William Hammack

Nerdy film clips equals new engineers

Published Nov 08, 2011

He is a professor that has more viewers than CNN's biggest TV profile. And he has done it by dissecting hard disks and disassembling LCD screens on YouTube. Meet one of the University of Illinois' biggest celebrities, William Hammack, also known as The Engineer Guy.

“It all started with a complete failure. Our film clips were viewed by no more than 5,000 people.”

William Hammack tells us that he really didn't understand this thing with YouTube. That practical jokes and coarse humour was what was needed in order to entice viewers.

After giving it some considerable thought and adopting a somewhat new approach however, his viewing figures began to increase. Today each film clip, or episode as William Hammack calls them, is viewed by between one hundred thousand and a million viewers.

Together with two colleagues, he records four minute film clips in a basement room in the Chemistry Department at campus Urbana-Champaign. The room is equipped with multiple cameras, studio lights and lots of technical gadgets. Assembled as well as in parts. Among his collection of electrical equipment can be seen some microwave ovens and a flight recorder which William purchased on Ebay.

Improving people's interest in technology

William Hammack is self-taught with regard to everything about film production – from lighting to cutting. The explanation behind The Engineer Guy's success is simple, he says:

“Viewers want honest, straightforward and simple explanations as to how technical stuff works.”

The feedback has certainly been forthcoming. Thousands of comments have been pouring in as a result of the video clips. It is also through the response from viewers that William Hammack and his colleagues receive feedback on how they are doing and whether they are on the right track.

The biggest challenge is that you only have four minutes to explain how a technical gadget works.   That is the part he spends the most time and energy on. But the reward means that it is worth all the effort, he says.

“It is nice to be over 50 years of age and be forced to use an urban dictionary and slang dictionaries to understand what is being said in the comments field,” says William Hammack and laughs.

It is also in that target group, i.e. among young people, that another reward hides. He does it on behalf of the University.  William Hammack says that these films work very well as advertising for the University of Illinois.

“My dream is that we receive such good financing that we can really invest heavily in The Engineer Guy. If we produce a sufficient amount of video clips then we will be able to reach out to all of the country's future engineers.”

New clips in November

The viewing figures for The Engineer Guy are impressive. According to William Hammack the movie clips receive around 250,000 viewers during the first 24 hours they are put out.

This compares with the TV channel Discovery, which during the channel's so-called prime time has about 100,000 viewers. Or CNN's largest television personality Piers Morgan whose programme Piers Morgan Tonight has around 175,000 viewers on a regular weekday evening.

But still, William Hammack himself is not fully satisfied with the progress he and his colleagues have managed to achieve.

“I wish that someone would tell us that 'This is the best 4-minute explanation of how a technological gadget works that I have ever seen,'” he says.

The next series of film clips with The Engineer Guy can be seen from about the beginning of November. The following subjects will be explained:  uranium, the atomic clock, the laser, the battery, aluminium, microwaves and the accelerator.

Text: Peter Larsson

Here is The Engineer Guy

Subscribe to the Campi newsletter

Top page top