Shade Tree Tech: Makers in the 21st Century
In the 1970s, it seemed like everybody’s parent was busy with some kind of project in the driveway or the den. Maybe dad was bleeding the car’s brakes to get the air out of the hydraulic line. Or maybe he was setting its timing with a timing gun. Some parents made color TVs or hi-fi audio sets with do-it-yourself kits from Heathkit. As automobiles became higher-tech and better made and as electronics got cheaper and cheaper, the days of shade tree mechanics and electronic tinkers passed. It has been years since masses of average people worked on and made things at home. But in the past couple of years, it looks like the beginnings of a new 21st century shade tree maker culture is taking hold all over the world. There are a lot of factors that account for this: ultra-cheap electronics manufacturing, open-source software, and easy online project collaboration among others. Whatever the reason, there are exciting things going on in home computers and just about anybody can play this game!
There is an exciting combination of factors that make it extremely cheap for you to get just the hardware you need for a fun project to your house in time for the weekend. The integrated global supply chain, brutal competitive pressures that drive the price of components to rock-bottom levels, and online shopping that allows you to find and buy the exact right part from an inventory of 10,000 parts – these factors all play a role. There are a number of idealistic entrepreneurs who share the goal of getting children and other average people interested in electronics building and software coding. The UK-based makers of Raspberry Pi (https://www.raspberrypi.org) manufacture and sell the cheapest possible CPUs, enabling you to make mini-computers for a virtually endless range of projects. Adafruit (https://www.adafruit.com) is a NYC-based online electronics emporium founded by an MIT-trained engineer. You can find practically anything electronic that you can imagine at Adafruit. Finally, Arduino (https://www.arduino.cc), based in Italy, produces open-source hardware and software for a huge range of electronics projects.
Open source software
The broad market demand for all that hardware is driven in large part by the fact that the software needed to make the hardware useful is so widely and conveniently available. And best of all, it’s free! Driving most of these projects is the Linux operating system, originally developed by Linus Torvalds of Finland. While most of the operating systems before Linux were proprietary – like the Mac OS and MSDOS – Torvalds creating Linux from the beginning to be free of charge, open to change and development by anyone, and easily accessible online. Linux is at the root of the Android OS and is constantly being improved by a mass global community of programmers. You can use it too!
Easy Project Collaboration
Some people want to make their own printer server, others might want to make a wireless router, still others are interested in home automation and want to design their own system to automatically adjust the thermostat, control the lights and run the home security system. Whatever you are interested in, chances are somebody (a lot of somebodies in fact!) has done it before. You do not have to re-invent the wheel. GitHub (https://github.com) allows easy project collaboration across teams. No matter what your project or skill level, it is extremely helpful to be able to compare notes with others who have worked on the same thing. A GitHub repository can include software, hardware suggestions and links, notes on assembly – just about any kind of tip or pointer you might need.
If you’re curious about micro-computer hobby work and what can be accomplished at home, come see us and let’s talk!