Father of Invention

Didi Vardi started to invent marvelous machines after his son was killed in the First Lebanon War. Among his creations, which will be on display in Tel Aviv, are an organ made of 400 golf balls and a machine that launches Coke bottles.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

"I have a rocket here that fires Coke bottles 50 meters high," says Yedidya (Didi) Vardi, who is instantly swallowed up into the depths of his dim, cold workshop. "Come and see," he beckons, from a distance. Stopping next to the wonderful device he has fashioned, he attaches an empty Coke bottle to the mouth of a pipe that is aimed upward. "I am filling a third of the bottle with water, and using a bicycle pump I am also filling it with air pressure," he explains with visible delight. "When I release the bottle, the air pressure simulates the action of a jet engine, and hurtles it high into the air. How can anyone not enjoy something like this?" he asks, a big though slightly bashful smile lighting up his face.

At 74, Vardi's brain is afire with childish dreams and intellectual amusement involving pieces of junk he has collected - old gears, bicycle parts, broken record players, parts of cupboards and more - which he brings to life with the sensitive hand of a master craftsman.

"This invention was created ahead of the Kinnernet gathering that Yossi organizes every year on the shore of Lake Kinneret," he relates as he pokes around between his creations, which are scattered through the workshop. Didi's younger brother, Yossi Vardi, is the guru of Israeli high-tech firms.

"Kinnernet is a gathering of crazies - people who are obsessed, very creative people who come with ideas and creations in computers, animation and mechanics," the older brother explains. "I made this rocket for the first gathering. It has no other purpose, only to fling bottles high into the air and for people to enjoy it. At that event, which lasted three days, the device was a constant source of attraction for adults and children. For three days bottles were fired into the air nonstop. It was quite a success."

Vardi, who owns a hardware store in Rishon Letzion, says he makes "smart machines that have no use." Some of his creations have been exhibited in the science museums in Haifa and Jerusalem, in the science park at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. On April 1, Vardi will exhibit works at the Pecha Kucha Night being held in Tel Aviv. In the spirit of Pecha Kucha - a multidisciplinary arts event that originated in Japan six years ago (the name is Japanese for "the sound of conversation") and has since been held in more than 170 cities worldwide - Vardi has been planning how to describe his activity in the six minutes and 40 seconds he is allotted to show his stuff.

"I was very happy to be invited," he says. "It gives me great pleasure to show my works. The recognition and exposure are flattering - I think everyone likes people to know what they do. So the 2,000 people who will show up there are going to see what one crazy did - but a serious crazy."

At the Pecha Kucha event Vardi plans to show an organ he conceived and built, which plays music by means of 400 golf balls.

"The idea was hatched ahead of a trip to the Burning Man festival, held every year in Nevada," he explains, approaching a large machine featuring eight gray sewage pipes on the front. "I went there with my brother. Before we went, I asked: Nu, what are we going to do there? I thought we shouldn't go as guests. We had to bring something. I thought of building something that would play music, create action and be pleasant. What came out is this organ. It consists of eight loops created by the flow of golf balls."

Each ball that is released moves along a narrow, winding route until it hits a drum, from which it bounces off and strikes a key - as in keyboard - that sets in motion lasers reflected in a large mirror.

"I put in the lasers while fantasizing during the work," Vardi explains. "But at the Burning Man festival this organ was like a little bug. There were huge installations there, such as a 40-meter-long fire dragon, and a fire organ a kilometer long, with gas burners every 100 meters: By pressing a computer keyboard you could create sounds that were heard all over the festival. It was wonderful."

Not a day goes by without working on the marvelous machines. The small exhibition space in his workshop contains a hybrid (engine plus pedals) bicycle; a machine that rolls toilet paper, illustrates 30 physics-related phenomena and runs solely on gravity; as well as a machine made of bike tires that makes soap bubbles; and a clock made of bicycles.

"These are mainly inventions with no use," he admits, but they are not works of art, either. "I am not an artist, I am a maker. An artist must be an artist in his soul, and I do not have the soul of an artist. All I do is build things. I love these worlds. I find the ability of people to make unusual things marvelous. It's all well and good for a person to sculpt marble, but that's routine. He remains within the routine even if he makes wonderful art. Inventions are outside the routine, they are breakthroughs."

