Orinda retiree Ben Kacyra has made the biggest contribution to archeological research since Indiana Jones added the bullwhip to his field kit.
Kacyra, who made his fortune as an inventor and civil engineer, has created a foundation to explore the research of a cameralike device that uses lasers to scan three-dimensional objects -- such as archaeological ruins -- to create digital blueprints accurate to within a few millimeters.
Born in northern Iraq in 1940, Kacyra developed this laser-mapping tool several years ago to solve a problem in construction -- keeping accurate records of the real dimensions of factories and power plants when they deviate from the architect's plans.
The 67-year-old sold his invention in 2001 and now works with his wife, Barbara, to get the $100,000 tool into the hands of archaeological researchers who are using it to create electronic blueprints so accurate that scientists sitting at computer terminals can glean the secrets of ancient monuments remotely.
"We both loved the ancient-built environment and we wanted to put high technology to use saving ancient places," Kacyra said.
Today the Kacyras have created a Web site, at www.cyark.org, that allows anyone to see these blueprintlike images. But that's just the start. Down the line they would like to superimpose real graphics on top of these geospatial maps -- recreating ancient worlds onscreen.
For Kacyra, it's all part of sharing a love of the past that he learned as a boy growing up in Mosul, an Iraqi city known during biblical times as Nineveh.
"That's where the whale spit out Jonah," says Kacyra, who used to picnic near the gates of the ancient city where Assyrian chariots once thundered forth.
"My dad loved archaeology and he used to take me to all the ruins," recalled Kacyra, an Iraqi Christian who got his undergraduate degree at a Jesuit college in Baghdad before immigrating to the United States in 1964 to get a master's degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois.
Kacyra soon married and in 1968 moved to the Bay Area to begin a career in construction, which reached an inflection point in 1989, when he sold a civil engineering firm he had co-founded.
It was after the sale of his engineering firm that Kacyra began the work that eventually spawned the laser mapping tool.
Throughout his years in civil engineering, Kacyra had been repeatedly called upon to create what are called "as-built" blueprints of big industrial operations like refineries, so safety managers could know the precise locations of critical components.
"We sent scads of people into the plants with tape measures," he said, to figure out exactly where things were to create these post-construction blueprints.
So in 1992, Kacyra started a firm, Cyra Technologies, to make those measurements more efficiently. Knowing what he wanted but not how to do it, he recruited UC Berkeley-trained engineer Jerry Dimsdale as his chief technology officer.
Kacyra said Dimsdale decided a laser would be the best tool for the job and found one that met the specs -- it emitted light with enough power to bounce off a distant object and return to a sensor, while being "eye-safe" in the event of brief, accidental exposure. The laser Dimsdale found had been developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of former President Ronald Reagan's defense program that was commonly referred to as the "Star Wars" anti-missile defense shield.
Through a research agreement with MIT, Kacyra licensed a civilian version of the laser. But that was just the start. The tool needed sensors capable of timing the intervals between signal and response. Once again they turned to the defense sector, this time forging a research agreement with Los Alamos National Laboratory, which had developed a high-tech stopwatch with the right stuff.
There were other problems to be solved. The laser maps the surface of objects by taking millions of measurements at different angles. The complicated process creates a gnarly problem in software to reassemble that cloud of points into a blueprint.
By 1996, after roughly four years work, Kacyra insisted on loading a washing-machine-size prototype of the device into Dimsdale's van so they could field test it at the Richmond refinery of Chevron Corp., which had taken an interest in the technology.
"I hated doing it because it wasn't ready to be a product," said Dimsdale, now president of the Point Richmond instrument design firm Voxis. Dimsdale said he relented after Kacyra told him: "If we do it, Chevron's on board. And if we don't they're not."
Kacyra said the test went so well that former Chevron Vice Chairman Jim Sullivan OKd a $500,000 strategic investment that was used to help create a truly portable system that looks like a large camera atop a surveyor's tripod. In 2001, the invention was acquired by the Swiss company Leica Geosystems, which sells the device for use by contractors.
Selling the invention to Leica freed Kacyra to indulge his passion for archaeology and, through their family foundation, he and his wife have spent the past several years getting this expensive mapping tool into the hands of scientists like John Rick of Stanford University.
Rick is an expert in a pre-Incan Peruvian civilization known as the Chavin, who left behind no written language and are known only through an extensive and complex set of ruins approximately 155 miles north of Lima.
Rick said he has been using Kacrya's laser mapping tool for several years in an attempt to ascertain whether the site -- several giant monuments and a network of underground passageways -- had been planned by an elite or had resulted from some grassroots religious fervor.
He said the laser mapper has been essential to discovering whether critical details, like the placement of stairs, were the same in structures built over a series of generations -- proof, he believes, that the Chavin elite enforced what amounts to an ancient building code.
"It would take 10 lifetimes to record the data that the Kacyra instrument takes in 10 minutes," said Rick, who considers it one of the most important new tools in archaeology over the past quarter-century.
Back in Orinda, Kacyra cited other projects that have used the mapping tool. One charted the dimensions of Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried in volcanic ash. Another studied the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi of the Mesa Verde region of southwest Colorado.
Making this work viewable on the Web has been a big part of his foundation's work, and Kacyra considers the images available today a mere token of what is possible -- the eventual creation of ancient virtual landscapes that people might be able to imagine strolling through the way that computer hobbyists enjoy make-believe online worlds such as Second Life from San Francisco's Linden Lab.
But why stop at the computer screen? Once the blueprints for ancient wonders have been calculated and are stored in a digital file, it becomes possible to re-create at least portions of these edifices. Kacyra showed off a hand-size reproduction of an ancient frieze, scanned by the mapping tool. The dimensions of this wall decoration were fed into a rapid-prototyping machine -- a device that makes plastic replicas to order. Think of the archaeological equivalent of a reprint of a famous painting, a chance to hold a piece of history.
For Kacyra it's all part of sharing the love of human environment that he learned as a boy.
"We did well," he said of his family's fortune. "We decided we wanted to do good."