History of Powerlifting, Weightlifting and Strength Training – Number 56

Posted by in Dr Ken Leistner on July 1, 2014 Comments off

Prototyping Part 3


The use of computers has streamlined the exercise equipment prototyping procedures and this is from one who is almost completely “computer useless.” I’m a terror at responding to e mails, can navigate to a very few, select sites I use for information gathering and research, but still require assistance from my wife or daughter to do the most simple computer tasks. If pressing the sequence of usual and required keys does not get me to the desired location, I call for help. Gary Jones, formerly of Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries and Hammer Strength when it was a corporate entity separate from Life Fitness, provided me with my first glimpse of computer modeling as it pertained to exercise equipment. In the early 1970’s, I was part of the “second wave of original guys” who wound up in Lake Helen, Florida who became employed by the Nautilus company.

Prototyping and the entire manufacturing process were, by the standards of the late 1980’s, when Gary camped out in our living room with what appeared to be fifty boxes worth of computer “stuff,” archaic. I had the good fortune to first get hired by Arthur Jones, spend time with him, and in his typical fashion, then “be tested” by performing a multitude of different tasks in the factory and around the plant. What is lost to the current and latest generations of powerlifters, athletes, and bodybuilders was the way in which information and real experience was gathered. If one heard about a lifter who might be able to share information, a training technique, or a routine that there was an interest in, you traveled to the gym or workout quarters they would usually use, observe, ask for an introduction, and then present your questions. If there was a piece of equipment that caught one’s attention, you found out what gym it was in, and you traveled to that facility to ask the owner and other trainees about it, and then actually try it. Most often photos, written dimensions, and other vital information would be absent. “First hand” experience and “hands on” accumulation of information were not only the standards, they were the exclusive manner in which the dedicated trainee operated.


Historical Supplement – Weight Training Equipment


A rather famous or at least well known photo of Arthur Jones’ gorilla Mickey and his wife at that time, Terri, has become a widely distributed poster that graces the walls of many facilities. I believe everyone connected with exercise, even the sport of powerlifting, knows that Arthur was a wild animal expert, collector, and one who made his living capturing and transporting wild animals. This very specialized occupation preceded his foray into the exercise equipment business but those who worked with or knew him during those years recount Arthur’s attempts, even then, to “mess around” with different exercise concepts and equipment modifications in order to enhance the effects of training. I have in fact told the story of being summoned to assist in the “greeting” and unloading of Arthur’s absolutely gigantic crocodile, Jack, upon his arrival at the Lake Helen, Florida factory compound. It took less than a minute to figure out you didn’t want to be the guy closest to the mouth and teeth as a dozen of us hauled his massive body from a flatbed truck to his concrete and partially water filled pen. “Compound” is in my opinion, an accurate description of the factory, offices, training area, and living quarters occupied by Arthur and his wife at that time, Eliza. The compound included “living quarters” for a variety of exotic wildlife that ranged from the giant croc to a small but obviously vicious jaguarondi, a South American cougar like cat. I’m sure that Arthur and Eliza thought they had a perfectly furry-and-fuzzy house pet, though it was kept locked in its pen, but there were many visitors to the plant that heard its bird-like chirping who were subsequently frightened into near heart attack state when they would walk over to investigate and have this fifteen to twenty pound ball of claws and teeth lunging and growling at them. I was and remain an animal lover, having the dubious distinction of earning part-time money or satisfying scholarship requirements at both Cincinnati and Hofstra Universities by being the “student feeder and cleaner-upper” in the vivariums, the areas in which the lab and experimental animals were kept. One cannot attempt to make an 8 AM class when covered with spider monkey feces or cabybara vomitus from 3 AM until a quick shower at 7:50 AM, and one cannot take this as normal if they don’t love animals. Despite that, the jag, the croc, and sixteen other not-usually-seen-or-heard-of specimens scared the heck out of me, especially when walking around the factory area at night. Following Jack the Crocodile, was Mickey the Gorilla and following Eliza as Mrs. Jones was Terri Jones! Eliza collected spiders and was seemingly one hundred percent comfortable with the huge python that lived in the couch in their under-renovation house I took residence in, though I did not know I was inheriting the couch and snake from one of the fellows, Doug, from the parts department, until a later date. Eliza was also seemingly comfortable with all of the other animals on site. Terri did not seem to be so when it was decided that putting Mickey in the pullover machine might produce an interesting and thought provoking photograph, Terri became the stand-in human as she was after all, “the face of Nautilus.” I thought Dick Butkus would have been a more appropriate choice as Nautilus spokesperson. Who was tougher, stronger, actually trained on the equipment, and pound for pound perhaps the only one in three states with a chance to survive a confrontation with an adolescent gorilla? Beauty however won out over the functional muscle of Butkus and even though drugged, a gorilla is a gorilla and once out of its cage or restraints, had potential for pure mayhem. There was no mayhem but as Kim Wood stated about this specific photo shoot, once Mickey was aroused enough to get into an exercise position and growl, the ground shaking rumble that he emitted caused poor Terri, though brave enough to pilot her own 747 airplane, enough consternation to take what was supposed to be a smiling face and relaxed postured, and turn it into the very stiff, tentative figure seen next to the machine. It should be noted that yes, while this was in every sense of the word, a “publicity shot,” Arthur was always tinkering with different ways to “stress the muscles and system” of the crocodiles, gorilla, and other beasts he had, in order to learn more about exercise so that it could be applied to his equipment and training procedures.


