The world of robotics is not a continent, with people easily moving from site to site. It is a vast ocean, filled with islands of specialization and unique cultures. Often these islands have little in common but the word “robot.” There are islands devoted to industrial robots, competition robotics, and art bots. There are places filled with people who will never build a robot, but yearn to know what’s happening on all those islands. There are small atolls with single inhabitants working to build their dreams, and monstrous islands where thousands compete to have their work seen by everyone. Humanoid robots, combat robots, service robots, robots that were built to hurt and those built to heal. There are even islands that have everything in common but actual geographic proximity. All of them segregated on their islands of solipsism.
Sometimes people would build a boat and sail to one or two other islands to connect with other robot people, but for the most part, we all stayed on our own pile of servos rising from the ocean floor.
But there was another way. A Mighty Bridge. A Bridge that connected all those islands to each other. The Bridge played no favorites, charged no toll, and made sure that every island was accessible. That bridge was named Lem Fugitt. This week, The Bridge fell. And our world is a far lesser place for the loss.
Lem loved robots of all types, and made certain that the world had access to every island in our vast ocean. Whether it was an industrial robotics convention in Tokyo, a small artist’s studio in New York, a collegiate competition in Europe, or just sitting at home posting about stuff to his blog that he’d heard about, Lem was The Bridge to everyone else and between everyone else. In his eyes, we were all equal and so were our robots. A tiny event was as significant as the world’s largest robot competition. The 6 year old’s sumo robot was just as important as the multinational corporations’ ten million dollar android. They all mattered, and The Bridge wanted to make sure the whole world knew about each and every one.
He was, without a doubt, the world’s biggest fan of robots. All of us have our own private or shared islands where we focus on our little robotics niche. But Lem made sure we knew about each other. He didn’t do it for fame or for fortune or any other reason but to help us to help each other.
No matter where you went, there he was, camera in hand, taking thousands of photos to share with the world. Introducing everyone to everyone else. He was The Bridge that not only allowed you to connect to others, but damned near forced you to. He made it so very easy. And he did it selflessly. His greatest joy was simply getting robot enthusiasts to meet each other. He never asked for anything in return — I don’t think it ever occurred to him.
When people were scared of leaving their island, or were somehow unable to cross The Bridge, he made sure to help them. I know for a fact that Lem sponsored several robot builders, competitions, and companies. Whether giving them some seed money to buy parts, connecting them with sponsors, or paying for contestants’ airfare to compete at an overseas competition, The Bridge was there for them. And when he helped people with the money that they needed, it came with only one condition: anonymity. He wanted no fame. Everyone who used The Bridge — be it a short crossing or a long one, a quick stroll or a seemingly impossible journey — Lem did it for the sake of all of us, not himself. He truly wanted us to be a single community which helped each other, respected each other’s disciplines, and learned from each other.
I have worked in all aspects of robotics, and been to most robot events held throughout the world, and yet I couldn’t dream of keeping up with Lem. He was everywhere, always smiling, always helping, and most of all, always connecting people. You could not meet Lem and walk away having only met Lem himself. To meet Lem was to meet several other people from many different places and disciplines, not just Lem himself. And then he would disappear, having done his job of aiding you both in meeting at the halfway point. He didn’t need to join the conversation. His self-appointed work was done, and surely there were others who needed to be introduced.
And when The Bridge wasn’t directly introducing people, he did it indirectly. Whether he wrote and photographed for his own websites, other people’s sites, Robot Magazine, Servo Magazine, Make: magazine, or countless others, Lem was ensuring that people had a way of experiencing life on all the other islands in this huge and ever growing ocean of robotics, even if they couldn’t make it in person.
Lem was a Bridge like no other. There are a few smaller spans that go between similar islands, but none that could compare to him. The Bridge made it a point to seek out every island, and he succeeded. He showed us the way to archipelagos that we never knew existed, and opened lines of communication that will now never be broken.
But now The Bridge has fallen. We stand on our shores, lost for a moment, looking across the water. But we now know that we are no longer alone. We know about all those other islands, and we’re much better for it. We know the way to get where we want to go. The Bridge showed us the way. It’s easier now. No one will ever replace Lem. He was the greatest of communicators and bridge builders. But we can still visit those other islands, even though he’s left us.
Should you go out alone, seeking another isle of bots and you get lost, just look down. The Bridge is still there, just under the waters we now know to be shallow and passable. The Bridge may have fallen, but he’s still visible. Just look down and follow the path that Lem built for us, and you’ll do fine.
We have lost a great man. But let’s make sure we don’t lose the routes that he made for us.
Good night, Lem.
Your press badge will always be at the door for you.
A note from Make: Founder Dale Dougherty:
I so enjoyed seeing Lem at Maker Faires in the Bay Area and Tokyo. He took a great picture of me after one of our conversations in the Bay Area and I put that photo on my Facebook profile (with his kind permission). Lem was curious, passionate, and knowledgeable. I will miss him and so will the Maker community.