Skip to Content
Alumni profile

Tom Bales ’70

Inveterate inventor built a thermonuclear fusion reactor for fun.
August 22, 2018
Courtesy of Tom Bales ’70

If variety is the spice of life, Tom Bales ’70 has had a career akin to three-alarm chili, with stints in medical devices, rocketry, fusion reactors, and robotics.

After graduation, Bales put his education to use for the US Army (“at their option,” he notes ruefully), calculating artillery shell trajectories—though he served in Germany rather than Vietnam.

Afterward, he had hoped to design race cars, but instead he landed at Cordis, a Miami firm that developed cardiology and neurosurgical devices. Later he cofounded Symbiosis, a startup that designed and manufactured instruments for the burgeoning field of laparoscopic surgery. In 1992 it sold for $175 million.

Barred from the medical-device field by a noncompete agreement, Bales needed a different focus for the next stage of his career. He had been “playing around” with hybrid rocket propulsion, so he cofounded Environmental Aeroscience Corp. (EAC) to make hybrid rocket engines for advanced hobbyists. Although it seems like a major departure from medical devices, he says, “the equations are different, but the hardware isn’t that different.”

After investigating various hybrid fuel possibilities (“many of which exploded violently,” Bales says), EAC successfully test-launched the Hyperion rocket, “but we were moving farther and farther toward weapons systems, which was really not something we wanted to do.”

The next venture began with a visit by Burt Rutan, a well-known aerospace engineer who was working on reusable spacecraft. “It was like Thomas Edison calling you and saying, ‘I need help with this lightbulb project,’” Bales recalls. EAC became part of Rutan’s team that eventually won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

The ever-curious Bales also founded the Energetic Ray Global Observatory, a global array of cosmic-ray detectors placed in classrooms to collect data, which can render a real-time image of the cosmic-ray sky. And he built a thermonuclear fusion reactor, “mostly because it seemed like such an outrageous thing to do,” he says. “It’s an expensive hobby, but not as expensive as airplanes or boats or mistresses.” He also created the Symbiosis Foundation to fund STEM education projects.

Bales says his MIT experience helped him develop his interests into concrete projects. “Being around a lot of really smart people working on the state of the art in lots of fields helps you to understand where your own level of knowledge fits into the big picture,” he says. “If you work hard enough at something, you can learn just about anything.” 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.