Walter Marsh


This article appeared in the December 2009 Falco Builders Letter


by Alfred Scott

One of these days the phone is going to ring with news from a mutual friend that Walter Marsh has died. I hope this is years off. With Walter you always have the feeling that he's not going to live very long but then he goes on and defies all odds. But before that unhappy day comes, I thought it would be fun to tell you about my eccentric friend.

Years ago they built a downtown expressway with a toll booth. Walter drove in, pitched his quarter in the machine but the gate didn't open. Out came a helpful assistant to explain to Walter how the machine works. You put in a quarter, the gate will raise and you can drive through. But I did put in a quarter. No sir, if you put in a quarter, the gate would raise. But I already did that! Back and forth they argued, and then Walter got tired of this, grabbed a wrench from his tool kit, spun the nuts off the bolts holding the toll-gate arm in place, set the arm aside and drove off. The attendent exploded in anger and wrote down his license number.

Walter in ultralight


A few days later, Walter got a call at his office from the police, informing him that he had been charged with the criminal destruction of property. Did he want them to pick him up and take him to the station, or did he want to come down, be finger-printed, etc. Walter said he would be happy to come down on his own.

This was Walter's first brush with the law. As an highly intelligent eccentric, Walter thought he could just argue with a judge and reason would prevail. It didn't work so he lost the first round and was found guilty. Walter had to get a lawyer to handle the appeal.

It turns out that the criminal destruction of property is such a rarely used statute that over the years only two cases have made it to the Virginia Supreme Court. One of these was from the earliest days of the automobile when turnpikes were private franchises for sections of a road. Some teamsters had crashed through the gate with a truck and destroyed the turnstyle. In ruling on this case, the justices back in the earliest part of the last century ruled that in this case, indeed, the teamsters were guilty of the charge, and in rendering this opinion, they explained that if it had been an emergency and they had climbed over a fence, that would be a different situation... or, if they had simply dissassembled the gate, set it aside and had driven through, that would not be a criminal case. That would be a civil matter under the law.

So Walter got off, and at a legal cost of $1200 over a twenty-five cent toll, this was a victory for Walter. And the first of many such encounters with the law.

Slide to pool from tower.


Walter has a piece of land next to the Chesterfield County airport. He decided he wanted to built a hangar for his airplanes and to work on machinery. The land was zoned agricultural, and Walter decided he didn't want to bother with a building permit. He looked up the law. When the BOCA code was adopted in Virginia, farmers rose in opposition. You mean every time I want to build a corn crib, I've got to get a building permit? So they exempted agricultural buildings, without defining what an agricultural building is.

So he got two pigs, Wilbur and Orville, and began construction on his hangar, a 100-foot by 100-foot pre-engineered metal building and with the help of a 15-year-old boy and a $500 rust-bucket back-hoe, they started work.

The county building inspectors went nuts. Where is your building permit? I don't need one, it's an agricultural building. See the pigs?

They continued to harangue him all during the construction, and Walter continued to ignore them. The longer this went on, the angrier they became and the more Walter enjoyed it.

A few years later, I got a call out of the blue from Walter. I need a lawyer. The County had filed charges for failure to get a building permit. They had waited until the statute of limitations was about to run out, and he faced 365 violations, each punishable by a $1000 fine and 30 days in jail. So potentially, Walter faced a fine of $365,000 and 365 months in jail. That's over thirty years. This definitely got Walter's attention. I put him in touch with our attorneys, and he became their favorite case while it was going on.

Now it turns out that when the BOCA code was enacted by the state, the law prohibited one-offense-per-day statutes by counties and municipalities. But Chesterfield County had enacted one anyway, and they had used it as a hammer to hold over everyone's head. When Walter's attorneys challenged this, the County was left with a choice of convicting Walter for one offense and giving up their hammer, or find a way to let the whole thing pass and keep their hammer. They chose the hammer. Another victory for Walter.

Watching an airshow from the tower over the hangar.

Then there was case of the topographic maps. The County had the whole county flown and had created topo maps with two-foot contours. It's a very expensive process, and the County was charging $200 per plat to recover their costs.

Walter didn't like this, and he filed a freedom of information lawsuit, which says that all information available to any government entity must be made available at printing costs only. So overnight, the costs of these plats went to two dollars per plat. People were lined up around the block to get theirs.

This didn't last. The state legislature has enacted a number of exceptions. For example, prisoners cannot file freedom-of-information lawsuits to get the prison security plans. And now there's the Walter Marsh exception that allows for the sale of topographic maps at more than printing costs. It's not officially called the Walter Marsh exception, but Walter is very proud of this.

And so it has gone for years.

