THE INSTITUTE Grant Imahara, who cohosted the Discovery show “MythBusters” and the Netflix series “White Rabbit Project,” died on 13 July at the age of 49 from a brain aneurysm.
The IEEE senior member’s IMDB biography described him as an “electronics wizard.” He operated R2-D2 in the Star Wars prequels. He also built robots for television. They included Geoff Peterson—Craig Ferguson’s android sidekick on “The Late Late Show”—and the Energizer batteries bunny mascot.
Imahara was active in IEEE, including serving as a speaker at the 2018 IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit. IEEE Spectrumprofiled him in its February 2006 Dream Jobs issue.
“Grant was a gracious, personable panelist at the VIC Summit, inspiring both young and old,” says IEEE Senior Member Leslie Martinich, the 2018 chair of the conference’s presentation and publicity committee. “He took the time to chat with so many attendees, and we shared happy memories of how he was able to communicate technical challenges to non-engineers.”
Imahara grew up in Los Angeles and attended the University of Southern California there, joining IEEE as a student member. During college, he was an intern for Lucasfilm’s THX division, which produced audio and visual systems. The company hired him to be a licensing engineer after he graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He conducted stress tests of loudspeakers and other audio equipment for compatibility with THX specifications. He also wore the suit for Star Wars robot C-3PO during marketing efforts to license the movie’s trademarks, according to his biography on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki.
Imahara left Lucasfilm in 1996 to work as an animatronics engineer and model maker for Industrial Light and Magic, also in Los Angeles. Industrial L&M designs special effects for movies. During his nine years there, he worked on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and the Matrix sequels. In a 2018 interview with Glenn Zorpette, executive editor of IEEE Spectrum, Imahara said his favorite of the movies he contributed to was Galaxy Quest.
“I worked on a lot of blockbusters,” he said, “and while they’re exciting movies, they don’t necessarily have the best story. I think Galaxy Quest has that great combination of both.”
In the late 1990s Imahara received an operating certification so he could drive and provide maintenance for the R2-D2 robots used in the rereleased “Star Wars” prequels. He also updated the technology used in the aging robots.
With the help of Tory Belleci and Adam Savage—who along with Jamie Hyneman would later become his co-hosts on “MythBusters”—Imahara designed the robot Deadblow. He entered it in the TV competition “BattleBots” in 1999 and continued competing on the show until 2002. In 2018 he returned as a judge.
Imahara shared his expertise with the next generation of engineers. In 2003 he published Kickin’ Bot: An Illustrated Guide to Building Combat Robots, a book that provides step-by-step directions and expert advice. He also mentored the robotics team Biomechs #84 at Richmond High School in California for the FIRST robotics competition.
He enjoyed screenwriting. In 2004 he helped write the short film Architects of Evil, created for that year’s Industrial L&M Backyard Film Festival.
Imahara joined “MythBusters” in 2005 and worked on the show for nine years. He designed and built numerous robots and operated computers and electronics to test various myths. Can a cellphone cause a plane to crash? Will a car dropped from 1,219 meters fall faster than a speeding car? Is it possible to bend bullets around obstacles, as in the 2008 movie Wanted? The show sought the answers.
In 2016, along with his former “MythBusters” co-hosts Kari Byron and Belleci, Imahara co-hosted Netflix’s “White Rabbit Project.” The team looked back on great inventions and bank heists.
In 2017 Imahara began working as the lead mechanical designer for creature-effects studio Spectral Motion, in Glendale, Calif. He also was a consultant for Walt Disney Imagineering, also in Glendale, where he worked on the Stuntronics project. For that, he helped design and build animatronic acrobatic robots of Disney film characters for the company’s theme parks.
Imahara appeared in Web series and movies including “Star Trek Continues,” “Home of the Future,” and Star Trek Renegades.
“Grant was a pretty unique celebrity,” Zorpette says. “He straddled the worlds of technology and entertainment in a way that few other people ever have. He had a degree, a career, and an actual record of accomplishment in electrical engineering before he became a TV star. He was also one of the most genuinely friendly and unassuming people I’ve ever met.”
Joanna Goodrich is the associate editor of The Institute, covering the work and accomplishments of IEEE members and IEEE and technology-related events. She has a master's degree in health communications from Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J.