The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great

  • Alec Foege
  • Basic Books
  • 208 pp.
  • Reviewed by Clyde Linsley
  • March 5, 2013

A history of technological tinkering in the US, and a call to budding inventors and innovators to forge ahead despite corporate America’s increasing, and sometimes intimidating, presence in the arena.

Every now and then I amuse myself by imagining what might happen if Ben Franklin were still with us and seeking financing for his new lightning rod. It wouldn’t be a pretty picture:

“Let me get this straight, Dr. Franklin. This … metal rod goes on your roof to attract lightning? Why would I want to do that?”

“To ground it, sir, thereby rendering it harmless. Lightning would strike the rod and follow a conductor to the earth and …”

“Lightning is an act of God. Are you trained in theology?”

“No, sir.”

“Then what are your credentials for this outlandish claim? Really, sir.”

“I’ve done extensive experimentation in …”

“Come, sir. We’re going to need more than this. Our advice to you would be to acquire some expert advice, perhaps from a professor of theology. You can’t expect to come here with no

credentials and expect us to give you money, just like that …”

Not a pretty picture and one that Alec Foege apparently would like to correct. In The Tinkerers, he argues for a return to the tradition of Ben Franklin, Thomas Alva Edison, the Wright Brothers, and countless others.

Some of these tinkerers had the benefit of training in engineering and in the scientific disciplines. Some but not all. Others follow in the hallowed tradition of Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright and Benjamin Franklin, none of whom had much in the way of serious schooling. (Orville and Wilbur were high school graduates, which is more than could be said of Edison or Franklin.)

“While there’s no doubt that much of the innovation occurring today is in the realm of technology,” Foege writes, “I believe that a society overly focused on acquiring specialized technical skills, or indeed specialized skills of any kind, loses the ability to think big. I worry that we have become a nation of specialists, the enemies of true tinkering.”

Foege offers anecdotal evidence of successful ventures that grew seemingly from less fertile soil. One of the more interesting cases is Angry Birds, the computer game, which was born in a tiny shop in Finland at the hands of a small coterie of students at the University of Helsinki, and now, through the auspices of the I-Phone, seems poised to take over the world.

For most of the history of the United States, one of its bywords — almost a substitute motto, suitable for framing and hanging beside the portrait of George Washington — was: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Today, it could be argued, this motto has largely been displaced by another: “Product contains no user-serviceable components.”

Alec Foege’s heroes are the people who regularly disregard this warning, who not only “service” those components but frequently redirect them to perform functions their manufacturers never countenanced — or even imagined. Foege’s book is an interesting contribution to the history of technology. But along the way, he seems to have lost his way.

To a great extent, we have become a throwaway nation. We use things until they quit working, or until we grow tired of them, and then we throw them away in favor of newer, snazzier models. Foege apparently believes we don’t have to be that way and that, indeed, a new generation of “tinkerers” is rising. These tinkerers — people who habitually take things apart in their curiosity to see how they work — are responsible, in Foege’s eyes, for much of America’s reputation for innovation and technological advancement.

The tinkering “revolution” apparently still has some distance to go, however. Foege spends considerable time and space discussing a number of examples of financial backing organizations, some of which are interesting in an academic sort of way. He is less helpful when it comes to examples of serious successful tinkering. His premise would be more believable if he could offer more examples of real-life present-day tinkerers.

I doubt that the scarcity of examples is Foege’s fault. Examples may exist, but I suspect there are fewer than he would like. If innovation has become largely the precinct of the big boys, technology seems to be a barrier for the corporate world, as well. The capital requirements of technological development today are indeed immense, and the rewards — Eastman Kodak can attest to this — aren’t always commensurate with the expense, or the risk.

But the message Foege tries to deliver is nevertheless worth heeding. Tinkering is too important to be left to nations like Iran and North Korea. If encouraging widespread tinkering will help us redress the imbalance, it’s probably worth a serious look at what we can do to improve the odds.

Clyde Linsley trained as a journalist and spent over 20 years writing non-fiction.  He is the author of Death of a Mill Girl, Saving Louisa and Die Like a Hero, set in antebellum America.


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