DeWolf takes delight in his fountain of secrets |

DeWolf takes delight in his fountain of secrets

Eben Harrell
"It's not a fountain, it's a symphony," the inventor says. Aspen Times file photo.

It’s a cold, deserted day on Aspen’s Hyman Avenue mall. The occasional pedestrian hurries through the cold to lunch or a meeting. A few empty wrappers blow like modern tumbleweed in the streets. But for one tall, peculiar man, it’s a glorious day.Nick DeWolf is celebrating the birthday of one his most prized creations. Today is the 25th anniversary of the first test run of Aspen’s dancing fountain.

Well over 6 feet tall, hair in spectacular disarray, DeWolf looms over the fountain in extravagant suspenders and a positively psychedelic shirt.”It’s done everything it was supposed to do,” DeWolf says beaming. “I’ve been well rewarded by the thanks from parents and kids.”It’s an ignominious day for such a celebration. The water has long been switched off for the winter. Dark and dormant under its grates, the fountain looks sad, almost menacing in its subterranean emptiness. But anyone who has visited Aspen on a warm summer day knows better. Children and dogs frolic in its spray; grownups stop to marvel at a pattern as strange and wondrous as the elements themselves. “It’s not a fountain, it’s a symphony,” this sublime eccentric will tell you – not quite coherent, but not disordered either, rather like music. It was created a quarter century ago as a joint project between an artist and an inventor at a time when personal computers were just beginning to trickle into inventors’ workshops. It was a time when machines could harness the winds, the water, heck, the world.Local sculptor Travis Fulton had an idea for a fountain that could disappear underground in the winter. DeWolf had a notion of creating a computer program to randomly control the actions of valves and pumps. Four years later, on Nov. 16, 1979, the dancing fountain was born.”It was an absolute product of its time,” DeWolf recalls. “It could not have been created any earlier than it was. It was really the first of its kind.”

The project started with lofty intentions. Built before the pedestrian mall, it was meant to be an astonishing artifact, a landmark to be admired from afar. But such is the power of a child’s imagination that it can topple monuments, and soon the hallowed work became a summer playground. Recently, DeWolf gave in and redesigned the fountain so that one side, the left, does not have such extreme water pressure. Children now play safely for hours in the jets. The “balloon trick,” watching a balloon rise majestically on one of the 12 geysers, has become a routine part of summer holiday hijinks.Like any proud inventor, DeWolf is happy to share some of the fountain’s secrets. The fountain draws its water from the Hyman Avenue streams, which in turn draw from the Roaring Fork River (“We monitor closely for giardia,” he says). There are 12 nozzles at the end of sewer pumps (“turd technology,” as he calls it) and the fountain’s control panels are locked in a closet in the women’s public bathroom next to Wagner Park.Other secrets, however, remain closely guarded, such as whether the fountain’s pattern repeats itself.”Yes and no,” DeWolf says cryptically. “You can set your clock by it but if you wait for it to repeat the sun will extinguish.”

DeWolf still has a key to the fountain’s controls; it hangs from a worn string. He’ll happily show you around. It is strange, and a little disappointing, to hold the controls of the fountain – that bottomless well of youthful delight and mystery – in a disk no larger than a quarter. But not to Nick. To him the devil, and all His creative flare, are in the details; is it not magic to be able to hold mystery in the palm of one’s hand?As DeWolf runs his hands over the controls, explaining in his hurried way each knob and gauge, he pauses unexpectedly. Time has taken its toll on the old scientist. It’s cancer, of what sort he will not say. “Dying is my last great experiment,” he explains.DeWolf used to say that when he died, the fountain would stop dancing. No one else knew the intricacies of its workings. But in the last two years he has spearheaded a simplification of its controls and manufactured four replacement computers.The fountain, as strange and wondrous as its creator, will continue to flourish.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is

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