Tensor, a dazzling 8-by-10-foot wall of 64,800 multicolored LEDs, was created by Kevin McCormick. Some of McCormick’s works were shown in local galleries.

Sally Jacobs, Boston Globe Staff, reports:

The party at Warehouse 23 was a high-tech marvel, even by geek standards.

But what struck one young attendee most vividly was not the astonishing sea of guests churning through the vast industrial space in the Fort Point district. Or the towering sculptures of thousands of tiny lights blinking in rhythm to the music. Or even the lasers overhead and the fog machines pumping dense clouds around video screens.

No, for Emily Chew, then an 18-year-old freshman at Simmons College, it was the solemn way in which the drugs were distributed. The tiny tabs of acid were passed about, she recalls, in a silver cigarette case. And for each guest who took one, another person stepped forward to be a sober companion, a sort of designated driver for the trip ahead.

Stunned by what she calls ‘’the gravity of the process,” Chew took nothing and fled to another room. A few minutes later, the party’s host, Kevin D. McCormick, known to his friends as ‘’Frostbyte,” appeared at her side and said, ‘’You don’t look like you’re having a very good time.”

McCormick, an MIT-trained engineer and highly regarded artist, led her to a far wall. He flipped a switch and thousands of lights erupted into a shimmering band of color shaped like a rainbow.

‘’The whole crowd just stopped and looked,” recalled Chew. ‘’The entire room went quiet.”

It was a vintage Frostbyte happening. McCormick, who was found dead in Warehouse 23 last month, was a young man drawn to the edge, always pushing beyond the conventional limits of knowledge and sensation.

His frequent gatherings — more exhibitions than parties — were fully intended to knock his guests breathless, to take them somewhere else. And McCormick, according to several of his friends, believed drugs could be the passport to some of the more intriguing destinations.

When police found McCormick’s body Nov. 13 in the Congress Street warehouse where he lived, he was surrounded by chains and wetsuits — props, evidently, for erotic activities. The 29-year-old, who was openly gay, had died of a heart attack during sex. Two of the men who shared the warehouse space told police he had taken ecstasy — his drug of choice, according to several friends — a few hours earlier.

During their investigation, police also discovered one of the most sophisticated designer drug laboratories that US Drug Enforcement Administration chemists have seen in the region. The DEA is examining the array of chemicals and equipment seized from the lab, which DEA investigators believe was dedicated to the making of such drugs as MDMA, or ecstasy. Law enforcement officials say an investigation continues into whether there are grounds for charges against any of the four others who lived there.

McCormick, a lean man with intense dark eyes who graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999 with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science, made no secret of his recreational drug use. McCormick ‘’fully understood the risks of his drug use and accepted them willingly. He told me once that all of his best ideas came to him when he was high,” his friend Richard ‘’Mouser” Williams, also an MIT graduate, wrote on a blog about McCormick after his death.

Investigators are exploring whether McCormick only made small amounts of experimental drugs for himself, or distributed them more widely. McCormick, famously precise in all that he did, from the rewiring of a circuit board to the creation of a portrait of the Mona Lisa out of brilliant LED lights, told one friend in 1999 that he decided to make drugs because he thought it was safer; he didn’t trust drugs made by others.

And so, friends say, he spent hours researching the effects of drugs, the risks — and potential pleasures — of various chemical combinations.

‘’He always used the chemical names when he talked about drugs so I only had a partial understanding of what he was talking about,” said Tronster Hartley, who has known McCormick since high school. ‘’But he was not someone to do something he did not know everything about. He knew everything about ecstasy and all the dangers because he researched it.”

Drugs were only one dimension of McCormick’s vivid life. He was a passionate mix, a techie turned artist who spun out his thoughts in voluminous e-mails with the same energy and quirkiness he devoted to his entertaining. Although notoriously intense, his humor echoes in many of the e-mails saved by his friends. In one, he relates a soulless exchange with a cashier at a computer store. McCormick, wearing a T-shirt that said, ‘’I took the red pill,” reported giving the cashier a stony look.

‘’If anything,” McCormick wrote, ‘’it confirmed his suspicions that I was an enlightened Matrix-transcendent entity.”