Walter and Bill Nutt on Walter's Segway

Walter's hangar

I first got to know Walter through Bobby Jones, who has a machine shop that we've used for years. At the time, Walter was working for Philip Morris and made his pocket flying money by programming. He had created an office accounting system that he set up for various companies. That was back in the days of CPM and the earliest microcomputer operating systems, before MS-DOS, the PC and Windows machines. Nobody knew anything about how the machines worked, and Walter could figure anything out.

It didn't take long to realize that the brain in Walter's head was unlike anything I'd seen anyone else. "They only made one Walter Marsh," says Bobby. "I don't know anyone like him."

While trained as a mechanical engineer, there isn't anything Walter can't do if he puts his mind to it. He likes to design and make things, and you can pick up any object, ask Walter how it's made, and it's like opening an encyclopedia. How beer-can tops are necked down at the top because 50% of the aluminum in a can is in the top, how the tops all leak a certain amount of air, and since most beer is consumed within two weeks of being canned, it's really a quality-control problem. There's a machine they use that shines a light through the pop-top and grades them based on how much light leaks through. At 2000 tops per minute.

Walter with his radial arm saw made from a radial drill. Bill Keller to the left.

I once was curious how oil drilling works, and just out of curiosity asked Walter. "You know how dressing wheels work on a grinding wheel?" he said. It's just like that, the drill bit is turned and the sharp points chip their way through the dirt and rock. How the 'string' is a special kind of steel tube, so thick-walled you can't make it in a standard way. How the threads on the end are an investment casting with a special API [American Petroleum Institute] thread, a buttress thread design that only requires a single turn to engage and bottom out. How all oil wells in Texas have to be registered with the Texas Railroad Commission, and how sometimes it's more profitable to hit a dry well than oil. Why? That's because all the oil in Texas is on top of salt domes, and when you get the oil up, you get about 30% saltwater. You can't just dump that into the creek, so if you have a really good dry well with a lot of capacity, you can pump the saltwater back down into the ground at 3000 psi and charge more for this than you could for pumping oil out of a producing well.

Back in the early 1990s, I got interested in PostScript. Apple had come out with the first Laserwriter printers, and you could use PageMaker to print newsletters -- your own printing press. I wanted to be able to print drawings with high resolution printing but there was no way to do this. When Adobe came out with Adobe Illustrator, there was the line quality I wanted but it was useless for drafting.

This was back in the early days of the microcomputer revolution. I could call up Adobe Systems and ask to speak to Glenn Reid, one of the main programmers there. (More recently he has been the creator of iPhoto and iMovie on the Mac.) He sent me the stuff I needed to get this working, and I got this working in Benchmark and later as LaserPrint in PowerCADD both using direct PostScript printing.

One day Walter showed up, pulled a chair up close by me, and said "Tell me about PostScript." So I explained to him how it all worked and Walter sat there listening. He's dyslexic and takes in information best through conversation. At times, he would stop me with a question and then after an hour and a half, he got up and left. He was just curious how it all worked.

I have written WildTools which consists of about 300 drawing tools and which is generally regarded as the best set of drawing tools on any computer. How this happened is another story, but at the time I was writing the Pen tool that lets you draw with Bezier curves, I wanted to have a capability that I had seen in Adobe Photoshop. Editing the control points is obvious, but they had the ability to move the curve and both control points would move at the same time. You could 'bend' the curve by grabbing it. I spent two days trying to figure out how Adobe did it and got nowhere.

So I gave Walter a call. He can reverse-engineer anything. He answered the phone -- "Walter" -- in a gruff, anti-social tone, and you could tell even before he said anything that his mind was elsewhere. I explained the problem briefly, and he cut me off. He had a full day of work to do, a couple of projects he had to finish, and he didn't have any time to talk. Slam.

Five minutes later the phone rang. "Tell me about this problem." So I explained it further and that I was at my wits end trying to figure it out. "I'll be over there in twenty minutes."

When he got here, he pulled up a chair and went to war with the programmer at Adobe who had written the tool in Photoshop. He personalized it and he went to war with the Adobe programmer. "He's doing this. He's doing that." We sat there, hunched over the computer with me explaining how the curve is drawn and Walter trying to figure out what was going on. After two and a half hours, he finally got it.

Walter makes an adjustment.

It was about this time that Bobby Jones was installing some of the earliest computer controls on his lathes and milling machines. The controls were made by Fanuc Robotics, an industry pioneer and leader. The systems would come with 32K of memory. They used a special bubble-memory card, and you would have to spend $2500 to $10,000 to increase the memory so you could load complex CNC programs. This pissed Walter off, so he reverse-engineered their proprietary memory cards and came up with his own card that used off-the-shelf memory chips. Fanuc was furious and threatened to sue, and the angrier they got, the more Walter enjoyed it.

