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The Contraption That Can Really Tie One On

The project started benignly enough: "Why don't you build a machine that ties a necktie?" asked Paula Stone, Goldstein's wife, over breakfast one morning in fall 1999. "Great idea!" said her husband, who had been seeking a spare-time project. When he retired in 2002, Why Knot became a full-time obsession -- and frequent headache.

The original version took a year to organize, and many times he says he was thinking, "Forget this thing; it's never going to work." Like, how do you untie the dang tie after nine meticulous minutes of producing a four-in-hand? (Don't even think about asking Why Knot for a Windsor.) "I couldn't face the process," says Goldstein.

He later solved it after walking around the block a couple times. But he was still forced to move the electric motors by hand, ensuring round-the-clock maintenance when machine parts would go "spastic," which was often.

So Goldstein called in the geek squad. The key to the second, more successful version of Why Knot is the computer program, which was designed by electrical engineer Randy Pursley. Optical sensors detect the presence of reflected light at different points in the cycle, triggering voltage that is then fed into the system. The computer monitors this voltage, which signals whether the tie is in the right place. If it isn't, Why Knot can take corrective action or start all over again.

Meanwhile, his wife has overheard all the failures and goofing off from upstairs. The swearing when he wrestles with numbers, the giggling when he develops shapes. The limb-jangling gong from his earlier Rube Goldbergesque machine, a lazy, plaid-shirted grungebot named Homer, who, after 30 seconds, lifts a cup of coffee.

Stone sits cross-legged on a blue computer chair, smiling with a finger on her lips as she watches her husband from the doorway. Goldstein is giving a knot-tying play-by-play to a photographer. The process is at its five-minute mark, a little more than halfway. "It gets a little hypnotic," he says. "By the time something goes wrong I'm in this fog" -- he slumps and hangs out his tongue -- "and mistakes go by me."

Suddenly a tiny widget slinks into view, creeping onto Why Knot's bicycle pedal. No, it's a tiny piece of nature: a fuzzy, yellow caterpillar. So young, so dangerously close to the rotating bike chain.

Maybe we should help it, says Stone.

No! Let it play out, we implore. Nature vs. machine -- we've been dying to know the outcome.

Now back to the automated wonder of four-in-hand. The tie is red, wrinkle-free polyester, 60 inches by 3 inches -- which, Goldstein admits, is "a little narrow for today's fashion." He has bought a set of identical ties just in case one disintegrates after 1,000 knots a month. A striped Burberry silk tie won't cut it: the texture, the friction, the everything would be all wrong. Why Knot needs exactitude; it needs the precision of a Hershey factory, the one Goldstein visited at age 7, the trip that got him hooked on machines after watching them wrap that foil around the chocolate bars.

"Okay, we're getting ready for the big one." The final knot-shaping maneuver.

He puts a knuckle to his teeth.

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