The Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based around a microcontroller. It accepts inputs, such as signals from sensors (light, temperature, moisture, etc.) or data from the Internet or wireless devices, and sends output signals to devices, such as LEDS, motors, speakers, MIDI sequencers, computers, and so on. You can write programs for the Arduino on a Mac, Windows, or Linux machine and load them onto the Arduino with a USB cable.
Recently, Make published a book called Getting Started with Arduino, written by Massimo Banzi, the co-founder of Arduino. It's only 116-pages long and uses attractive hand-drawn illustrations to get even the most clueless newbie up to speed. Filled with easy-to-understand examples and projects, I wish there were books like this about everything I was interested in learning more about, from beekeeping to furniture making to investing.