Charles Tilford: Inflatoenvironmentologist

Alumni PhotoCharles Tilford has been in the vanguard of art and environmental technology since his earliest days at Columbia. A 3-2 student from Middlebury College, Charlie likes to say he majored in mechanical engineering and minored in Apollo Theater. (A bass guitarist while at Columbia, he played in “Voltaire’s Nose,” with Chris Guest before he became Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap.)

He started doing inflatable multi-media environments at Columbia, and wanted to make more permanent fabric structures, so he got an MS in architectural technology from Columbia in 1972, working with Mario Salvadori. “I worked independently, as ‘C. Tilford, Inflatoenvironmentologist,’ and designed and built structures for clients, including Antioch College, the Smithsonian Institution, New York City Parks Department, and The Grateful Dead,” he said.

His career then moved in a different direction. “Pushed by the energy crunch, I hooked up with friends who had started the MIT School of Architecture Solar Energy Lab,” he said, “We were trying to make new building materials for passive solar design and energy conservation. In 1976, we started a company, and moved to San Francisco, where Lawrence Berkeley Labs monitored us. We got private funding and corporate backing, and developed Heat Mirror transparent window insulation film as Southwall Technologies. We built six buildings in Palo Alto, then plants in Tempe and Dresden, had 500 employees and were listed on NASDAQ.

“I was Director of Applications Engineering, then Director, Equipment and Facilities Engineering. We bought and modified large planar magnetron sputtering roll coaters, then designed and built our own. I headed a team that created the largest one ever built: 14-120 kVA deposition sources, 12 35-inch diffusion pumps, 2 MW power feed. It was working 24/7 until last year. In 2000, Popular Science listed Heat Mirror as “one of the 100 most significant inventions of the millennium.”

In 1981, Charlie did a moonlighting job on the engineering for the Rolling Stones “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s” tour. “Mick came up with a little cardboard model of a stage for indoor venues, including Madison Square Garden, which could spin while driving back and forth on a curved elevated track,” Charlie said. “We had five weeks to get it on the road for 25 shows, and it worked great. . . the bad seats behind the stage became good ones. It never missed a cue call, and made the cover of Rolling Stone.”

Charlie left Southwall in 1991 to join SunPower, a Silicon Valley firm making high efficiency photovoltaic cells, where he worked on tracking concentrators, and cells for the Helios solar airplane and the Honda Dream solar racecar. In 1993, he started Tilford Engineering Group, designing and building industrial production machinery for biomedical and hard drive manufacturers. In 2003, when SunPower got funding for a massive expansion, Charlie returned to work on that buildup, including tooling for a pilot line in Austin, and a 250,000 sq. ft. plant in the Philippines. “This has been hugely successful—a hot IPO, and a new 500,000 sq. ft. plant next door,” says Charlie.

Now Charlie is Senior Equipment Engineer at another solar startup, Nanosolar, in San Jose that makes solar cells on thin metal foil, using roll-to-roll processing. “Our materials and processes should be able to significantly reduce the cost of solar power,” he says. “We’ve got about 100 people, $150M, and 100,000 sq. ft., and are taking our shot. Good fun, socially responsible, and may make a buck.”

He still plays his ’62 Fender Jazz bass in a rock band and his 1914 Conn tuba. He is married, has two sons, and “became minorly famous as ‘Supreme Commander Tilford, General Morgan, General Henry, and MaulerMom of the South Bay Robo-Warriors,’ building and fighting the combat robot ‘Mauler’ on Robot Wars in the U.S. and England, and BattleBots on Comedy Central. We fought Jay Leno’s ChinKilla on The Tonight Show and I was interviewed by National Public Radio and the BBC.”

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