How-to heyday not just for gearheads

Creative types find tools, support to build PCs, robots

The last peppermint disappeared long ago from the Altoids tin on Limor Fried's desk. Now she's replacing the candy with music.

Inside the tiny tin she crammed a circuit board and a mass of chips. A wire runs from the tin to an old stereo amplifier that fills the room with music. The Altoids tin is now a portable digital music player. And Fried made it herself.

''I like to build things," said Fried, who lives in Boston's Fort Point neighborhood and holds a master's degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But MIT gearheads aren't the only ones wielding soldering guns these days. Do-it-yourselfers are making a comeback. A new how-to magazine devoted to gadget building is drawing fans. Computer buffs, bored with their dowdy beige machines, are creating personalized PCs with custom paint jobs and high-end components. And the retail chain RadioShack Corp., which years ago bailed out of the electronic hobbyist market, is making a comeback with a robotic construction kit.

Today's do-it-yourselfers are linked to a long tradition of amateur electronic hobbyists. In the 1920s, early radio listeners often built their own sets. In the 1940s, the Heath Co. of Benton Harbor, Mich., began selling Heathkits, a line of prefabricated electronic gadgets that eventually included stereo equipment, color television sets, and personal computers. RadioShack offered electronic hobby kits and published its own line of electronics instruction books.

But by the 1990s, electronics was waning as a hobby. Bill Pretzer, curator of communications at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., blames the changing American workforce. A half-century ago, 41 percent of working Americans held mining, manufacturing, or construction jobs. Tinkering with machines came naturally. But by 2002, only 18 percent of the nation's workforce did such hands-on work.

''Even those who work in manufacturing don't put their hands on anymore," said Pretzer. ''They work at a keyboard."

Heathkit saw its customer base dwindle away. ''There was just a tremendous drop in demand for kit business," said Donald Desrochers, co-owner of Heathkit Co. He blames the plummeting cost of finished electronic products. As late as the 1980s, consumers could save money by building their own electronic gadgets. But a decade later, cheap television sets, stereos, and computers were flooding the US market. ''By '95, it was time to get out and get out quick," said Desrochers. Today Heathkit makes electronics education products for use in trade schools.

But there are signs that a new generation of geeks is taking up screwdrivers and soldering irons. After Fried published examples of her electronic gadgets on the Internet, readers asked for help in making their own. Now she and a friend run a small, profitable business producing kits that let amateurs assemble audio synthesizers and other electronic devices.

RadioShack, which like Heathkit abandoned its amateur electronics business, is getting back into the game with the Vex Robotic Design system, a build-it-yourself robot kit.

Vex was inspired by a high school science and technology competition founded by New Hampshire resident Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway electric scooter. RadioShack cosponsors the competition to encourage kids to pursue technology training. But because building a robot from scratch is too tough for many youngsters, the company designed a kit to simplify the process.

The $300 Vex system comes with a pile of parts, but only the most elementary instructions. Users are shown just enough to help them build a very simple robot. Then they're supposed to use any remaining parts, and their own imaginations, to come up with original designs.

There are other signs of a gearhead revival. ''We did a piece recently called Monster PC, where we built the biggest baddest computer we could put together with off-the-shelf parts," said Glenn Derene, associate editor of Popular Mechanics magazine. ''I think we got something like 30,000 responses." Many came from readers seeking tips on how they could assemble their own hot-rod PCs.

One of the nation's leading computer book publishers, O'Reilly Media Inc., thinks this uptick of interest in self-made technology is more than a passing fad. Indeed, O'Reilly has launched its first magazine in hopes of cashing in on the trend. Called Make, the glossy quarterly publication is crammed with articles and instructions on the making of a great variety of gadgets. A recent issue features hobbyists who have built their own versions of the Star Wars robots C-3PO and R2-D2.

But Make also offers simpler ideas, like how to control your home's thermostat at night using a nightlight, an extension cord, and a piece of kite string. Make editor Dale Dougherty came up with the idea for the magazine in 2003. He'd expected to pick up 10,000 subscribers in its first year. Instead, Make's most recent issue sold 50,000 copies, half of them to subscribers.

Some hobbyists like to build practical gadgets for everyday use. Others, like MIT robotics graduate students Dan Paluska, and Jessica Banks and research scientist Jackbackrack, are driven by an artistic urge. The trio built Fotron 2000. It's a tall cabinet that resembles the photo booths in a gaming arcade. But with Fotron, the picture you get is drawn by a robot that uses small lights to draw images on a piece of Polaroid film.

Fotron has been exhibited in a New York exhibition about robots in the arts. ''You can think of the robot as a painter or a sketch artist," Paluska said.

Banks, a former assistant to comedian and talk radio host Al Franken, studied physics and creative writing at the University of Michigan. A documentary about robots inspired her to enter the MIT robotics program, where she's working on her doctorate. But in her spare time, Banks works on Fotron and other electro-robotic gadgets. ''I tend to just love to create," she said.

Make publisher Dougherty said a new focus on hands-on electronics could inspire American youngsters who shun science and technology education. He said that today's typical university science department ''tends to select kids who are good at abstract reasoning, rather than kids who can build things." But Dougherty believes that given a set of tools and a box of parts, almost anyone can become a Maker. ''Part of it is more an attitude than an aptitude," he said. ''You go back to Edison. . . . He just tried things over and over."

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at  

Last modified: 12/05/14     All Rights Reserved, 2013 by Team Unlimited [FTC 0001]