Treasures and tragedy

"With such small, simple objects he makes such big, clever things," says Dr. Roni Ashkenazi, education coordinator at the Garden of Science Museum of the Weizmann Institute of Science, referring to Vardi.

"I usually send our guides to him. Didi is such a fertile inventor at an extraordinary level; for him the sky is the limit. You can see that his work comes from his soul. Even though these are scientific exhibits and are seemingly correct from the scientific point of view, it's clear that every screw has been inserted from within the fibers of his being. You feel it, you see it and maybe that is why his works generate such great interest. He can take a pile of junk and transform it into a treasure. He creates exhibits that are a source of pleasure and amusement for a diverse audience, children and adults alike. I think that shows a kind of genius."

The source of Vardi's love for building peculiar machines lies in a family tragedy. "It all started, actually, after my son, Ron, was killed in the first Lebanon war, in 1984," Vardi says pensively, eyes glistening with pain that has not been dulled.

"He was serving in Givati [infantry brigade], in the eastern sector. I remember that morning. The army officials looked for us from early in the morning. They came to our home twice, but there was no one there. Then they came to my store. I didn't understand what had happened. They asked me to step into the office in the store. I did so. They told me, 'Your son Ron was killed this morning in Lebanon.' I did not get hysterical. I called a close friend of ours. I told her Ron had been killed in Lebanon, that I would soon be home and that I would like her to come over and be with Drora, my wife."

With a helpless feeling, he closed the store and called his three other children. "I drove home alone," he emphasizes, sitting on a low wooden chair in the center of the workshop and holding his arms close to his chest. "That was it. Ron's funeral took place the next day. We were not in a traumatic state, we were very logical; there was no crying or shouting at the funeral or during the shiva [mourning period]. It was all very civilized, meaning very restrained. During the shiva we thought about how we could memorialize him."

The idea of helping gifted children was just then gaining momentum, Vardi explains. "The Education Ministry opened a section for gifted children named after Ron in a local elementary school. We felt that if we wanted to give children an education in science, we needed illustrative models. That's actually how it all started. I decided to open a room of models in the gifted children's center to illustrate phenomena in physics. At the time I knew very little about the field, so I started to study."

It is late afternoon and the light is fading. "Ron was a very bright boy," his father says. "He was creative and talented. In seventh grade he started to study computers at the Weizmann Institute and very quickly caught on to programming. He had an amazing auto-didactic ability. At 16, even before PCs were marketed here, he bought a set of parts from RCA and built himself a small desktop computer. At 18 he was managing a computer company that distributed the Osborne, the first [mass-produced] portable computer in the world. At about the same age he built the first communications modem for the newspaper Maariv."

In an old, decrepit building that had served as a gym, Vardi sought to revive something of the spirit of creativity and depth of thought his son possessed.

"It looks like I am obsessed, I admit it," he says. "After making 25 models for the gifted children's center, I just couldn't stop. To learn more about this field I got ahold of physics books written in Hebrew, in 1870. All the trips my wife and I have taken abroad ever since have become journeys to science museums, to see and learn. The inventions and the model-building have become the center of my life. I have gone to the workshop every day for the past 24 years, from afternoon to evening."

Vardi was born in Jerusalem, but grew up in pre-state Petah Tikva. "We lived in Kiryat Aryeh, in an isolated house. We were the only Jews in the whole area," he relates. "Mom was a seamstress at the time and Dad worked in a factory called Barzelit. Besides that, he was also ran the armory of the Haganah [precursor of the Israel Defense Forces]. The iron factory was a convenient place to store large numbers of weapons, because when the British showed up with metal detectors to conduct searches, the detectors just kept buzzing and they couldn't find the hidden weapons."

A few days after Vardi's fourth birthday, the family moved to Tel Aviv. He was sent to a prestigious kindergarten in the north of the city. His parents, who immigrated in the 1930s from Poland and Russia, opened a Jewish-food restaurant on Sheinkin Street.

"I have lovely childhood memories," he says nostalgically. "I was not unusually creative as a boy, but I remember, for example, that I was very good at modeling with clay. On the last day of kindergarten we were given our things to take home and I remember getting on a bus with Mom and holding a sculpture I had made of a naked Polish soldier. This was during World War II. The soldier's sexual organ was visible and mother was terribly ashamed. On the bus she broke my Polish soldier's penis. I was five."

