The violin bowmaker and his mystery machine

By Jamie Morris

George MacArthur, professional bowmaker and inventor.

“I like high precision and ultimate control over mechanical things.” That’s George MacArthur speaking, and he’s not overstating.

George is a professional bowmaker, one of maybe 14 in Canada (his estimate). Some of his bows are in the capable hands of musicians such as Natalie MacMaster and the Leahy family.

From planks of Pernambuco snakewood and wamara — exotic species chosen for their high “Modulus of Elasticity” (inherent stiffness) and other qualities — George fashions violin sticks. The mathematically calculated tapers are precise to two thousandths of an inch. (That’s less than the thickness of a sheet of paper.) To the sticks he adds eyelets and screws custom machined from 01 tool steel and creates a hairing system.

“Ultimate control” means not only responsibility for all stages, but charting one’s own path (which has always been George’s way). The result, for the bows, has been a highly-original design. He produces the world’s only heptagonal (seven-sided) violin bow.

In developing his unique design, George has had to invent tools and machines. One allows separate tapers for each of the seven sides. Another is something any home handyman might covet — a vice that incorporates skateboard wheels and can be adjusted on a variety of planes.

All interesting and impressive, but what’s brought me to George’s doorstep is a tip from Advocate columnist Ian McKechnie that then led me to an image on George’s website. An image with no caption, just a label:  “Mystery Machine.”

And this is where this story really starts. The machine, it turns out, is one component of a human-powered flying machine.

But it gets more interesting than that. Human-powered flight is a challenge that has been met; in fact back in 1979 American Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Albatross crossed the English Channel.

For George, the challenge has been human-powered vertical flight (think helicopter). An order of magnitude more challenging. The machine requires not only ultimate lightness and efficient transfer of human energy, but ability to fly in its own orbit — to hover. Ultimate control.

It’s not overstating to say that this challenge has obsessed George for years now. The story begins with an inspiration, includes methodical advances and dramatic setbacks. It’s a story that is still unfolding.

The Insight and a Goal

In his early 20s (he’s now 50) George had a flash of inspiration — an idea for a vertical flying machine that would work by exploiting an underappreciated phenomenon of aerodynamics. He didn’t have the money, resources, or skill-sets at that time, so the idea went into a file.

Fast forward to 2011. George learned about the Sikorsky Prize Competition, administered by the American Helicopter Society (AHS). Simple rules: “The flight requirements shall consist of hovering for one minute while maintaining flight within a 10-metre square. During this time, the lowest part of the machine shall exceed momentarily 3 meters above the ground.”

Simple rules, but lots of prestige and a substantial cash inducement — $250,000 — to the first to meet the requirements.

Not surprisingly, a number of teams set their sights on the prize, foremost among them Team Gamera from the University of Maryland’s Clark School’s Department of Engineering and the University of Toronto’s Aerovelo team.

To the project the universities brought substantial resources and expertise. Aerovelo, for example had a team of 21 led by Todd Reichert (PhD, Aerospace Engineering, U of T), including young, well-conditioned cyclists.

And then there was George. On his own. Largely self-educated (he left school at 15). Not an athlete. And operating on a shoestring.

Constructing a Machine

George’s approach was to proceed as he did with his bows — with a vision rather than a detailed blueprint. There was nothing, so far as he could determine, that would preclude the machine he envisioned from flying, but neither was there a body of research he could draw on. He would tackle technical challenges as he encountered them.

From the outset he knew that the finished machine would have to be a big physical structure, taking up a volume roughly the size of two transport trailers side by side, so he would need a large space in which to work.  Over the next five years the project would be housed in three different buildings made available to him through the generosity of friends and neighbours.

He also needed materials. Whatever he was going to produce had to have minimal weight but maximal strength.

Project support in the form of donated materials came from a variety of sources. Hexcel, a carbon composite supplier to Boeing and NASA provided three lots of twill carbon fibre for the tubes and Selena USA sent up a case of expandable foam. Blackspire, a Canadian company, donated custom made aircraft grade aluminum pedals with titanium inserts.

George spent a year-and-a-half just on carbon fibre tubes, slowly assembling a framework. For periods during the process he completely set aside bow-making to focus on the machine.

Some parts were quite large, measuring 28 feet by 8 feet, but weighed only 13 pounds. So light, he could carry them himself to the new building.

Some Discouraging News . . . and Worse

Remember the Sikorski Prize, the prize that was George’ impetus for tackling the human-powered vertical flight challenge? Not long after George started, the prize was awarded to University of Toronto’s Aerovelo team. On June 13, 2013 Aerovelo’s Atlas flying machine stayed aloft for 64 seconds, reaching a height of 3.3 metres.

Quite a feat, but the original rules required staying within the 10 m. square marked out on the ground, and the video seems to show them going beyond that boundary. Turns out the rules had been modified, and Aerovelo was only required to stay within a 10 m square that could be drawn after the flight.

George persevered, setting as his goal the original requirement — remaining within a 10 metre square marked out on the ground. It would be a huge achievement and would be amply rewarded.

By September 2017, George calculates he’d completed 85 per cent of the project. He was refining, looking at centre of gravity and building control to increase airflow at one end. Then came something that he wouldn’t be able to shrug off.

Early on the morning of September 24 he was awoken by a phone call. There’d been a fire at the building.

“I was out of the house in 40 seconds,” George says. The building had been consumed in flames, but after a few minutes the firefighters took him in.

He describes what he saw: “It was a smouldering mess. Epoxy evaporates and there were just blackened ribbons left.”

He’d lost not only the machine but his specialized tools and the workshop space.


That was last September. Nine months later he’s been regrouping. He threw himself back into the bow-making to generate income. He does have some fresh ideas but he’s going to need some angel investors and he’s going to need a workshop space.

Given those, and George’s determination and focus, and who knows what’s possible.

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