Water Music

Water Logged

How a computer crash almost stopped the music for Aspen’s Dancing Fountain.

By Amanda Rae May 1, 2013 Published in the Summer 2013 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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When semiconductor savant Nick DeWolf unveiled the randomized rhythm behind Aspen’s Dancing Fountain in 1981, he proudly declared that its secret commands would die with him. Shortly before health issues swallowed his life in 2006, however, he had a change of heart. And so DeWolf scrambled to do what any savvy programmer would: back up his machine.

Then, in early 2009, before the fountain was to reawaken for its thirtieth summer of slapdash spritzing, the Aspen Parks Department contacted the fountain’s sculptor, Travis Fulton, and its mechanical engineer, Peter Hutter, in a panic. All three of the fountain’s replacement computers had crashed, taking the machine-specific code that conducted DeWolf’s aquatic symphony with them. The Dancing Fountain was one glitch away from standing still forever.

Searches for an engineer who could decipher DeWolf’s formula, which was written in Assembly Language, stretched across the region, the state, even the country, to no avail. But months later, as Fulton and Hutter were overseeing a sculptural land-reclamation project in Old Snowmass, fate intervened. The operator of a front-end loader pushing boulders around overheard a conversation. 

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“Peter and I were bemoaning how we couldn’t find anyone to resuscitate the dance out of the old computers,” Fulton says, “and here’s this guy sitting on an earth-moving machine who says he speaks all six major computer languages!”

Indeed, Rodger Hollingsworth Jr., son of Fulton’s and Hutter’s longtime Wyoming granite supplier and a computer guru, had worked with multiple outmoded processes on systems aboard nuclear submarines. Maggie DeWolf, Nick’s widow, hired Hollingsworth immediately to disassemble and rewrite the fountain’s original data in modern terms. The Dancing Fountain would dance again.

 “The program actually has, we termed it, its own soul,” Hollingsworth explains. “It’s not like the [imitator] Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas that runs a script and does what it’s told to do. The Aspen fountain is given a set of tasks it knows how to do. It decides what it wants to do, when it wants to do it. It’s the first iteration of a complex randomizer—a fifteen-minute cycle won’t repeat for hundreds of thousands of years.”

The inventor, we think, would be relieved: today his brainchild boogies on.

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