The family lived on Ben-Gurion Boulevard. "In Tel Aviv I graduated from the Max Fein Vocational School," Vardi relates. "I didn't like schoolwork, so I was sent to learn a profession. My track was mechanical ironworking. My mother always said: 'Didi has manual wisdom. He will attend a vocational school and he will always have work.' She saw me as an iron-worker, a craftsman. Yossi had to be more closely watched, she thought, because he was in the clouds, so she sent him to get more serious education. Yossi really was an outstanding student at every school he went to."

Seven years separate the two Vardi brothers. "Because our parents worked so hard, from sundown till they fell off their feet, part of the chore of raising Yossi fell to me," says his brother. "At lunchtime, when Yossi was with the nanny and our parents were in the restaurant, I brought him lunch. The relations between us were always close. I fed him, put him to sleep and bathed him." The two remained close even after Didi left home.

"When our parents moved to Jerusalem to take over the boarding house that Dad inherited from Grandpa, Yossi moved in with me and my wife; we had an apartment in Tel Aviv at the time. He lived with us during his whole senior year at Ironi Aleph [high school]."

While the younger brother was busy studying for his matriculation exams, the older brother was carving out his own path surprisingly quickly. Immediately after his army service, he started to work in his trade, making steel furniture for the well-known Ha'argaz company. Afterward he was a machine technician at the Standards Institute and within five years became a foreman there.

"At the age of 27 I was already a self-employed building contractor. I built hundreds of classrooms and kindergartens across Metropolitan Tel Aviv," Vardi recounts. "In 1972, I took another step and opened a hotel in Eilat called Moon Valley, with 200 rooms, immediately after the Yom Kippur War."

Subsequently, during the era of runaway inflation in the late '70s, Vardi abandoned the real-estate business and opened his hardware store.

Even crazier people

His older brother's work was a source of inspiration for young Yossi. "He had a tremendous influence on me," says Yossi Vardi, who was a co-founder of Granite Hacarmel, one of Israel's largest industrial holding companies, and also established Alon Energy, International Laser Technologies and other firms. He is probably best known as the founding investor of Mirabilis, the company that created ICQ, the first Internet-wide messaging protocol, which was sold to AOL for $407 million.

"As a boy I followed him all over Tel Aviv, which was not so big at the time," Yossi Vardi recalls. "In addition to his building work, as a teenager Didi subscribed to technology magazines. He wanted to know how things worked. As the little brother, I poked around in his things and absorbed that atmosphere of technology. He has a flair for doing amazing things that have a touch of humor to them. I always say he is an artist and he always plays it down and says he is just a junk collector. But I think he is wrong: He has an artist's talent. It's not by accident that one of his models - a clock made of 10 bicycles - was exhibited in the New Jersey science museum for half a year. Besides their uniqueness, his works have a very high aesthetic value."

Later on during the interview, Didi goes into another room in the workshop. "This was Ron's darkroom," he explains. Dozens of implements are scattered all over - tool sharpeners, screwdrivers, magnets, water pumps, paint cans. "Ron had two labs here, for photography and for fixing electronic games. The sign he wrote - not to enter the darkroom when the red light is on - is still here, and so is his worktable. Everything is as it was, just the way Ron set it up. We left it as it was because it helps preserve his memory. Everything I do has a daily connection with Ron's memory. I don't just remember him on his birthday or at the yearly memorial ceremony."

Vardi sits down again, caught between old memories and new inventions.

"Despite the unfortunate and sad circumstances, I enjoy every minute of what I do here," he says, clearly conscious of the rapid change of topic. "All this junk that has piled up here on the shelves will eventually have a use." He casts an eye over his treasures and the smile returns to his face.

At the moment he is working on a new creation: "It will be a spray performance that uses cola and Mentos candies. When you put Mentos candies into a cola bottle you get a tremendous spritz, as everyone knows. What I am planning is to have 200 people put candies into cola simultaneously, to create a huge show of cola spraying into the air. I have been working on it for the past month. Each participant will get a raincoat and a bottle that has a safety catch and holes in the cover, to create a fountain effect."

Asked what his wife thinks of all his creations, Vardi admits: "She thinks it is completely idiotic. But whenever I think I have done something crazy, I look on the Internet and discover that there are thousands of people a lot crazier than I am. The number of crazies in the world is inexhaustible."W