Lord of the Fireflies: Inventor Gives Life to Circuit-Board Insects

Stephen Taylor: Lighting up backyards everywhere, one fly at a time
Orly Olivier

The Lord of the Fireflies, as he is now known, was 58 years old, a corporate refugee axed from the semiconductor business when the glowing insects came into his life. The free car disappeared, the expense account, the fancy dinners. The sprawling 80-acre ranch in Texas with the pond where Stephen Taylor and his wife, Kim, would sit at night, where they first saw the lightning bugs rising up out of the water. It was where he first came up with the idea that saved them so many years later: “Someone should invent lights that flicker like fireflies, so kids who grew up without fireflies can see them, too.”

“Why don’t you?” Kim had said before submerging back into their comfortable life.

But then the NASDAQ crashed. It was 2001. They moved west to California’s Apple Valley desert, where the living was cheaper. In short order, the fireflies — super-realistic artificial ones — took up residence in the living room. “This was a thing of last resort,” says Taylor, now 65. In this, his second life, he is the creator of the Firefly Magic backyard accessory landscape light.

When we first meet, Taylor is fussing around in his booth at the Home Remodeling Show at the Pasadena Convention Center, among the vendors hawking shower and patio tiles and artificial turf. He’s an unabashed engineering, tinkerer-type and looks it: tall, lanky, with a shock of gray hair.

Two thousand varieties of fireflies exist in the world. The ones in Thailand flash all at once in synchrony. Some flash red. Others yellow. But there is only one that is powered by two AA batteries with an optional solar charger. Taylor holds the patent to both the Firefly Magic design process and product, but already the predators are circling. “We know competitors have purchased units,” he says warily.

How?

“Oh, we have our ways.”

Taylor tests the firefly units in his backyard. Out in Apple Valley, his feet crunch on the dirt. “This used to be plush green grass, but we let it revert back to nature,” he says. Several strands of fireflies are staked to the ground. He prods one. “And look! It’s been years, but these guys still work.” They snake across little mounds of dirt and cacti. Sometimes, Taylor drapes them across three desiccated wisteria bushes. The lights waft in the desert wind. (Actual fireflies need warm, moist soil to grow.)

From there, the fireflies colonized Taylor’s living room. Then the garage. Then the bedroom. In his workshop, formerly the guest room, guts of the bugs are strewn about. Yellow bins brim with circuit boards, wires, resistors and various electronic doodads. Boxes of Firefly Magic kits freshly offloaded from a crate from China tower above the living room sofas like a Warhol installation gone awry.

For a while Taylor and Kim did the soldering themselves. “We have to do all the same steps as a major corporation, but we have to do it with two people,” he says. Command central — the office — is a bed with a piece of plywood propped on top of it. Kim’s mother is official president of their mascot Sparky’s fan club.

Taylor’s fireflies last 100,000 hours, have LED lights on their butts, are modeled after Photinus pyralis from the eastern United States, and glow at a dominant wavelength of 570 nanometers of visible light. In other words: green. The original prototype is a modified path light. The magic is in the microchip, into which Taylor programs the rate of flash and fade. Other lights are strictly on-off-on-off propositions, but Taylor can program his to blink out a symphony if you want.

The firefly lights are so accurate, in fact, that they have been known to confuse real Photinus fireflies, which try to mate with them. Rival Photuris [female] fireflies, those femmes fatales, even try to eat them. A Tufts University entomology professor who studies firefly mating signals and the interaction between Photinus and Photuris even commissioned a set for her study.

Oh, the places the fireflies have gone! To the Bellagio Hotel conservatory in Las Vegas. To the National Theatre of London, in a jar, to star in a Tennessee Williams play. To an aquarium in Oregon for a bioluminescent fish diorama. Universal Studios commissioned a winter float that needed glittering ice crystals, so Taylor designed some extrabright white ones. When Disneyworld wanted ultraviolet fireflies for the Nemo ride, Taylor sent some that glowed purple.

“You know those people who collect miniatures, but they’re not kids, they’re adults? Someone asked me to make them fireflies in red, orange and yellow.” The lights dance like flames. That set went into someone’s dollhouse fireplace.

Then again, other people like the fireflies just as they are. Some are people who want to re-create the bayou in their backyard or bedroom. Or Christmas tree. “Usually it’s people who are doing a nature theme on their tree, with little animals like raccoons,” Kim says.

“How many people go on Pirates of the Caribbean and all they talk about are those lights in the beginning?” says Taylor, shaking his head. “You know, when you’re in the boat and floating through the loading zone?”

Other customers appreciate the fireflies as a species in and of themselves. “Dear Stephen,” writes the curator of the Natural Science Center of Greensboro, “I wanted to write and tell you how much we are enjoying your Firefly Magic lights. Entry into Bug Discovery brings the visitor face to face with a giant goliath beetle model (which children can ride), an enormous, lifelike praying mantis, and even an 8-foot black widow spider.... Your lights are installed in camouflage netting and on artificial shrubs against a darkened backdrop.”

“They look just like the fireflies I always see when I travel to the Amazon or Uganda,” writes someone else.

Accordingly, the Taylors spend a lot of time thinking about verisimilitude. “We would sit here in the backyard and have a glass of wine. We’d have them out in the wisteria. We’d ask each other, how do we feel about them?” Kim explains.

“What was interesting was when the flickering was too frenetic, too fast, we realized that was worse. It doesn’t give you that natural sensation,” Taylor adds.

He plans to add wings to the design. They invited the neighbors over for burgers one night without telling them they were about to be market research, letting them be surprised by the geographical impossibility of lightning bugs in Southern California.

“How I kind of envision myself as I’ve gone forward with this, what’s the word ... idol? My inspiration is Harland Sanders, the colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken. He lost his business when he was retirement age. He was hit by loss of livelihood and had to come up with something new.” Taylor squeezes past the tower of boxes and sinks into the couch. He has sold a lot of units in his lifetime and he hopes to sell a lot more. “Or we’ll never be able to entertain again in our living room.”

In the hall, the fireflies are flickering in the fake potted plants. Evening is falling.


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