Part-time Passions: March 2012

From steamboats to the tango, engineers have a variety of hobbies

5 March 2012

Al Dunlop
Stoked on Steamboats

Since building his 7-meter-long steamboat Aurora Borealis 15 years ago, IEEE Fellow Al Dunlop spends his free time logging about 800 kilometers a year along the lakes, canals, and other waterways around upstate New York, New England, and Ontario, Canada.

“It’s very calming,” Dunlop says of his voyages, during which his boat chugs along at a steady 8 km per hour. “All you hear is the purr of the engine, and you’re moving slowly enough so you can see things. All the heat goes up the stack, so the temperature on deck is not as hot as people might think.

“It’s pleasant and relaxing, now that I understand what all the sounds from the boiler and engine mean.”

dunlop Passion:

Dunlop, a circuit-design specialist at Crossbow Consulting in Pilot Knob, N.Y., began building boats in high school. By grad school, he had more than a dozen fiberglass, Kevlar, and nylon kayaks, plus four cedar rowing skiffs. But steam engines had always intrigued him. “In high school, I had a small steam engine, and I was captivated by it,” he says. “You’d boil water, energy would be created out of the boiling water, and a wheel would go around.”

While at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., in 1991, Dunlop took evening machine shop and electrical- and gas-welding classes to build a steam engine and boiler. He built the engine from a kit and then smoothed, flattened, and cut its many metal parts. “You have to make the piston, cut the pockets for bearings, and bore the cylinder—things a person with a Ph.D. doesn’t typically do,” he says. “I’d get to work with my hands in the evening and create physical things instead of theoretical concepts. And I learned practical things I would never learn in a high-powered research facility.”

By 1997, Dunlop was ready to test his creation in the water. “I was so busy watching the engine and all the mechanical things—Was the water level high enough? Did I have a fire? Was the engine lubricated?—that a friend onboard kept telling me, ‘Look where you’re going!’ ”

Dunlop soon got the hang of it. “My favorite time to go out is just before sunset, and stay until after dusk,” he says. “That’s when the water is calmest, and I can enjoy the wonderful beauty and serenity of the lake.” 


Hossein Hakim
Ambassador of Tango

In the summer of 2003, IEEE Member Hossein Hakim embarked on a two-week summer vacation to Argentina to learn Spanish. What he brought back was an obsession with the tango that not only transformed his life but also those of his engineering students.

Hakim was transfixed in Argentina by the dancers performing to tango music in the streets. It impressed him enough that he took tango lessons and hit the local dance clubs. Returning home to Holden, he began trekking to nearby Boston for tango classes three times a week.

“My wife thought I’d gone crazy,” Hakim says, laughing. “I was never much of a dancer. But before I knew it, I was feeling the joy and passion of the tango.

Hossein Passion:

“It’s the most technical of all the couples dances. You learn a series of steps initially, but then the sequence is up to you. Each new step emerges from the previous one, linked to what you feel in the music. None of the other dances are like that. The music is melodic and complex, and you can express a range of emotions: happiness, sadness, jealousy, and love.”

Six months after his Boston lessons began, he was organizing dance events at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he’s a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Initially, only a half dozen students showed up. But Hakim started teaching Sunday afternoon tango classes, which caught on among WPI’s mostly engineering students.

Today some 400 students participate, and student government funding of US $40 000 per year has made possible a program of ballroom dance competitions, social dances, and classes that teach salsa, merengue, cha-cha, swing, and other dances. Hakim, the program adviser, also teaches a professional-level tango class for credit.

He has since returned three times to Buenos Aires for more intensive tango training: eight hours a day for a month at a time. He also has attended tango workshops in Italy, the Netherlands, and Berlin (home to some of the world’s best tango dancers), as well as tango festivals around the United States.

Hakim says that tango at WPI has become an effective social icebreaker: “It has been a transforming experience for the engineering students who spend a lot more time reading books than socializing. It’s about unspoken communication with your partner, so every small move of the body conveys something. Traditionally, the man defines the next step of the choreography through movement, but in its moves the dance is really intended to make the woman shine.”

Top: Kent Lacey; Bottom: Patrick O'Conner

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More