Eckersall designs control systems for the largest and most complex fountains ever made
It’s the beginning of 2002. A 25-year-old British electrical engineer walks off a plane in Los Angeles, making his first visit ever to the United States. Within the year, he would be given the mission of improving one of the main attractions in North America’s glitziest playground. The engineer is Anthony Eckersall, the playground is Las Vegas, and the attraction is the spectacular outdoor fountain at the Bellagio hotel and casino.
Even in a city famous for excess, the Bellagio fountain is exceptional. There are 8000 meters of pipes, 1200 nozzles, and 4500 lights. It cost US $75 million to build and attracts crowds every half-hour. When the show begins, pipes rise from the depths of its 8 acres of water, as if a huge school of dolphins were called to the surface by the music. Water flows from the nozzles in streams that meld into bracelets of liquid diamonds, seemingly suspended in midair. They begin to sway left, then right, then forward and back. Suddenly, more pipes break the surface and with a convulsive kick discharge a mist of water nearly 50 meters into the air. At their summit the new arcs seem to pause, then come crashing down with a sound that nearly drowns out the oohs and aahs from the crowd.
Behind the liquid pyrotechnics is some serious technology, including a host of small robots and two classes of computer controls. The small robots, called oarsmen, point each nozzle anywhere in a 360-degree range. There’s also a show computer, which acts like a stage manager, choreographing the shooters and robots in their hydrodynamic ballet. And there’s a housekeeping brain—a second computer that monitors the water’s pH and its filtering and can override the show computer. Finally, there’s the human brain that programs the electronic ones.
That one belongs to Eckersall. At Wet Design, he’s responsible for the design, manufacture, and installation of the control systems for the company’s newest fountains.
How much did he know about hydrodynamics when he started the job? “Basically nothing,” he says. “I learn it as I go along.”
Wet Design is more than just the leading maker of programmable water displays. It essentially invented the field in 1983, basing itself on university research by one of the company’s cofounders on turbulence-free water flow—the secret to creating streams of water that seem to be standing still. For the past 23 years, the Sun Valley, Calif., company has created water displays for spots all over the globe. New York City has several, including one at the U.S. Open tennis stadium in Queens, where jets of water face each other like two players volleying. An “animated rain” display in Thailand creates a fog that climbs up a building and then collapses. Dozens of other displays decorate corporate headquarters, airports, and shopping malls from Canada to the United Arab Emirates.
And then there are the casinos. When Eckersall started at Wet Design, he was asked to double the height of the Bellagio’s water spray to its current 160 meters—“high enough,” he says, “that the Federal Aviation Administration has complained that it shows up on radar.” The shooters he helped design can propel water so powerfully that it disappears into a vapor. The new design also greatly improves control of the sprays. Today, the oarsmen can direct water to nearly one-thousandth of a degree. That lets the show designers pick the precise point at which two streams touch during the show.
Surprisingly, Eckersall says, one of the biggest challenges with the Bellagio fountain is maintaining the seemingly mundane housekeeping computer. It controls, among other things, the pond’s filters, which catch everything, “from coins to nappies,” he says.
Eckersall was always drawn to things electrical. “I was the 6-year-old taking apart the toaster,” he says. At age 8, he moved a motor from one toy into a Lego helicopter, because he wanted the propeller to turn on its own. As a teenager, he tinkered with videocassette recorders, TVs, and anything else that needed fixing. Eventually, he received degrees in electrical and electronic engineering from Manchester Metropolitan University, in England, which he attended part-time while working at Urenco Ltd. (now Enrichment Technology UK Ltd., in Capenhurst, England). There he designed control systems for nuclear fuel centrifuges that enrich uranium for nuclear power plants.
He says he left a job, house, and country he loved for a woman, moving to Southern California in January 2002. That relationship fizzled, but by July a beautiful new one began, when he started work at Wet Design.
He was hired as a control systems engineer, but his organizational skills led to a promotion to project manager in just 18 months. His new responsibility was overseeing fountain installations from their initial development through completion.
He says the company’s clientele can be eccentric as well as demanding. Steve Wynn, the billionaire developer who owned the Bellagio in 1998, told his team, “I want a fountain that dances.”
“It’s fantastic to work on things that touch millions,” Eckersall says. “When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘Do you know the fountains at the Bellagio? That’s what I do.’”
Anthony Eckersall (M)
What he does: Designs control systems for the largest and most complex fountains ever made.
For whom: Wet Design Inc.
Where he does it: Sun Valley, Calif., and installations around the world.
Fun factors: Travels the world designing one-of-a-kind systems.