The history of the Buckleys
What do race cars have to do with solar energy?
As it turns out, more than one would think. Shawn Buckley, the president of Focused Sun and its founder, began designing race cars before he finished University. One might not know his Berkeley doctoral thesis, yet almost everybody should have seen it in action. His development of "ground effects" is today's standard for fast cornering of competitive race cars. Sponsored by Group Lotus (Wymondham, UK), his summa cum laude research led to Lotus winning the Formula One World Constructor’s Championship and American driver Mario Andretti winning the Formula One Drivers Championship. It comes as no surprise that Buckley founded three Silicon Valley companies selling advanced manufacturing equipment. He has worked with nearly a thousand factories, allowing him to understand manufacturing methods in use around the world.
The family: Engineers to the bones
Shawn's fascination for technology began in his childhood. This is a family of creative technologists. His grandfather, Willi, from Prussian military nobility began in a workshop school in the late 1800s. In 1900, he received his diploma in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Berlin (Charlottenburg), one of the best technical schools of its time. After helping to electrify Italy, Switzerland and Germany, he served in the military in World War I. After the war Willi came to the U.S. to seek his fortune. He worked as a designer of early washing machines, floor polishers, movie projectors and televisions. During WWII, he helped develop the Link Trainer used to train many American pilots.
Willi could make anything. He built a Swiss-style restaurant in Staten Island, one of the first with air conditioning. Later, he built his own house in Sparta, NJ above Lake Mohawk. The house was in the Swiss tradition complete with rocks on the roof to hold down the shingles and balconies with ornate railings. The young Buckley brothers spent summers there, especially in Willi’s woodworking shop. Willi showed the boys how to use hand tools and power tools. But he was also a strong disciplinarian: miss-use those tools and get scolded.
Shawn’s father “Buck” grew up in upstate Boonville, NY near the Canadian border. In the 1930s he went to the University of Michigan, one of the best engineering schools of its day. He studied both mechanical and electrical engineering, but eventually settled on mechanical engineering getting his degree just prior to World War II.
After the war Buck specialized in turbo machinery, especially gas turbines. At Battelle Institute (Columbus OH) and later at American Locomotive (Dunkirk NY), he managed a 30 man project to power locomotives with gas turbines that burned pulverized coal. After a stint in industrial equipment, he moved the family to Milford, CT to work on small gas turbines for AVCO Lycoming in nearby Stratford.
Shawn's father was also an inventor. His work in locomotives resulted in two U.S. patents. Like grandfather Willi, he showed the boys how to make things and fix things. Shawn and his older brother Fred spent many a day in the basement workshop watching their father fix anything that was broken. This is an important lesson for a young engineer: if someone put it together, it can be taken apart. To the chagrin of their mother, dinner-table talk was not about literature or the arts; it was about technology and new inventions.
The two older Buckley boys went to Pitt together, Fred specializing in electrical engineering and Shawn in mechanical engineering. They graduated the same year, Fred going to work for IBM and Shawn to graduate school at Purdue.
The Buckley boys from left to right are Jerry, Fred, Ed and Shawn. All have been graduated in various engineering disciplines: Jerry (BSCS, Bridgeport), Fred (BSEE, Pitt; MSEE, Syracuse), Ed (BSEE, Berkeley), Shawn (BSME, Pitt; MSME, Purdue; PhD ME, Berkeley), Together the family has over 50 issued patents.
Caring for the future: Focusing on the sun
At MIT, Shawn taught in the Mechanical Engineering Department (specialized in solar energy) and in MIT's Sloan School of Mangement. Jay Forrester, a management professor whose book “Limits to Growth” was an early analysis of global growth, was an important inspiration for him. Shawn and Jay team-taught a class in system dynamics at the Sloan School. After class they would discuss how one could engineer a social explosion -- twenty years before Google and Facebook.
During the same time, Shawn led the development of the MIT solar module. His group pioneered sandwich fabricated solar panels that could be made cheaply in local factories. Buckley left MIT to help found the Chevron subsidiary, Hydro Sun, that licensed his MIT-developed technology. Chevron spent two years and $10 MM developing the MIT panel, but abandoned it when the political climate for renewables changed with Reagan’s election in the 1980s. Buckley currently holds 26 U.S. patents including six on solar energy.
Focused Sun: The future begins
But Shawn did not stop. He published a book on solar energy, Sun Up to Sun Down, that was McGraw-Hill’s best selling solar energy book.
By founding Focused Sun, Shawn has now taken the next step to spread a cheaper, more energy efficient type of solar energy modules. One of its key features is a design simple enough for small businesses to start their own production.