He was first and foremost a geek, the kind that even other geeks in MIT’s rarefied world looked up to, one who could make a working something out of nothing, and explain — usually — exactly how he did it. And, in time, he made those somethings into colossal sculptures illuminated by thousands of brilliant LEDs — high performance light emitting diodes. Sometimes they pulsed. Sometimes they were linked to music or movement. Always, they riveted attention.

McCormick, who worked as a project engineer for Color Kinetics in Boston, was considered a pioneer in the use of LEDs and in lighting design. For years he had been fascinated by the relationship between vision and movement, especially a theory of how the eye takes in moving images called ‘’persistence of vision.” Several of his works, such as the one he called Obelisk, featured embedded images that could not be seen when viewed head on, but only as the eye scanned back and forth.

‘’Kevin made big things that people admired because they were so beautifully done. I mean, who knew circuit boards could be a thing of beauty,” said Jack Bachrach, a researcher and organizer of a local artists’ group, the Collision Collective.

Although known for his generosity in helping other artists and engineers, McCormick frequently withdrew when engrossed in his work. McCormick, for example, spent weeks helping Barbara Swindol, a former co-worker at Color Kinetics, make a woodland fairy costume covered in LEDs. But she knew when to stay away.

‘’Kevin was the smartest person I have ever met in my life,” said Swindol, 50. ‘’But he could be very temperamental. It was like, ‘Don’t bother me.’ “

His works were as eclectic as they were luminous. There was Corona, a three-frequency geodesic sphere constructed from interlocking circuit boards and 1,260 LEDs. And Tensor, a dazzling wall of 64,800 multicolored LEDs. And Subliminal Man, a 35-foot steel television antenna crowned by 16 red LED bars.

McCormick also turned his manic creativity to clothing. One invention, Luxeon Helmet, was a surplus Army helmet studded with LEDs that throb and strobe and which he described on one of his websites as, ‘’Great for blinding nearby people or guiding incoming aircraft.”

Some of McCormick’s creations were shown in galleries around Boston. Many more loomed over the Nevada desert during the annual weeklong event known as Burning Man, a gathering of art and community-building described on its website as ‘’an exercise in radical self-sufficiency.”

Even at McCormick’s memorial service at the MIT chapel a few days after he died, colored lights played on the wall. A small pole dotted with lights stood at the altar, as friends and relatives recalled that McCormick, an only child, was forever consumed with how things worked. McCormick’s parents declined to be interviewed.

Raised in a Baltimore suburb, McCormick attended Gilman School, a private facility for boys, where he ignored the prevailing athletic culture in favor of all things electronic. According to Hartley, a Gilman classmate, McCormick spent much of his time with a handful of like-minded friends in the school’s computer lab.

On Friday nights, they worked on computer programming. In eighth grade, McCormick made his first, large light project, an organ that translated music into patterns of light. At dances, McCormick headed not to the dance floor, but toward the DJ, ‘’where he started spouting off the specs on the amps and the speakers,” said Hartley. ‘’Wherever there was a gadget, Kevin wanted to know more about it.”

McCormick, according to Hartley, did not date during high school and often joked that ‘’he would reproduce through spores.”

Another Gilman classmate, Lee S. Kowarski, wrote in a blog about McCormick: ‘’He was one of the smartest and geekiest people I ever knew — someone who set up a retina scan for entrance to his MIT dorm room and had a robot maid to vacuum his place way back in the mid-90s.”

And so it was that when McCormick arrived on the MIT campus in 1994 he fit right in. McCormick joined Tau Epsilon Phi, a fraternity known for its support for diversity and homosexuality. It was there that he was christened ‘’Frostbyte.” During the initiation rush at TEP, liquid nitrogen was brought out and McCormick dipped flowers in it, excitedly watching them freeze. As he kept at it for hours into the night, a frat brother dubbed him Frostbyte.

Even on the MIT campus, where eccentricity and genius are second cousins to invention, Frostbyte loomed large. On a website dubbed ‘’Stories About Frostbyte’s Incredible Life” friends recounted his engineering feats. There’s the story about the computer he built for a class, so huge it had to be trucked onto campus. And there’s the one about Frostbyte, fueled by his beloved peanut butter cups and Mountain Dew, cruising the MIT campus at night in his purple minivan collecting ‘’gear people were giving away . . . monitors, PCs, shelving, lasers.” Frostbyte, one friend recalled, ‘’was so gifted at electronics . . . that in 10 minutes he could ‘paper napkin’ a design of any device more accurately and in better detail than most people could do in a month.”

