Page last updated at 08:53 GMT, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

We are all makers and hackers

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News


Ellie Gibson finds a bubbly Twitter monitor and classic video game recreated from wood at Newcastle's Maker Faire

In the beginning, the word "hacker" had nothing to do with hi-tech crime.

Rather than describe a criminal who uses technology to defraud people it was a badge of honour, a mark that someone had a deep understanding of a technical subject - such as computer code.

Hackers were those that took things apart, saw how they worked and tried to make them better as they put them back together. Many hi-tech historians argue that without hackers there would be no internet.

And now the net is helping to sustain and grow that grassroots hacking culture, said Mark Frauenfelder, editor-in-chief of Make.

Dorkbot London/Manchester
Makers and Hackers
Manchester Craft Mafia

The quarterly magazine and its associated site detail all kinds of projects that let people get their hands dirty and build stuff themselves.

Recent projects featured in the magazine include ways to communicate secretly with lasers, cameras that can spot visiting wildlife and a teacup powered Stirling engine.

"The internet brings together communities that before were isolated," said Mr Frauenfelder. "If you are building tesla coils or self-balancing robots you are not going to find anyone on your block with that interest unless you are very lucky."

Ellie Gibson meets a flaming horse and versatile robot

The culture of tinkering has gained followers online as more and more people take things apart, put them back together and make new things.

The UK's growing band of tinkerers got together in early March in Newcastle for the first British Maker Faire.

Attending were many of the groups springing up in the UK that are bringing makers together: Dorkbot, Folksy, Makers and Hackers, Oomlout, Howduino and others had stands at the fair.

Compukit 101, John Honnibal
Many of the first computers arrived in kit form

On show was a fire-breathing robot horse, a motorised skateboard, a smart energy meter, self-hypnosis systems and DIY multi-touch displays.

John Honnibal, a veteran maker attending the show, said the rise of 21st Century home hacker-y harked back to the 1970s and 80s when all computers came in kit form.

"These were small scale so that one person can build them and understand how they work," he said.

The motto of the maker community is "If you can't open it, you don't own it" which underlines how important it is for hackers to get their hands dirty.

Sometimes the projects are frivolous, such as ways to turn a book into a covert camera, but others have more serious applications.

Some enterprising home hackers have taken apart the Kill-A-Watt gadget and improved it. The device measures the power consumed by household appliances plugged into it.

By taking it apart and adding wi-fi and other communication systems it becomes possible to monitor and manage power consumption at a distance.


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Many detail what they are doing via blogs, social network sites or the forums of the many home hacking sites that have sprung up.

Make, sites like and video shows such as Systm strive to break projects down into manageable chunks to show people how easy it can be to create stuff.

But, said Mr Frauenfelder, the guides are not supposed to be foolproof. Instead, he said, it was important for people to make mistakes.

"Schools push the idea that mistakes are a bad thing," he said, "but mistakes are part of the process."

"Failure is a really important part of the process as is learning that we are allowed to fail," he added.

Also, said Mr Frauenfelder, the net has helped people embarking on projects find tools, parts and materials.

No longer do hobbyists and home hackers have to scrabble around junk shops for the right size motor or linear actuator. Ebay has changed all that.

"Now you just order it online and it's in your house in a matter of days," he said.

Soldering at the Maker Faire
Making is very much a hands-on hobby

For Alex Watson, online editor of Custom PC, the rise of the net has been essential in helping many people "mod" or hack their PC into something more powerful or attractive than the basic beige box.

"I do not think it really would have existed much before the net came along because you would not have been able to get the bits or figure out how to do it," he said.

"If you were into liquid cooling your computer four to five years ago you would not have been able to buy a case and put all that stuff in it," he said "You would have had to drill the holes yourself to fit the radiators in."

Now, he said, the modding world is divided between those who go the aesthetic route and turn that machine into a work of art and those that just want to squeeze more performance out of it.

"Some people want to do it because it is cheaper or they want control over the hardware," he said.

And it is this urge to control that is among the most important parts of the maker movement, said Mr Frauenfelder.

"Western culture has forgotten that our hands have this full range of motion and ability to do things rather than just pressing game controller buttons and tap on a keyboard," he said.

"You gain a great sense of self-efficacy once you master things," he said. "It gives you confidence in other related areas and it builds upon itself.

"This is what we are evolved to do."

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