He was also pushing himself too hard working on the memory card, and he was in Ohio working on an installation when he had his first heart attack. He crawled to the motel room door, unlocked it, and then called 911. He nearly died and later described being on the operating table. His systems had completely shut down. He couldn't see but he could hear the doctors talking as they worked on him, wondering if this guy was going to make it, and later Walter talked about all the catheters and stents they ran through his veins with a detached fascination of how the machinery all worked.

When Walter gets going on a project, he gets so focused on it, the world ceases to exist. While I've done this for several days, with Walter it can last for months. When he's in this state, he has no social skills and no interest in acquiring any. If he doesn't think you have a brain in your head, you don't even exist. When I designed Gonzales, our spar-milling machine, Walter came over and looked at the design. Pretty good, he said, but why are you using these screwjacks and gears when you can use a package system? I didn't know about those, and he gave me the names of some manufacturers. So I pitched two weeks of design work in the trash and used Walter's off-the-shelf actuators.

Then he asked me what I was going to use for the controls. I hadn't a clue and had thought I would figure something out. So Walter suggested that he do it. It was a field he really knew a lot about.

This was back in the days of Brenda Avery, and she looked up and there was Walter. He had his arms full with boxes of stuff for Gonzales, and she said he basically fell through the door, stumbled by her desk and into my office -- looking for all the world like a poorly dressed white male Whoopi Goldberg. His pants always seem at risk of falling to the floor. Brenda said he wasn't being impolite, he didn't even know that she was there. Later when he was wiring Gonzales, he would eat his lunch at Brenda's desk and when he realized there was something to Brenda, they got along fine.

Some women can't stand Walter, because he's not about to sit around making party talk that anyone can relate to, but Susan Arruda, IQ 143, loves him. He has come to our Oyster Fly-In for years. At times he has arrived in a Q2 Quickie he built and later in an ultra-light he has cobbled together. With continued health problems, he's doing less flying but apt to show up with a Segway.

The airport installed a tall chain-link fence around the perimeter of the Chesterfield County Airport, just in front of his hangar, but Walter has made a hoist to swing his airplanes up and over. There's a field adjacent to his property. It's airport property and just long enough for an ultralight but there were trees. A few years ago -- amazingly -- overnight the trees just 'disappeared.'

Walter is a radical libertarian who would rather fight with the Chesterfield County government than make love to his wife. His hangar is filled with airplanes and machinery. He was able to buy a used radial drill, an antique 18,000-lb monster machine that he picked up for a song. But he had to get it across town and trucking it was prohibitively expensive. So Walter bought an old school bus and converted it to a flat-bed truck with a cab of a couple of bench seats up front. He didn't want to bother with a license for the thing, so he looked up the state code and it says that any farm machinery that has fruit-spraying equipment permanently attached does not require a license tag. So there on the side of the chassis is a small, one-man plastic spray-rig and the state code section number is on Walter's own custom license tag. Nobody has stopped him yet, and it's a good thing because they wouldn't know what to do with him.

He's converted the radial drill to a giant radial-arm saw, which is equipped with a $2000 diamond blade (don't ask where he got it) which he uses to cut up scrap bowling alley plywood that he gets for free. It's impregnated with tungsten carbide and Walter gets the rejects from a bowling alley equipment manufacturer. He likes to make things, and he uses this for shelves and cabinets.

Beer making equipment

Above his hangar, he's built a tower and deck that's two feet under the airport's air space. It's all mounted on surplus scaffolding, and from the top there's a two-story slide that goes down to a circular plastic swimming pool. Every Tuesday night, he meets with a group of guys who drink beer (Walter makes his own in large industrial tanks -- "nobody ever died from drinking beer"), watch the sun go down from the deck over the hangar, cook steaks and other selections from Walter's own definition of the basic food groups: Pepsi, pizza, beer...

A couple of years ago, Walter got in trouble with the law. Someone was flying over-weight ultralights down the river next to the Federal Reserve Building. But it was impossible to say exactly who was flying these without a positive identification by an eye-witness, and how could anyone say the planes were over-weight without weighing them. As the official notices arrived, each was proudly pinned up on the bulletin board for the Tuesday night group to read.

Bobby Jones uses SolidWorks for all his design work, and Walter sneered and spit all over it until Bobby put a copy on Walter's computer and showed him how it works. Walter doesn't seem to have a legal copy of anything, and you need a registration code with the latest version. So for Christmas, Bobby bought Walter a $10,000 SolidWorks 'seat' with the provision that he will deduct half the cost on the next job Walter does for him. But now with direct access to the technical support people, Walter has already found bugs in the software and they're coming out with new versions fixing the problems he has found.

Bobby has yet to get any work out of Walter since then, and Walter is off on a new tangent. His latest is a quarter-scale Gatling Gun, which he's going to make in a limited run and sell to collectors. And licensing rules and firearm manufacturing regulations are for other people, not Walter.