George Dyson built what may be the largest kayak (the 48 foot Mount Fairweather) in the world. Though he made a name for himself as a kayak designer and builder, he’s found a second career as a tech historian and author.
What brought you to Bellingham?
I moved to Bellingham from British Columbia 27 years ago. I first passed through here, a decade earlier, on a seiner from Alaska. There used to be a much larger fishing fleet than there is now. Bellingham was considered the southernmost port in Southeast Alaska—and that’s still true today.
And you went from working on boats to building boats?
Yes. I built a small kayak when I was twelve for some reason—it’s still a mystery. And when I ended up in British Columbia at age 17 and began working on commercial vessels I found that it was the perfect place for kayaks. I started building that huge kayak when I was 20—and it shows!
And also a historian?
Yes, unintentionally. I wrote a book (Baidarka) about the development and redevelopment of kayaks, and the adoption of this technology by Russians in the 18th century. I was interested in the moment of first contact—when Europeans encountered new world culture and technology for the first time. When the Russians arrived in Alaska, they were greeted by a kayak-centric civilization that had developed over many thousands of years. Instead of exterminating the indigenous technology, they adopted it. This was a good model to follow, so I did.
Excavating the records of the early explorers drew me into the practice of studying history and the way technology is developed and explained. That led, 10 years later, to Darwin Among the Machines, a 1997 book about the evolution of artificial intelligence. It might be the last book about the Internet written without using the Internet.
That and two subsequent books (Project Orion and Turing’s Cathedral) were written here in my workshop, the former Dick’s Tavern, on the downtown waterfront, surrounded by kayaks.
What do you love most about Bellingham?
Bellingham Bay and Whatcom Waterway. This building, like much of Old Town, was first built on pilings in the water, before this part of the bay was filled in. One of the great developments in the last few years is that we now call the surrounding body of water the Salish Sea. This change in nomenclature was championed by WWU professor Bert Webber, the former owner of the Snow Goose. For years the Americans had Puget Sound and the Canadians had Georgia Strait, but there was no unified name for the whole continuum. Now we have one, and can start to think of ourselves less as a border town and more as a community in the middle of the Salish Sea.
What is your favorite spot in downtown?
There’s a beautiful sandy beach just a few streets over from here—it doesn’t have an official name—where my daughter and I spent a lot of time while she was growing up. It’s perfectly flat and safe. It’s now accessible from the new ASB trail that was opened last year.
What does Bellingham need?
No question. Working docks on the central waterfront.
Bellingham is the only waterfront community I know of, from Olympia to Yakutat, that doesn’t have a public dock downtown. Restoring our docks and waterway would bring visiting small craft to our downtown, and draw people to the waterfront. Why has there been no place to tie up in downtown Bellingham for 26 years? Why are there still no plans to replace any of our municipal docks? Why did we abandon our Federally-designated navigable waterway? Our central waterfront is why Bellingham was here in the first place and it is time to bring it back!
If you’ve got a free day in Bellingham, how do you spend it?
My life is a triangle. I have this workshop, and a house on the Eldridge bluff about a mile from here, and a boat in Squalicum Harbor. I divide my time between them unpredictably. In that sense every day is free. And part of it is always spent walking in between—central Bellingham is pedestrian scale, which, next to the waterfront, is what drew me here.
My favorite place downtown is the Old Town Cafe. Their staff use my parking lot. We trade free parking for free lunch—the best deal there is.
What do people misunderstand about what you do?
Not so much misunderstand but only see part of it. Some think I just design kayaks. Some think I just study and write about science. Or give talks at tech conferences. I inhabit these different worlds, and they rarely intersect. And I am probably best known for something completely different—spending 3 years living in a treehouse 95 feet up in a Douglas fir.
Is there a Bellingham business or organization that the world needs to know about? What’s the best kept secret in Bellingham?
There are a lot of them.
The Society of Photo Optical Instruments and Engineering (SPIE), an influential scholarly and technical organization, is based here. It has great international importance, but is unknown to most people in Bellingham.
I’m now part of a new organization called the Whatcom Working Waterfront Coalition. It’s a group of businesses on the waterfront who have unified their voice to advocate for a working waterfront. It’s what made Bellingham the way it is, and if we lose it we’ll be hard pressed to ever revive it.
Also the American Alpine Institute — another example of an organization with global importance that operates quietly here.
And finally there is Hardware Sales. It’s not a secret but it is one of the seven wonders of the world.
If you could go back to Western and study anything you wanted, what would you study?
Since I dropped out of 11th grade, would I have to back to High School first? If University, besides Northwest Coast history and prehistory, I’m fascinated by a technical question in hydrodynamics: the reduction of drag by flexible walls in turbulent flow. This regime remains poorly understood and has implications for our understanding of early kayak design. We now have the computational tools to make real progress on this.