In The Tinkerers, Alec Foege presents a version of American history told through feats of engineering, large and small. He argues that reports of tinkering’s death have been greatly exaggerated; since World War II, it has been the guiding force behind projects from corporate-sponsored innovations (the personal computer, Ethernet) to smaller scale inventions with great potential (a machine that can make low-cost eyeglass lenses for people in impoverished countries, a device that uses lasers to shoot malarial mosquitoes out of the sky). Think tanks and companies have recognized the benefits of tinkering and have done their best to harness and institutionalize it. But as systems become more complex, budding inventors may become intimidated. Foege argues that this would be an enormous loss to a nation that achieved its strength largely thanks to the accomplishments of its innovators. He shows us how tinkering remains, in new and unexpected forms, at the heart of American society and culture.
THE TINKERER ARCHETYPE IS REBORN
There may no longer be such a thing as the lone, humble inventor in the United States, but the very existence of Australian-born transplant Saul Griffith at least challenges the premise that individual tinkering genius cannot flourish in our soil. Raised in Sydney and educated in material sciences at the University of South Wales with a master’s degree from the University of Sydney, he arrived in America on a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004, where he earned a PhD in programmable assembly and self-replicating machines, which sounds confusing until you learn about some of the things Griffith has spent his time doing since then. Through pondering some big issues, he has come up with an astonishing number of clever technological innovations—from a kite that tows boats to an electricity-assisted adult cargo tricycle to cheap insulation inspired by origami. The best known, perhaps, is the one that helped win him the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2004: a small desktop machine that allows an operator with little training to make a cheap pair of eyeglass lenses on demand. Griffith’s motivating idea was to make glasses more affordable for people in impoverished countries. His brilliant solution worked. What he didn’t realize, however, was that once an expensive lens factory is built, the cost of manufacturing and shipping a pair of eyeglasses only costs a few dollars.
Still, Griffith remained a solid idea-generating force at MIT. As a student, Griffith invented a portable electric generator that a user swings around his head to produce energy, a concept he adapted from an Aboriginal musical instrument called a bullroarer. Another device created three-dimensional chocolate objects from digital renditions. In 2007, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” which was accompanied by a $500,000 prize. Griffith, in his typically thrifty style, sunk the bulk of his winnings back into his business enterprises. Many of these have sprung out of the inventors workshop, known as Squid Labs, that he established in California with a group of friends, some of whom he met at MIT. In its three years of existence, Squid Labs operated out of a warehouse in Emeryville under the slogan “We’re not a think tank, we’re a do tank.”
A free-form ramshackle business incubator of sorts, Squid Labs produced a flurry of start-ups, including Howtoons, a website stocked with cartoons meant to teach children how to build things; Instructables, a clearinghouse of low-priced plans for a wide range of do-it-yourself projects; MonkeyLectric, a manufacturer of artistically striking lighting products for bicycles; and Makani Power, which designs airborne wind turbines meant to capture the energy from highaltitude winds unreachable by turbines mounted on towers.
Each of these creations inspired or anticipated an innovative mini-movement of its own, and together they confirmed Griffith’s powers as a tinkering futurist. Spanning from practical to fantastical, they also harness a bit of the cocky, quicksilver energy that seems to be lacking in the work of many of today’s innovators.
Griffith’s journey to the United States was originally fueled by his interest in environmentally beneficial innovation. This is not surprising when considering that Australia is regarded as ground zero of the earth’s global-warming time bomb, a cauldron of weather extremes exacerbated by an economy deeply dependent on coal as both a leading source of energy and the country’s main export. At Squid Labs, he devised something they called electronically sensed rope that includes built-in sensors and conductive fibers that adjust the flexibility of the rope based on the amount of weight it is supporting. Squid also developed a power source for the One Laptop per Child nonprofit that provides children in developing countries with affordable computers. And all of Griffith’s endeavors seem to be imbued with a twisted sense of humor one doesn’t expect from such a prodigious innovator: one do-it-yourself project on Instructables.com includes step-by-step directions to construct a computer mouse (hardware) out of a real dead mouse carcass (referred to on the site as wetware).
Growing up in Sydney as the son of a textile engineer and university professor and his wife, an artist and weaver, Griffith’s earliest memories of tinkering involve weaving machines and large manual looms that have more to do with the past than the future of innovation. Both his father and mother had at-home studios, so Griffith’s childhood was filled with taking apart lots of different kinds of machines and putting them back together. “It was just a culture of ‘don’t be scared of any machine,’” he told me during an extended conversation we had via Skype. “I grew up around machines that weighed two or three tons, and I wasn’t afraid to play with them.”
An early project of his own creation was constructing a grappling hook like the ones used by Spider-Man and Batman. That single task occupied the whole of one summer. Griffith said he spent each day trying every piece of string and every piece of metal in the house “until something would stick when I threw it up on the roof of the house.”
There was also a tradition in his family of making Christmas and birthday presents. Typically, they’d be either crafts projects or art projects, or else they’d be more practical items such as coat racks or camera tripods.
Griffith’s fascination with his mother’s weaving and knitting looms led to an interest in computers, more specifically the electronic computerization of printmaking. One of his first big mechanical endeavors was helping his father electrify one of his mother’s nineteenth-century lithographic presses. “That was probably one of the first times I was exposed to real engineering, with tolerances and measurements and selecting the right motors and gears,” he said.
But perhaps more critical to Griffith’s development than the exposure to so many objects to tinker with, however, was the seamless connection these experiences made between the arts and science. “I think there’s such an artificial division between the arts and the sciences, it’s hard for me to understand,” he said. “The best scientists I know are all good writers or good artists.”
Excerpted with permission from The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great, by Alec Foege. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.