Editor lauds culture that made electronics last

Editor lauds culture that made electronics last

URBANA – Inveterate tinkerers haven't gone the way of your grandfather.

They're still around, building guitars out of cigar boxes and robots out of computer mice.

And some are creating more explosive things, like water rockets and potato cannons.

Mark Frauenfelder celebrates them in the pages of Make magazine, a quarterly publication that will soon branch into TV production.

Frauenfelder, the magazine's editor-in-chief, said that over the last 30 years, consumer electronics have become so cheap that if a TV has problems, its owner simply buys another one rather than fix the old one.

"That wiped out a generation of makers," he said.

By contrast, people in Third World countries are creative by necessity.

"People keep cars going in Cuba because they can't afford to buy a new one," he said.

That kind of society builds razors from pencils and razor blades, stilts from cans and strings, and toy race cars from glue bottles, he said.

A mechanical engineer by training, Frauenfelder is also a writer, illustrator and musician who lived a few months on the South Pacific island of Rarotonga. There, he learned to build coconut scrapers, among other things, and became much handier than he was before.

Speaking Tuesday to more than 100 University of Illinois students at the Siebel Center for Computer Science, Frauenfelder said "makers" tend to have a number of credos, including: "Never buy anything you can make, and never make anything you can find."

Frauenfelder said makers tend to be open people who generally want to share what they've made with others.

Making something, he said, helps you understand the environment and gives you control over technology so you don't have to accept the solutions you're handed.

Frauenfelder said he once asked Martha Stewart in an interview for Wired magazine why people make pies rather than buy them when pies are so readily available.

"You don't own a pie unless you make it," she told him.

Frauenfelder said today's "maker communities" are expanding for a variety of reasons. One is the Internet, which links makers not only with other inventive types but also with materials. In some areas, there are "farmer's markets" for makers, where tinkerers can swap parts and plans with other enthusiasts.

In coming years, Frauenfelder sees growth in "tool shop clubs" – similar to health clubs, except that instead of sharing treadmills and fitness equipment, members share drill presses and lathes.

Make magazine, published by O'Reilly Media, has a circulation of about 100,000, Frauenfelder said. Its articles range from how to build your own Star Wars robots to how to engage in aerial photography using Popsicle sticks, rubber bands, Silly Putty, a disposable camera and a kite.

Frauenfelder's speech was part of the DesignMatters lecture series on campus. It helped pave the way for Innovation Week, which runs Feb. 22 to 29. A highlight of the week will be the Illinois Innovation Tournament, in which student teams are given five days to produce something of great value from an everyday object.

Information on Innovation Week can be found at www.tec.uiuc.edu/iweek.

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