(From the 8/29/14 WSJ)
I didn't know it at the time, but growing up in a remote area of Colorado was perfect training for an inventor.
I was born in Clifton, Colo., in a small, one-story, two-bedroom farmhouse that was down a dirt road from the main highway. My father had built it on 10 acres that my mother's father had carved out of his 40-acre farm and given to them after they were married.
As a teen, my days were spent at school or doing farm chores. I was responsible for things like cleaning and digging irrigation ditches, helping with the fall harvest and chopping firewood. When the chores were done, there were lots of things to do, like hunting, fishing and hiking.
My fondest memories were working on airplane models at our living-room table. I loved the process of laying out all the parts and working meticulously to finish something that would turn out perfectly.
In the middle of the room was a wood-burning stove for heat. I slept in the living room—my favorite room in the house because the family gathered there. My sister, Mary Rene, who was four years older than me, had her own room.
During the early years of World War II, my family had to move to Gateway, about 50 miles away. In Gateway, my father worked in a mill that ground down uranium ore for the government. Back then, Gateway wasn't much more than a wide place in the road in a scenic red-canyon area of Colorado. The first place we lived was in an Army tent that the company provided to new employees. Then we shared a small house with another family. But in 1944, when the mill closed down, all the men who had worked there were drafted into the Army, including my dad, so the rest of the family returned to our Clifton farmhouse. My father suffered a great deal of trauma in the war, and when he returned home in 1945, he had trouble sleeping. But he was vocal about his experiences, which helped him let go of them.
Eventually, my father developed breathing problems from his time at the uranium mill and had difficulty working. Around 1950 he leased the farmland to another farmer, but we continued to live in the house.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1957, I no longer saw myself as a farmer. My teachers encouraged my passion for science and math, and urged me to think about a career in engineering. When I left for the University of Colorado, I knew that's what I wanted to do.
In college, I was trained to see problems and find ways to solve them. By the late 1970s, I developed several technical industrial inventions while working for the DuPont Co. in California. But in 1980, I decided it was time for a change. I took a job at a smaller company that specialized in using ultraviolet light to process tough coatings for tables.
Mr. Hull's first successful test of his invention resulted in an optometrist's eyecup, made in 30 minutes. 3D Systems
Sometime in 1982, I realized that ultraviolet technology might help speed up the process of turning plastic-part designs into working prototypes. The company was intrigued and gave me a lab where I could work during my off hours. In those days, transforming prototype designs into plastic parts was time consuming. It could take months to go from blueprints to injection moldings. So I started developing a way to harden acrylic photopolymers faster by exposing them to ultraviolet light.
Within six months I developed an idea for a machine that could turn a design generated on a computer into a hard-plastic prototype in minutes. When a test I ran worked, I immediately called my wife, Anntionette, at home and insisted she come over right away. Back then we lived in a two-bedroom apartment a couple of miles from the lab. When Anntionette arrived, I showed her the prototype my machine had created in just 30 minutes—a small blue eyecup used by optometrists. She was amazed and still has that cup. It was the birth of the 3-D printer.
I guess my drive as an inventor came from that farmhouse. Farm life taught me the importance of sticking to something and seeing it through. All of the farmers I knew were self-reliant and never doubted that what they believed was possible if they put their shoulders into it and kept at it.
Today, my wife and I live in a large house outside of Santa Clarita, Calif. I have a workshop in a hangar a couple of miles away where I tinker with real airplanes and any ideas that come to mind. Our house isn't as exciting as that tent back in Gateway, but it's a lot more comfortable.
Corrections & Amplifications
Chuck Hull is the inventor of the 3-D printer. In an earlier version of this story, his name was incorrectly spelled as Hall in a headline.