Howe and Howe Technologies Profile, Part 1

A note here... I originally wrote this profile in early 2013 – it was intended to be used in a blog that a local creativity non-profit was hoping to launch upon the redesign of their site. The site redo didn't happen as planned, and the blog never launched. I enjoyed my conversation with Geoff and Mike Howe so much, though, that I didn't want the record of it to get lost. So with their permission and as the kick-off to my own creative blog, here's Part 1 of the series I wrote back then about the Howe Brothers, their business and the development of their non-profit Outdoors Again. Thanks for reading!

Yes, this was an extremely fun day!

Yes, this was an extremely fun day!

Friends of mine who live in York County have driven past Howe and Howe Technologies in Waterboro daily for years and had no idea what goes on inside. To a passing commuter, it looks like your average large industrial facility. In fact, Howe and Howe is a hotbed of cutting edge technological innovation, both military and commercial. It’s the Kitty Hawk of modern, often life-saving robotic engineering. There’s a Fender bass and a framed movie set photo of The Rock adorning the walls. And it’s right here in Maine.

You may have seen the Discovery Channel Show that focused on Geoff and Mike Howe, the identical twin brothers who founded the company. Reality TV dramatics aside, it gave a great glimpse into the business that stemmed from the creation of Ripsaw - the unmanned ground vehicle that made the U.S. Army perk up its ears and pay attention to these two native Mainers.

Better yet, visit their website and take a walk through the photo galleries. Here’s the bio from their home page – it spells out Howe and Howe’s attitude and ethic very effectively:

Since its creation, Howe and Howe Technologies Inc. has become a world leader in extreme vehicle fabrication and one of the foremost creators of advanced robotic platform solutions and applications. With a reputation for innovation, efficiency, and outstanding ethics, Howe and Howe Technologies continues to exceed expectations and impress industry and clients alike, from the US Government to National utility companies to Hollywood movie makers. It is the ability to approach a problem uniquely, and overcome any obstacle or challenge that a project presents, that has allowed Howe and Howe to show, time and again, that sharp minds with the right motivation can change the world.
“Are we outside the box? I wasn’t aware there was one.” - Mike Howe

My request to interview the brothers was kindly granted, and in mid-December 2012, I stopped in at the appointed time. When I was buzzed into the lobby at Howe and Howe’s Waterboro headquarters, there was no mistaking the fact that there’s some pretty closely-guarded activity going on here. Signs clearly informed me that the place was bristling with security cameras, and that my sad lack of top-secret clearance meant that I would be relegated to the public areas of the building. (Dang it! My visions of operating a Howe and Howe vehicle were slightly dashed, but not for long...)

I sat down with Geoff and Mike Howe in a conference room and asked them to describe the origins of their interest in engineering and high-tech invention, and how that might have translated into where they are today. What I got were very funny, yet cringe-worthy stories of a shared childhood in Maine, and it certainly explained a lot.

When the Howe brothers turned 8, their mother gave them an axe. What?! Yes. An axe. And without suffering permanent harm to themselves or innocent bystanders, they successfully built a one-room log cabin with it.

On another occasion, Mom suddenly realized that the house was strangely dark. Mike and Geoff told me with pure delight how they had been on a mission to ignite model rocket engines that day, but didn’t have a launcher. Mom, a teacher, was raising them single-handedly, and there simply wasn’t extra money available to go buy one. No problem – the brothers had picked up some handy ideas from watching “Mr Wizard’s World” – the 80’s TV series in which Don Herbert demonstrated all manner of science experiments. They’d learned, for instance, that light bulb filaments contain magnesium, which has wonderfully incendiary properties. Geoff tells the story:

We just started spying around the house and saying, "You know what? I think if we break the glass of the bulb, keep the filament good to go, take a 110 cord, cut it up, and duct tape the filament onto the end of the wires, stuff it up into the rocket, and then plug it into the wall, we SHOULD be able to ignite these rockets."

It took a few tries – and more than a few broken light bulbs – to get it right. And the result was so spectacularly entertaining that Geoff & Mike kept doing it until there was not a single bulb left in the house. What did Mom think? Geoff remembers, laughing, “She had a little meltdown.”

Many horrific/hilarious tales of near-electrocution and maiming later, it was very clear to me that necessity was a vital ingredient in the development of the Howe brothers’ innate ingenuity. With a few basic tools, a basement workshop, a nearby sandpit, and plenty of unstructured time, they immersed themselves in endless experimentation. And the fact that this was a shared obsession only compounded their results. It wasn’t all mayhem – they also happily recalled summers at a relative’s home on Popham Beach, snorkeling and scrambling around on Fox Island at low tide. Every bit of this open-ended exploration with materials at hand helped to fire their creativity and curiosity, and they credit all of this experience as a key to their success.

And so it goes to this day. When the Howe Brothers tackle a new project, they put the same inventiveness and determination into it that they did at lighting those rocket engines. And they try their darnedest. Someone might lose a finger, but isn’t nine enough?