Denver's Own Royal Tenenbaums

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None of those contraptions made it past the drawing board. The Sit'n'Stroll demanded most of his time, involving significant manufacturing expenditures, thorough safety testing, high insurance costs and a challenging industry to break into.

"We thought we would just knock this off and move on to something big," says Justin. "It wasn't meant to be as all-consuming as it was. We worked on it for ten years."

While Sit'n'Strolls eventually started selling, their creator never got to enjoy much of their windfall. When a potential investor expressed interest in the business, Timber trustingly revealed to him the debt the company had accumulated. That businessman quietly bought off the debt, then demanded that Safeline's founders hand over the company or face bankruptcy. It was a pattern Timber experienced again and again.

In 2003, inspired by the political fervor coursing through his family, this lifelong Democrat threw his hat into the ring for the city council race in northwest Denver — a race that turned ugly. Anonymous fliers appeared calling Timber pro-life, anti-schools and racist. Someone sent out e-mails, probably inspired by his name, that suggested he sold porn videos. Their target, however, wouldn't respond in kind.

"I recall suggesting, 'Maybe you should look at your opponents and look at their negative things and bring them up,'" says John Haney, a local business owner and police officer who helped with the campaign. "He refused to do it, saying, 'We are all trying to make a better Denver.' I don't know if that really hurt him." Timber would go on to win the first round of the election, but lost in a runoff to Rick Garcia.

"There were some difficult conflicts which he and I talked about a great deal during the last year or two of his life," says Bill Paddock, Timber's church bishop and close friend. "There is a certain type of person, and Timber would say he is one, who kind of get pushed around in business, or who get blindsided by dishonest people."

Even the orderly realm Timber strove to maintain at home wasn't perfect. While the household whirlwind was a hoot, there were so many kids to care for, so many agendas to juggle, so much energy to harness. Holding it all together became harder and harder.

Several years ago, while serving a mission for the church, Timber's son Levi decided to leave Mormonism, no longer able to reconcile the logical and liberal outlook his parents had instilled in him with inconsistencies he perceived in church doctrine. "There is a little bit of a Camelot element to the family," says Levi. "But there are problems, like any family."

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 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?"

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner