Logo: University of Southern California

It's Always Sunny in the Coliseum

ME undergrad team repairs Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum's iconic thermometer, perennially stuck at 70-degrees for the past few decades.
by: Tiffanie Jan Lee
February 14, 2013 —

Thermometer 3 500 X 333
David Cape salutes his time at USC by resuscitating the Coliseum  thermometer with his mechanical engineering know-how. 
If you’ve been getting your weather forecast from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s thermometer for the past few decades, you’ve really been walking on sunshine: every day is a consistently mild 70 degrees.

True, Californian weather is often the envy of the nation, but contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles does experience nips of cold (that’s anything below 70, isn’t it?), and it certainly feels the burn of heat waves well above 100 degrees.

Installed in 1955, the Coliseum’s thermometer was a thing of art deco beauty, a minimal statement of elegance at the face of the stadium’s entrance. But for the past few decades, it eventually became the unlikely poster child of the Coliseum’s apparent disrepair: after its mechanical failure, the thermometer’s components were gutted, and they were never replaced. 

As an accidental gag thermometer (the needle was literally tied into place), it was all at once a prideful and snively topic for Trojans: all good weather jokes aside, the Coliseum was in need of major TLC, and the thermometer was a daily reminder of the fact.

Since his freshman year in 2009, David Cape (ME ‘13) has personally felt this sting. As a member of USC Drumline, Cape has marched countlessly throughout the Coliseum: he was as much of a drummer as he was a Viterbi School student. And as chance would have it, Cape’s final hurrah as a mechanical engineering student would be inextricably bound to the fate of the thermometer.

In the summer of 2012, Cape, along with two other student groups (one team per senior design class), submitted proposals to fix the thermometer, an idea gleaned from a mechanical engineering senior project suggestion list. “We could choose something from that list or create something new. I was really excited about this project,” said Cape.

After grouping up with team members Charlie Palmer (ME ‘13), Ryan Magruder (ME ‘13) Andrew Ezarik (ME ‘13), Cape led his team through the gauntlet with a class budget of $300 and eventually created the prototype that would eventually win over Professors Yann Staelens and Charles Radovich, as well as LACC's interim general manager John Sandbrook and project manager Robert Joyner.

Great gig: senior project team members Charles Palmer and Andrew Ezarik kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labor — 76 degrees.

Stakeholders in the competition also included Kristina Raspe, vice president of real estate development and asset management for USC, and Nate Arnold, project manager for real estate development and asset management for USC. 

What was initially a modest proposal became an opportunity to work with a more sophisticated budget — and a “beefier system.” At a budget estimate of $280, Cape and his team originally proposed a system that would have moved the needle and worked just fine.

The LACC decided to allot a $1,000 budget that would then enable the students to include various things the commission wanted, including a battery backup in case of power failure. “[LACC] really liked the idea of the thermometer going to 70 — because it’s been that way for years — so if the power goes out, or you turn the power off, [the thermometer needle] automatically goes back to 70 degrees and then shuts itself off.”

The new thermometer system is mainly software controlled. There’s a “black box” that takes in sensor readings, which then outputs controls for the motor. The system averages two disparate temperatures — one from a sensor housed within the concrete of the roof, and one located in a consistently cool, shady area.

In the physical software, Cape’s team was asked to stop the needle at 105 degrees for cosmetic reasons: this precise temperature causes the needle to point almost straight down, which obscures a window centered below the thermometer.

Cape pauses to contemplate a future after USC, which may actually lead him back to Trojan turf one day: “I’m going to take a little time off...to work. I’m interested in robotics, and I want to try to get to get a job in, hopefully, an aerospace or robotics field, like unmanned aircraft or drones. [It] would kind of be a dream job, working for SpaceX or something. I would like to go back to USC and get a Dynamics & Controls masters degree.”

For now, the team continues to put the finishing touches on the new thermometer system, a labor of love for Cape and his partners. “I thought it’d be really cool to end my senior project with fixing the place I spent most of my Saturdays.” Someday soon, generations of students spending their weekends practicing at the Coliseum may actually see the temperature go above or below 70 degrees — that is, unless the weather really is that great. 

Photos by Ebony Bailey