J.P. Brown is a brickhead. At least, that’s what the respected archeologist at Chicago’s Field Museum calls himself. By day, Brown, 40, puzzles over the best way to conserve Babylonian artifacts, but come evenings and weekends, he can be found hunched over a table of Lego bricks. In 2001, he became a sort of Internet celebrity—at least among the so-called brickheads—when he used a Lego MindStorms kit to create a Rubik’s Cube-solving robot named CubeSolver. (The thing actually turns a Rubik’s Cube as long as it needs to solve the puzzle.) Since then, Brown’s brickhead rep has grown as his site Serious Lego (jpbrown.i8.com) has been discovered by more and more people.
Although Brown fondly remembers an “ultra-huge box” of Legos from his childhood in England, at that time Lego was guns and tanks—no robots. “When I was 11,” he says, “an uncle who is a science fiction writer made this absolutely stunning looking Lego spaceship that was about six-feet long. I was gobsmacked. It was incredibly pretty, and I knew I could never do anything as good as that.”
He was wrong. Having ditched his Legos at the end of adolescence, he was reintroduced in 1999 when a friend’s child received the first Lego Mindstorm set with a “programmable brick,” including infrared links, memory capacity, motor controllers and sensor inputs. Curiosity piqued, Brown set to work and has since managed to wow everyone from his son’s kindergarten class to fellow robotic experts with an entire cast of Lego “toys” including Aegis, a four-shot rotary cannon; K9, a vision-enabled dog that fetches a ball; and Xilo, who plays a circular xylophone. As if that’s not enough, his current robot-in-development will make and throw a paper airplane. Deeply cool stuff, indeed. —TEDRA MEYER