All Lit Up: Senior Billy Gordon Shines as an Inventor

The casual onlooker could be forgiven for thinking the colorful lights are part of the holiday decor, those strings of reflective light that bedeck streetlamps and shop windows this time of year. No, these lights decorate NYU-Poly senior Billy Gordon, who embedded LED lights to the ends of his dreadlocked hair this fall. A microcontroller attached to an old iPod armband had a prewritten script that generated the lights, which blinked or flashed according to the script. He’s been refining the idea since then and submitted an updated design to this year’s Inno/Vention student idea completion.

Gordon conceived of the project last summer, when another invention of his was featured in the July issue of Popular Science magazine: an LED chess set he built and designed. It’s not the first time the electrical engineering major has found himself in the limelight. Make Magazine and PCMagazine.com have each written about Gordon’s projects, with the latter including his Lego USB charger on its list of “10 Coolest Lego Inspired Gadgets.” The Late Show with David Letterman even got in on the act. In 2009 a producer from the show reached out to Gordon, but the student was late with his response and the busy whirl of TV entertainment passed him by.

He smiles ruefully about it today, still a little surprised by the attention his works have drawn on instructables.com, a site where users can post instructions for making anything from ice cream sandwiches to biofuel briquettes. “I don’t expect anyone to duplicate anything I did,” Gordon explains. “I was just using the site to document the things I was doing.”

The Dream Job

But as the first user to have a million views for his posts, it’s no wonder instructables.com reached out to Gordon in his first year at NYU-Poly. They offered him a paid internship, and after finishing the school year, the native of Queens flew out to California to join the Bay area-based start-up. “It was my dream job,” says Gordon. All day long he was paid to create inventions that would help drive user traffic to the site: Tetris-shaped ice cubes, laser tattoos, and an eight-foot tall match, Gordon’s personal favorite and the invention that caught the eye of Make Magazine.

While the attention is flattering, Gordon is ready to raise the stakes. “A lot of the stuff I’ve done so far isn’t a million-dollar idea,” he says. “It’s mostly been hobby and art projects, so I’m not worried about anyone trying to steal these ideas, but I hope some day I will have ideas that will be worth taking.”

That day may have arrived. “I feel now I could actually come up with stuff that would be worth sharing, worth having other people copy or duplicate it,” Gordon says.

Geeks Rule

Gordon’s shift in perspective has prompted him to begin more seriously exploring NYU-Poly’s offerings. He’s added a concentration in nuclear engineering to his studies and is developing stronger relationships with faculty, such as Industry Assistant Professor Matthew Campisi, who gave Gordon advice for his design of the Lego USB charger and who speaks highly of his former student. “He has that extra piece that adds to theory, which is application,” explains Campisi. “That’s where new ideas and new inventions come from — people who understand theory and who can apply it to a societal problem. That’s the kind of student he is.”

Gordon uses different adjectives to describe NYU-Poly: “nerdy geeks who have similar interests.” He smiles as he says, “I’m pretty happy here.” The senior hopes to stay in the area after finishing school and perhaps continue at NYU-Poly for his graduate studies.

For those wishing to follow Gordon’s path, he believes “they need to learn what they’re interested in on their own.” Having ownership of an idea and being passionate about a subject adds the best fuel to any endeavor, as long-time inventor Gordon can attest: “I’ve been an engineer at heart for as long as I can remember, coming up with unique, hopefully creative solutions to any problem you encounter in everyday life.”

As an inventor who strives for responses that have “a nice elegance,” as he puts it, Billy Gordon will be one to watch in the future.