This article, written by Eric Aasen, was originally published in the Dallas Morning News on February 10, 2013
The State Fair of Texas is adamant that Big Tex will return this fall the same folksy cowboy he’s been since 1952.
But … what if?
What could Big Tex look like if it were up to only our imagination? If money were no object? If feasibility didn’t matter?
Cue the introduction to the classic ’70s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man:
Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man.
Big Tex will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.
Ever since Big Tex caught fire in October, North Texans have offered their ideas on Facebook and Twitter and in letters to the editor. But leave it to engineering experts and students to whip up whimsical, new and improved versions of the fair’s beloved icon.
James Hilkert, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, envisions Big Tex doing the Texas two-step, tipping his cowboy hat and singing “The Eyes of Texas.”
He could take a few steps forward or backward. Or you could place him on a rail and move him around Fair Park.
“Actually, he could walk around the fairgrounds,” Hilkert said. Expensive but doable, he said.
Technology has come a long way since Big Tex debuted 61 years ago. Today, scores of animatronic figures entertain at theme parks around the world.
“The challenge would be to make [Big Tex] as flowing as you could,” Hilkert said. “If you look at what’s done with some of the large dinosaurs, they appear very real. They have very natural motions. That’s part art and part engineering.”
Garner Holt Productions, which has created thousands of animatronic figures for theme parks, museums and hotels, describes its creations as “custom precision machines” that include mechanical frames made of stainless steel, aluminum alloys and joints. Inside are motion actuators, similar to muscles, which help create motion in limbs and joints.
The machinery is covered with flexible skins made of hard or soft plastics. An animator programs a computer, allowing the figure to perform in a “realistic, lifelike manner,” the company says.
At SMU, engineering students gathered in the Innovation Gym for a Big Tex brainstorming session.
They offered myriad suggestions: Give him a six-shooter and have him lean on a fence with a toothpick dangling from his lips. Or give him interchangeable props: Let him hold a corny dog one day, a football the next.
Transform his belt into an electronic ticker that lists fair announcements. Build scaffolding around him so that kids can run up, down and around the giant cowpoke.
Have Big Tex move his arms so he can point to different activities at the fair.
“Have him breathe fire,” one student said. “This is Texas. We’ve got to do things bigger and better.”
Some students envisioned carving Big Tex out of stone, a la the Washington Monument, so he’d never burn down again. Install an elevator that takes visitors up to his hat, which would serve as an observation deck. Or fairgoers could stop at his mouth and bungee-jump off his tongue.
“I was upchucked by Big Tex!” one student said.
Despite all the suggestions, nobody thought about changing his cowboy motif.
Kate Canales, who led the brainstorming session, enjoys Big Tex but thinks he could use some updates and the fair could take advantage of modern technology.
“It’s a pretty important opportunity for reinvention without getting away from this throwback quality that the fair embodies,” said Canales, director of design and innovation programs at SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. “It’s such a great tradition. It’s a little out of date. The whole thing is out of date in a totally charming, endearing way that we all look forward to every year.”
The fair says that feedback from a vast majority of fairgoers indicates there’s no desire to change Big Tex. He’ll still be a talking cowboy, although he’ll have fire-retardant clothing and be built so he can withstand hurricane-force winds. His movements will be more fluid and his guts will include upgraded mechanics and electronics.
Even if the fair wanted a more fanciful version of Big Tex, money is tight. So instead of the Six Million Dollar Man, Big Tex will be more like the Six Hundred Thousand Dollar Man — that’s as much as the fair wants to spend. It has established a fund and hopes that companies and citizens will send in contributions.
Despite all of the daydreaming, a classic Big Tex suits Hilkert, the UTD lecturer, just fine. He remembers taking his kids to see Big Tex in the ’70s, waiting to see him talk. It’s become a ritual for many fairgoers, he said.
“I would be very happy if Big Tex ends up looking the way he does now,” he said. “I won’t be disappointed.”
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