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On the Job

Flights of Fancy

For toymaker Blake English, flying fish are only the beginning.

Photo: Michael Kelley

By Ann Marsh

When Blake English was a Stanford junior contemplating a career in military defense work, he found his true calling in an unusual place: the shark tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Standing there, watching a shark swim languorously high above him, English recalls thinking, "What would it take to make a shark fly?"

Months later, he had his answer. As a final project for his product design major, English, '09, MS '10, built a four-foot-long inflated shark that propelled itself through the air by swishing its tail. He dubbed it an Air Swimmer. That prototype became the model for one of the most popular products made by Claremont, Calif., toymaker the William Mark Corp. The company has sold more than a million of English's flying sharks.

Encountering an Air Swimmer for the first time—a wide grill of illustrated shark teeth glowering down from above—can shock people and animals alike. A YouTube video that has racked up nearly 9 million views shows a cat on a coffee table about to scoop a goldfish out of a fish bowl. Suddenly, an Air Swimmer looms overhead and the terrified cat leaps away in a fluffy blur.

This fall, William Mark will release Air Swimmers that look like Angry Birds from the popular game. English also is developing Air Swimmers for each of the characters in Finding Nemo 2, an anticipated sequel to Disney's 2003 hit film.

The Air Swimmer would never have gotten off the ground if English had listened to professors and peers, who warned that making a fin propel a fish through the air was too complicated to undertake. "None of the classmates I talked to thought it would work," recalls English, who went on to get a co-terminal degree in mechatronics.

Essentially a balloon with a small, battery-powered motor, an Air Swimmer is operated via an infrared receptor that enables users to control speed and direction.

On the shark's belly sits a four-inch replica of a remora or suckerfish, which in real life hitches rides on sharks and other large marine animals. The suckerfish designed by English are actually weight-shift mechanisms that travel up and down a 14-inch track by remote control. Move the remora toward the shark's head and the shark flies toward the ground. Move it toward the tail, and the shark moves skyward.

Shark layout
Courtesy Blake English
SHARK TALE: English sketched a rough design for the Air Swimmer in his product design course at Stanford. More than a million have been sold. Click here to view larger image.

The Air Swimmer is English's second major toy design produced by William Mark. The first came after Christmas break English's junior year. While on vacation with his family in Mammoth Lakes, English met the toy company founder, William Mark Forti. The two began talking about My Mystery UFO, an earlier toy designed by Forti that hovers seemingly magically between the user's hands. Forti said he wanted to design a new version with a fluttering fairy instead of a spinning spaceship, but he hadn't worked out how to make the wings oscillate.

English became obsessed with figuring out how to make Forti's fairy work. With no electronics stores in the area, he improvised. As everyone else slept that night, he disassembled the electronic alarm clock in his sister-in-law's guest room, energized a coil of enamel-coated wire using the clock's circuitry and made a magnet purloined from the alarm's speaker oscillate. His solution was derived from the same principle of electromagnetics that makes electric motors spin and causes wind turbines to generate energy. "It's a very basic circuit that you would learn in your first electronics course," English says.

Whittling a piece of discarded packing foam he found in the trash into a pair of wings, he hastily built a fairy.

"Here, do it this way," English suggested to Forti the next day, handing him the fluttering prototype.

"Sweet!" the toymaker responded. "Do you want a job?" English worked for William Mark for the next three summers and in between classes at Stanford.

Michael Kelley

Forti calls English "a great toy inventor." Many engineers possess the technical expertise and business smarts to make cool stuff, Forti asserts. What distinguishes English is that "he still hasn't lost that inner child."

English used a computer-aided design program to render a tiny nude model for the fairy's body, but it was his artistic sensibility, honed in courses in art and psychology, that gave the toy its warmth. He even customized the 3-D printer—by printing out new gears and other parts on the very same printer—for his work with toys.

Working for a very small company gives English the opportunity to be involved in the entire process of toymaking, from conception and design to engineering and manufacturing. English and Forti often make the 20-minute drive up to nearby Mount San Antonio, where they test new prototypes of flying devices.

"I never thought I'd be designing fairies for little girls," admits the man who thought he'd be designing military drones. "It takes the same amount of engineering and mental effort to design a better toy as it does a better weapon. And you can't argue with the morals of bringing joy and wonder to little kids."

His sister-in-law, the mother of two children, agrees. "Thank you," she once told English, "for designing toys and not cruise missiles."

Ann Marsh, '88, is a writer living in Pasadena, Calif.

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