He was, for many, an inspiration.

‘’Frostbyte was the best engineer I ever met,” wrote an online contributor who signed in as Peeto. ‘’I learned more in that [TEP house] watching and listening to him than I did during my years at MIT.”

McCormick’s words are there, too. In a copy of an e-mail that he wrote in 1995, titled ‘’Fun with lead-acid batteries!” McCormick tells of how he once tried to electrolyze Coke by running wires from a 12-volt battery into the soft drink. ‘’I touched the wires together. There was a large ka-THWACK as approximately 200 amps discharged through a 26 gauge wire . . . cause[ing] five very nice, long thin, burns on my hands.”

He concludes: ‘’MORAL: Go ahead! Do stupid electrical things at 2 in the morning.”

Early in his years at MIT, McCormick began to adapt his engineering talents to his growing interest in art. He found a mentor in an MIT alumnus, Fred Fenning, who had started several local lighting companies. McCormick was crushed when Fenning died in a plane crash in 1997.

‘’His transformation from engineer to artist began when he met Fred,” said Anna Dirks, an MIT alumna and close friend of McCormick’s who lived with him in the warehouse. ‘’He began to realize that engineering could produce art and he began to play with the possibilities.”

Room No. 23 in TEP house was the epicenter of McCormick’s universe. The room, overflowing with computers and parts, also became a popular party spot. By his final year at MIT, McCormick had outfitted the room with lights and lasers and regularly hosted gatherings to show off his latest inventions.

At MIT, McCormick was openly gay, according to several of his friends. Dirks said McCormick was entirely comfortable with his sexuality: ‘’He was far too practical not to be,” she said.

McCormick thrived in Room No. 23, but the move to Fort Point finally gave him the space he needed, as Dirks put it, ‘’to grow his ideas.”

The space was the second floor of an eight-story white brick industrial building in Fort Point. McCormick promptly dubbed the place The Phlogiston Research Co. and in the fall of 1999 the half a dozen rooms began to fill with roommates and his mounds of equipment.

McCormick’s good spirits plummeted, however, when one prospective roommate abruptly died before he could move in. Richard Guy, an MIT senior who was a friend, died of asphyxiation after inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, in September 1999. In the dorm room where Guy was found, police also found a cache of drugs that included amphetamines and LSD.

‘’He was very affected by Guy’s death,” said Hartley. ‘’He said, ‘You have to be safe if you are going to do drugs.’ “

When investigators discovered the lab in a small room in Warehouse 23, even veteran DEA chemists were taken aback. While most designer labs found in New England are, ‘’small enough to fit into a box, this was substantially bigger,” said DEA spokesman Anthony Pettigrew.

Investigators initially suggested that the lab was a methamphetamine lab, but now believe that it was being used to make ecstasy and custom drugs. Included on the police list of items taken out of the lab, which runs 29 pages, are marijuana, LSD on blotter paper and in chocolate, mushrooms, and 11 containers of chemicals.

Another of McCormick’s friends who had been in the lab, and who asked not to be identified, said McCormick made drugs only for himself and his close friends and did not sell them. He told only a few about his hobby; most who knew him knew nothing of the lab at all.

What they did know about him was that he threw an amazing party. Over the years, the parties at Warehouse 23 grew steadily larger, attracting a disparate group of artists and MIT graduates and techies. Although the parties were strictly by e-mail invitation only, the waiting line to get in often stretched far down Congress Street and people were frequently turned away. McCormick’s following was growing.

‘’He just loved wowing people,” said a friend. ‘’That is what he lived for. He liked giving people these bizarre experiences.”

One of the parties, held in the fall of 2004, was pegged, ‘’The Warehouse 23 National Convention.” The invitation cited the upcoming presidential election and noted that soon the final votes would be cast.

‘’A wake, then,” McCormick proclaimed in the invitation, ‘’for the death of this time of anticipation, of this anxious revelry, this joyous despair; Indulge!”

© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.