Ex-teacher is brain behind site

Online: A man turns a lifelong interest in learning into Web pages devoted to explaining the how and why behind everything.

May 14, 2001|By Lyrysa Smith | Lyrysa Smith,ALBANY TIMES UNION

Admit it. You've been wondering how your refrigerator works, or how helicopters fly or why chopping onions makes you cry.

You aren't alone. Millions of people have been visiting HowStuffWorks.com to read explanations of everything from what makes roller coasters roll to what makes toasters toast.

In a year when dot-coms are crashing and burning, the award-winning HowStuff Works.com attracts more than 2 million unique visitors per month, wins industry and consumer accolades, and was touted by former Vice President Al Gore as "representing the very best of the Web."

Not surprisingly, there is a brain behind HowStuffWorks .com. Marshall Brain, that is. And yes, that is his real name.

Marshall Brain, 39, who earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., began HowStuffWorks.com at his kitchen table in 1998 and founded the company in September 1999. The Web site offers clear explanations with bright graphics on everything from aspirin to vacuums, dry cleaning to dry ice, hurricanes to race cars, and what 10W-30 and WD-40 stand for.

"I believe that people by nature are curious and love to learn about things," Brain said. "I really enjoy making things clear and understandable. And I love writing."

But long before Brain began these ponderings, there was the bicycle brake.

"I think the first thing I took apart was the coaster brake on my bike. I was probably 8 years old," said Brain, who lives with his wife and two young children outside Raleigh, N.C. "I pulled out the axle and what seemed like 150 pieces fell out and clattered onto the floor. It was probably seven pieces, but it felt like 150. I went to my dad and said `We have a problem.'"

The famous phrase was appropriate. Brain's father was an aeronautical engineer who worked on the Apollo space missions during the 1960s. David Brain encouraged his son to shoot for the moon, too. Together, they built toy rocket ships and model airplanes. Brain's mother, Sandy Brain, recalls one carefully assembled example.

"It was an elaborate model plane. It even had an engine on it that they put together. And nothing would do but that Marshall had to do the maiden flight. Well, Marshall set it off and it crashed. And that was the end of that," Sandy Brain said with an affectionate laugh.

According to his mother, Brain, who grew up in California, inherited her father's curious mind and her husband's engineering know-how.

David Brain died before his son's 15th birthday. "And there I was," Marshall Brain said, "the kid always taking things apart and in the library reading Popular Science magazine, but now I had a problem."

Brain said he was often frustrated in high school. "When I was 16, I was still interested in how everything works, but it was hard to find explanations that fit my level. They were either too simple or flew way over my head."

After college, Brain moved to Raleigh and taught computer science at North Carolina State University, completed his master's degree, was elected to the prestigious Academy of Outstanding Teachers and wrote 10 books, "All on deep software topics," Brain said. However, from scraps stuffed away, another type of book was shaping up.

"I was taking lots of notes on all the things I wish someone had told me as a teen-ager, and I had been doing that for years," Brain recalled. "One day ... the whole thing gelled in my mind. It just popped out."

"The Teenager's Guide to the Real World" was published in 1997, and Brain's book won the New York Public Library's "Best Books for Teens" award that year. Brain wanted to do more for teen-agers. A young friend supplied a catalyst by asking him how a car engine works. Rather than tossing out a quick explanation, Brain plopped down at the kitchen table and wrote a detailed, plain-English description.

Brain began writing articles in the evenings after work and on weekends, driven by curiosity. He put them on the Web for fun, gave his site a whimsical name, and soon there were about 100 articles. Then e-mail responses, requests and new questions started rolling in. Brain eventually quit his teaching job to spend more time writing, and HowStuffWorks.com grew.

HowStuffWorks.com has thousands of topics and questions, employs about 35 people and has experienced 5 percent growth in traffic every week for the past two years.

With an eye on becoming a full-fledged media company and learning site, HowStuffWorks.com is launching two books in September: "HowStuffWorks," a hardcover desk reference, and "How Much Does Earth Weigh?" a compilation of the most compelling questions from the popular "Question of the Day" segment of the Web site.

Express.HowStuffWorks.com is geared toward a younger audience, fourth- to eighth-graders. It includes a Toy Autopsy (in which a popular toy is dissected and explained) and a magazine paired to the site. More than 3,000 schools nationwide use the magazine and Web site as teaching tools.

Brain still writes a couple of articles a week, works on the "of the day" parts of the site (his favorite recent question is "How do traffic lights know that you're there?"), develops ideas for the site and makes public appearances.

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