As she takes her first steps on the dirt path, her heart quickens. For Amanda Boxtel, this is heaven. She glances at those watching. All have tears in their eyes.
The young boy is "inspired by machines." His interest only grows as he does. Odd, because nobody else in his family shares this bent, from his geologist father to his homemaker mother to his three siblings. He depends on neighbors to teach him things like how to build an engine. By the time he reaches his teens, the family is used to having its own fix-it guy. But for Nathan Harding, crafting "crazy bicycles and minibikes" with his friends soon becomes mundane.
One day, the high school senior notices an old picture on the wall of his buddy's house. It's a converted bus that took the parents on a college-era jaunt to Alaska. His mind flashes to another old bus that's been sitting in the local churchyard for years. It's hard to miss—a pale green junker with "Joybus" emblazoned in black across the top, front, and back. He resolves that he and his friends will create their own adventure by rescuing Joybus from the scrapheap and taking it from their Houston suburb to California after they graduate.
Harding, ever the ringleader, has no trouble enlisting his friends in the escapade. They buy the bus for $650 and spend months converting it into a camper. Unfortunately, Harding gets mono just as the group is preparing to leave. That's OK—he'll meet them in California when he recovers. His friends take off after graduation, but just like in the Eagles' classic song, the boys are left "standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona" when the bus terminally sputters there. Harding can't help but laugh when he finds out. It's an early lesson for him that journeys sometimes have unexpected destinations.
With college on the horizon, he is "looking for answers" to his insatiable mechanical questions. He applies to Carnegie Mellon University after hearing about its "strong academics." When he drives around Pittsburgh during a visit, the school becomes his first choice. Some teenagers yearn to attend college close to the beach or stay close to home; but Harding, a self-described "gear head," is in awe when he sees the region's old steel mills. "It was like a wonderland to me," he says. "I could just drive along the river, look at equipment, and dream about all the gadgetry." He enrolls in Carnegie Mellon's mechanical engineering program.
During his junior year, he is offered a chance to do honors work at the Field Robotics Center. Chris Ivory, also an engineering student, is researching there when he hears that a kid from the class behind will be joining the group. He knows of Harding, "the guy with the cowboy hat." He soon discovers that the guy is not only "mechanically sharp," but also quick, enthusiastic, and great with team dynamics. They become friends. Ivory is impressed that Harding doesn't seem to be studying engineering just to snag a good job—he's a "build-stuff kind of guy" who'd be tinkering with things no matter what his profession. Harding is even fixing up demolition cars—shades of Joybus—in his basement.
After earning their undergraduate degrees, they go their separate ways but plan to keep in touch. Ivory (E'89), who'd been in ROTC, lands in Seattle with the Air Force. Harding (E'90) is in Berkeley, where he plans to pursue his PhD. After earning his master's, though, he decides that he's had enough school for awhile. Pondering his next move, he visits his Carnegie Mellon friend. The two trek out to the Columbia River Gorge. Up high, overlooking the river, Harding gazes at the beauty. Ivory notices that "something overtakes him." Indeed. "You know," says Harding, "we should build Joyboat II."
Joyboat II? Ivory had heard tales of Joyboat. It was built after he graduated. Harding had been in search of an old pontoon boat he could refurbish. Sure enough, he found one, a rusty ruin with holes "big enough to put your fists through." The name, of course, was in memory of his high school bus that died in Arizona. After asking Red Whittaker, the robotics center director, for space in the shop, Harding was granted a week. A few friends had the boat river-ready with time to spare. They set out for New Orleans via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Joyboat needed constant repairs along the way, eking out just 300 miles to Ashland, Ky., before it had enough. In typical Joybus spirit, Harding was undaunted.(Continued …)