Advances in Animatronics

For virtually any man, woman, or child born after 1950, the Muppets are sure to be familiar characters. For millions, the Muppets have provided hours of entertainment along with many fond memories.

These lovable stars were created by Jim Henson, who put them on television for the first time in 1955 on a five-minute show called “Sam and Friends.” For twenty years, the Muppets gained popularity with appearances in television commercials and network TV programs such as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and NBC’s “Today.” In 1975, “The Muppet Show” made its TV debut, followed four years later by the first-ever feature film for Henson and his characters, “The Muppet Movie.”

Meanwhile, a creative talent by the name of Tom Newby, hailing from his home state of Delaware, had begun working within the world of theater. Newby brought ingenuity to the Muppets that made them more animated and more lifelike than ever before through his innovation in the area of animatronics, or mechanized puppetry.

Newby became interested in theater as a high school student when he became involved in set design. He entered Connecticut’s University of Bridgeport, where he completed a BFA in technical theater in 1978. Shortly after graduation, he married and began looking for work. He heard about a job through a friend making legs for Miss Piggy for “The Muppet Movie,” which was in production at that time.

Newby was offered the job. He got to know some of the key players working for the Jim Henson Company. Muppets innovator Faz Fazakas, who was working on radio-controlled Muppet versions, hired Newby after “The Muppet Movie” wrapped. Fazakas was the main inventor of the original “waldo,” the armature structure inside a Muppet that allows it to be operated by radio control.

Newby began working with Fazakas on characters for the film “The Dark Crystal” at the New York Muppet Workshop. He remained an employee of the Jim Henson Company until 2001. As part of the electro/mechanical team, Newby became one of the company’s most prolific innovators, developing a series of mechanisms to enhance Muppet characters, creating several characters of his own, and making improvements to the structural and mechanical components of walk-around characters. He also supervised and designed puppet rigging for various Henson TV and film productions.

Newby worked on dozens of original precision mechanisms, including servo-robotics, sensory feedback systems, ergonomics, and human factoring. He was a core designer on numerous Henson productions including movies like “The Great Muppet Caper,” “The Christmas Toy,” and “A Muppet Family Christmas,” as well as TV series such as “The Jim Henson Hour.” He also worked on special effects for films like “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland,” “Muppets from Space,” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” as well as the popular TV series "Fraggle Rock.” He was awarded two Emmy Awards for his work and was honored with several certificates from the Academy of Television Arts and Motion Pictures.

In addition, in 1999, Newby was awarded U.S. Patent No. 5,980,357 for a new type of “Puppet controlled from above.” He began starting and managing small businesses of his own in 1989, with All Fun and Games, a test marketing firm for toys and games, followed by Neat Toys, Inc., a developer of marionettes. He founded Tom Newby Design, Inc. in Delaware in 2000, where he continues to invent technologies for the entertainment industry.