Denver's Own Royal Tenenbaums

The late Timber Dick's children are carrying on a brilliant family legacy that includes Nancy Dick and Tom Lantos.

Nevertheless, in the heart of this tornado, Timber managed to delve deeper into his fascination with automobiles than ever before. In his garage workshop, with the help of his son Corban, he homed in on the fatal flaw he saw at the core of all vehicles: the internal combustion engine.

"We liked to talk about designs that bothered us," says Corban, "the things we wanted to fix. One of the ones that came up regularly was the internal combustion engine. It's incredibly inefficient and incredibly polluting, and it's a problem."

The heart of that problem, the two realized, lay in the engine's chambers, where continual combustions move pistons up and down in their cylinders, movement that in turn powers the engine. But the vast majority of the energy dissipates uselessly into the cylinder walls as heat, wasting massive amounts of fuel.

Timber Dick became an inventor at a young age.
Timber Dick became an inventor at a young age.
Annette Tillemann-Dick home-schooled all eleven children at the family home.
Annette Tillemann-Dick home-schooled all eleven children at the family home.

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For much more on the Tilleman-Dick family, including Charity singing show tunes, the design of the IRIS engine and a slide show of family adventures, click here.

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Timber wouldn't stand for this grievous inefficiency, so using toothpick models and CAD drawings, he and Corban came up with a better solution: They got rid of the pistons and cylinders and designed chambers that expanded in diameter with each combustion, like shutter lenses. Now the energy that had formerly been lost as heat could move the chamber walls, more effectively powering the engine.

They called it the Internally Radiating Impulse Structure, or the IRIS, since the concept was as practical and beautifully elegant as the dilation of a human eye.

The family coalesced around the idea, quickly realizing its promise. The IRIS engine would be lighter and more easily implemented than other alternative transportation systems such as hybrids, electrics and fuel cells, and could be adapted to run on any sort of fuel, from gasoline to biodiesel to hydrogen.

Here was Timber's blockbuster invention, the final evolution of his childhood rocket-engine schemes, the idea he would be remembered for. Timber and the children began presenting the concept to scientists and automobile manufacturers, and they always received the same response: "Why didn't we think of that?"

"Almost everyone who sees it can also see the potential," says Brent Johnson, who was hired in January as the chief executive officer of Tendix Development, Timber's company that's developing the IRIS. "The potential of the technology, although it has challenges, is enormous. The struggle is, how much will it actually deliver. That can only be guessed at this point."

That's because they didn't yet have the funding to build an IRIS — but the way things were progressing, it was only a matter of time. The big news arrived at the end of January: NASA had named the IRIS the best new transportation idea of the year in its annual "Create the Future" design contest, beating out almost 1,000 other submissions. In April, Timber was scheduled to fly to New York to accept the reward.


It was a battle for the ages, the clash between chaos and Timber Dick.

Timber was more than a worthy adversary, seeking out balance, logic and stability wherever he roamed. He'd been immediately taken with the big white house's classical symmetry, its two perfectly proportioned wings. And he took unending comfort from the inherent equilibrium of his progeny, how almost every succeeding child alternated gender, hair color, even academic fascinations as if by some strict genetic plan. Chaos might have won a skirmish or two, but he wasn't even close to conceding victory.

This is why he would have found the circumstances of his March 29 car accident on I-70 frustratingly random. It just didn't make sense that the right front wheel of his Dodge Caravan would seize up on Floyd Hill near Idaho Springs, sending his minivan off the road and down into a ravine. This wasn't a burst tire or a stretch of slick road, but a catastrophic failure of the entire wheel, a sudden and total breakdown of the most basic operation of his vehicle — something that just shouldn't happen. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 38,588 fatal crashes in 2006, the last year for which there is data, only seven were related to wheel failure, and none involved a minivan like his.

To make matters worse, his accident involved a malfunction of one of the things he knew and loved best. He'd always been passionate about cars, making their safety and efficiency the focus of many of his inventions. In that way he was just like his father — the race-car aficionado who was killed in an auto accident.

To Timber, this predicament just wouldn't have cut it; he would have immediately wanted to start doodling solutions with one of his trusty purple pens or locked himself in his workshop until he fashioned one from Plexiglas and PVC pipe.

The doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital burn ward, where Timber had been taken after the accident, thought he might get that chance.

While he'd suffered broken bones and severe enough burns over his legs and chest that he was placed in a medically induced coma to relieve the pain, signs suggested he could be out of the hospital in a few months. So the family immediately set to work revamping life in the house to make their father's recovery as smooth as possible, the sort of thing he would have done for them.

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19 comments
Barb
Barb

I enjoyed this article very much and knowing this family the way I do they will continue to thrive as they continue to enjoy life together. Thank you for memories of their background. I try to stay in touch with them but as you can tell they are so very busy it proves to be a challenge. God Bless them.

Gracie Jones
Gracie Jones

By the way, great article. Wonderfully written and I feel like I know these quirky, crazy cool people.

Gracie Jones
Gracie Jones

I don't understand why people assume they are wealthy. I know exactly 0 families who have that many kids and are wealthy. But I do think they're pretty cool.

Jana
Jana

There are PLENTY of well connected kids who end up doing nothing with their lives. What is remarkable about this family is that they put their family first -- over fame or money or anything else -- and it shows.

Ben
Ben

Yes, it's amazing what heights children of wealthy, well-connected members of the elite, can reach. Golly.

Steve Eisenberg
Steve Eisenberg

Rich and priveleged people have to work as hard as anyone else to get good at something. What this family is mostly rich with is love, enough to give the kids self-confidence to succeed.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

What kind of idiot names his kid Timber Dick? And what kind of idiot named Timber Dick doesn't get it changed?

Jeremy Bates
Jeremy Bates

How could anyone hope to accomplish more? Open-minded, accepting, always willing to help. The entire family has been a great example in education, career, and religion. It's also refreshing to have the media's stereotypical view of the LDS as being nothing but conservative illuminated.

Nuri
Nuri

A beautiful family full of amazing people. May they be well served, and may we be deserving of their service to our country as we move forward into this exciting and terrifying time.

Lilac
Lilac

Impressive is an understatement when describing any member of this large family. A chance encounter in which several members of this tribe of over-achievers gave me a lasting and inspiring impression of what is right with the world today is a cherished memory. Kudos on this lovely article.

Ernest
Ernest

I think that they sound like an incredible family. I'm curious though why the author compared them to the Tenenbaums?

Harley K.
Harley K.

Well written article, Joel. Timber is a great American man with a great American family. I hope to incorporate some of his characteristics in my own family like curiousness, service to others, and love of life.

Holly
Holly

I grew up with the Tillemann-Dicks and went to church with them. I remember growing up with the older kids and seeing majority of the younger ones being born and the joy of always going to their home for church functions. I will always remember the stories that Timber and Annette shared all the time about the love they had for eachother. Timber was a wonderful bishop when I was in Young Woman's. I will miss Timber, but there is always one thing to never ever forget and that is the happiness we share in the LDS faith, Families are Together Forever.

Chris Willford
Chris Willford

It is sad that people use the anonymity of the internet to make such insensitive, thoughtless comments. Callousness too often replaces compassion. I knew Timber--an intelligent, compassionate man who was always willing to help. He truly demonstrated the principles of success: education, hard work, integrity, and love of family. If we would seek to better implement these ideas into our lives, I am convinced that we would all be better off.

Lora
Lora

And you're voting for Ron Paul. At least these people seem ok with being different.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

Well Christian have come to represent the worst there is in religious America. When you contrast the portrait painted in this article versus the story last week's article followed which seems more cult like to you? A loving successful family or dramatizations that ask the question "if you're not willing to die for Jesus how can you live for Him." I am sick of being subjected to the judgments of any self-righteous evangelical tom, DICK or harry who is so insecure with their own belief system that they feel the need to belittle the faiths of others. The only point you prove in your derisions is the emptiness of your religiosity.

Rhonda
Rhonda

You sir, sound far more like a cultist than this lovely family. So unless you're a mormon, I'd keep my mouth shut. And good luck to them in their quest for world whatever they want to do. I think they'll do a lovely job.

nick werle
nick werle

Mormons are cultists just like Jim Jones and Branch Davidians althought low key.

 
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