Nautilus equipment in particular caused a complete change in the entire industry after its 1970 introduction. There truly was no “physical fitness or strength training equipment industry” as such. A few individuals produced equipment, usually for local distribution. Certainly Weider, Hoffman/York, Jubinville, Iron Man, Marcy, and a few others built basic training pieces but other than small items, actually procuring them required travel and a truck or van. Many of the more widely offered benches, by both Weider and York in retrospect, were junk, less than safe when exposed to heavy and hard use, and at all times, difficult to get. Iron Man equipment, primarily made in Minnesota by Warren Tetting who is still active producing grippers and perhaps other items, was almost always of much higher quality than the other manufacturers but still, just as difficult to get. In fact, buying anything required a letter of inquiry, a return letter, another letter to confirm prices and shipping information, a return letter of confirmation, payment made via postal mail, time for the check or money order to clear, confirmation of the order, and then a wait for both production and shipping to be completed. Credit card use was extraordinarily limited and for most, unheard of and Pay Pal obviously did not exist. Even then, one might not be sure exactly what the ordered piece would look like. Having gone through the process, I found it easier for example, to make the four hour drive to York, PA to pick up barbells and plates, and otherwise try to cut and weld my own copies of benches and racks I saw in the various magazines. As noted in the past few TITAN articles, some of my efforts were fruitful, others nothing short of laughable.


Even at Nautilus which could be considered the most advanced of the industry manufacturing facilities circa early 1970’s, the prototype process was slavishly difficult. Dependent upon who was actually in the shop at the time I was, the results for any new piece would vary. One of the “secrets” of Nautilus Sports/Medical, one that can be confirmed by Kim Wood, Tom Laputka, and numerous others, was that Arthur’s nephew Scott LeGear did an awful lot of the actual design prototype work. Yes, Arthur had the ideas, he had the vision for equipment, he would request, explain, and oversee the creation of the specific pieces but Scott, at least during the time I was in Lake Helen, Florida, did much of the hands-on welding, and “moving and shuffling” of parts work. An example of the process might more or less, proceed thusly: Arthur would want a machine that would “work the biceps” and explain it to Scott. One of the other or both would draw though it could be more accurately stated that Arthur often scribbled. Someone in the shop and at times that would be me, especially if work was going on from 10 PM to 3 AM as I was almost always awake and rarely slept, in those days, more than a dozen hours per week if that, would cut the appropriate tubing, round or flat stock, and angle iron. A frame would be welded, and work would commence.


If Canadian Football League and World Football League defensive lineman Tom Laputka was in the prototype shop as he often was, he was “the big, tall guy” that was needed as a “prototype dummy.” If I was in the shop at the time, in addition to tack welding or rushing off to return with a requested piece of iron, I would serve as the “below-average in height guy.” At 6’3” or so and 250 pounds of a lot of muscle Laputka, in addition to being truly strong, “scary strong” in many movements, was large framed. Though I had weighed as much as 232 at 5’5-3/4”, I was usually 160 – 180 during my time at Nautilus. When Kim Wood was on the premises, he would provide yet more input and a lot of knowledge as he was one of the few who had Arthur’s ear when he wanted it. Needless to add, with the disparity in stature and body types, the “feel” of any piece of equipment varied among us. Tom would go through forearm flexion movements and state, “This feels pretty good, it’s smooth.” I would do it and think my bicipital aponeurosis was being shredded. Scott and Kim would offer disparate opinions, Arthur would try the piece and announce, “move this a quarter-inch, move that a half inch and try it.” I would take a hand sledge, break the tack weld, make the adjustment requested, and re-weld it. If you can project doing that fifty times on one aspect of one piece of equipment, it very much explains the “old school” process of machine prototyping. In the late 1960’s and early-‘70’s when Tom Lincer for example, was first getting Ivanko Barbell off the ground, the prototype process for bars, utilizing different types of steel, different heating and finishing processes, and a variety of end caps and safety features, was very much the same.