The Domino Effect

Expert Domino Master Topples the Line Between Art and Engineering

By Nora Strumpf

seven people competing in a domino event

Four flying drones whizz by overhead, each transporting a box of pizza. A giant evil robot’s bright red eyes begin to flash. On the floor, the word “doom” emerges as 30 robotic vacuums converge. Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”) is cheering from the sidelines as the final two mouse traps snap into place. Suddenly, the robot comes crashing to the floor — and Northrop Grumman engineer Scott triumphantly throws his hands into the air as he exhales a sigh of relief. He and his on-screen teammates have successfully completed another impressive domino topple, this time on network television as a contestant on the FOX reality competition “Domino Masters.”

Scott is a circuit design engineer by day and an expert domino artist by passion. He credits his start in the world of dominos back to 1979 as a high schooler in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he volunteered at a Guinness World Record domino topple as part of a fundraising event. Since then, Scott’s side-gig as a domino artist has lent itself to several commercials, film festivals, television appearances and more. Today, Scott helps lead the Maryland Science Center Domino Topple, an event he founded in 2011 to pass the torch to the next generation of domino enthusiasts.

For Scott, domino toppling, which requires meticulous precision as thousands of dominos are carefully arranged into intricate lines, shapes and patterns, is not just for sport — it’s a creative outlet.

“It’s the ultimate combination of art and engineering,” said Scott. “It’s really unique to have an art form that also has so many mechanical constraints in terms of spacing, timing, sequencing and reliability. Not only do you have to create something that the audience will enjoy looking at, but it also has to actually work.”

“There are enormous similarities between this and my job at Northrop Grumman. You can think of any complex mechanical or electronic system as a chain reaction; this is just a more playful version.”

— Scott, Circuit Design Engineer

A Chain Reaction

In domino toppling, even the slightest oversight can turn disastrous. To ensure a successful run, domino artists have to do a considerable amount of planning. This includes mapping out stunts, patterns and effects that fit into an overarching theme or storyline, sequencing each move in the right order, gathering materials, prototyping and testing — lots of testing.

The detailed planning that goes into domino toppling draws familiar parallels to what an engineer does every day at Northrop Grumman.

“There are enormous similarities between this and my job at Northrop Grumman,” said Scott. “You can think of any complex mechanical or electronic system as a chain reaction; this is just a more playful version . Whether it’s a microchip receiving and decoding a signal and then telling an antenna to turn, or a domino pushing into a marble that pulls a toy car, which turns on a light switch, at its core both are all about cause and effect.”

four males talking to each other
All photos courtesy of FOX Entertainment.

Telling a Story

The ultimate goal of any domino artist is to put on a show that dazzles the audience, and the best way to do that is by creating a domino sequence that tells a story. On “Domino Masters,” Scott was able to do just that on a grand scale, thanks to the show’s whimsical props, top-of-the-line materials like saws and drills, and a never-ending supply of dominos.

Some of Scott’s most impressive arrangements are those that allow him to push the limits of his engineering skills and craftsmanship. One of his favorite creations while on the show was an elaborate Thanksgiving-themed topple, which included a dizzying display of a Thanksgiving Day parade, the New York City skyline and, of course, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — made up of more than 12,000 dominos.

“The storytelling element is what elevates this from something simple that a child might do to something that’s next level. That’s where it becomes a real challenge, and where things get really fun,” said Scott.

The intensity and repetition involved in setting up such fragile and over-the-top topples undoubtedly requires unwavering concentration that some may find frustrating. But that’s not the case for Scott, who finds the process calming.

“It pushes everything else that you’re worrying about out of your mind,” said Scott. “For me, this is a form of meditation.”

woman in blue clean suit

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