BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 08:22 GMT, Friday, 19 June 2009 09:22 UK

DIY gadgetry


Meet the gadget hackers

By Angela Saini

Gadgets are things you save up and buy. After a while they break and you throw them away. There's nothing you can do about it, right? Wrong.

Paying for a much-loved electronic item to be repaired can cost a lot of money. Replacing them costs a lot too.

And as for creating your own gadgets, most consumers would probably feel a little out of their depth.

Endless curiosity is what links us all together - we hack because the thing we want doesn't already exist and we have the skills to make it
Jonty Wareing

There's a group of people out there who just aren't having it anymore. Welcome to the "hack space", where amateurs are discovering the joys of homemade technology.

Gadget makers, also known as hackers and tinkerers, have created an underground network that stretches from Argentina to New Zealand.

According to a database maintained by the website, there are more than 200 active or planned hack spaces in basements and warehouses around the world, stuffed with electronic parts and hundreds of metres of wire.

The US has the most hack spaces, but the UK is fast catching up. One of the largest of the UK's nine groups is London Hack Space, which has attracted more than 200 members since it launched in January.

Co-founder, Jonty Wareing, has invented, among other things, a colour-changing lamp that shows the weather.

Enthusiasts tinker
Making your own gadgets can be a cheap procedure

"Endless curiosity is what links us all together. We hack because the thing we want doesn't already exist and we have the skills to make it," he says.

The maze of electronics on a typical circuit board can be difficult to decipher, but as hackers and tinkerers grow in number, an industry and web community have emerged to provide them with instructions to make their work simpler.

"I didn't actually go to school for electronics," says Jimmie Rodgers, a hacker from Boston who sells his own DIY kits over the internet and makes electronic instruments in his spare time.

"I was under the assumption that building robots was extremely difficult and complicated, and that soldering was something dangerous. It's not."

Mr Rodgers sells some of his kits through Maker Shed, a US-based website where hackers can buy parts, books and magazines to help them construct their own technology.

Among other items for sale are a light-chasing "Mousebot", which can be built in a weekend, and a Japanese tea-serving robotic doll.

The HacknMod website also has step-by-step videos for projects, which include a video display for bicycle wheels made of light-emitting diodes, and motorised shoes that allow you to travel at 13mph.

Bucket of parts
Enthusiasts swap parts and information

The most tinkered-with objects tend to be toys or old appliances, which are easy to take apart. Modern gadgets, on the other hand, can be frustratingly difficult to hack.

Stuffed with complicated microelectronics and wrapped in sleek cases, manufacturers sometimes even discourage consumers from attempting to open them.

"By design, today's gadgets are not supposed to be fixed. They are meant to only work for two years, and then you throw them away," says Mr Rodgers, who would like to see more technology companies build products that are easier to fix and customise.

"If you take iPods for example, they only come with a one-year warranty. Apple don't usually fix them, just exchange. But now people are learning how to fix them, and even stocking the parts to do so online," he explains.


As recession bites, we may see more people mending gadgets or building their own rather than buying more expensive new ones, according to Edward Ryan, marketing manager for Gizoo, a Nottingham-based company that has been selling DIY gadgets for two years.

"We're empowering customers to take technology into their own hands and find cost-saving solutions to their problems," says Mr Ryan.

Mitch Altman, a San Francisco-based inventor of a one-button universal television remote, which people can build at home, adds: "With very complex, cheap, and plentiful electronics, people are throwing away things that are still very useable.

"For example, laptops and MP3 players have display screens that we throw away all the time. There are plenty of websites out there where people share how to take the screens out and re-use them - things that other people call garbage."

The joy I felt from building that radio could never be matched by buying a new one from the shops
Angela Saini

There is also a special kind of satisfaction in making or repairing a gadget, one that I can personally vouch for.

I was 18 when I first picked up a hot soldering iron. I was studying engineering at university and was expected to build a radio from scratch, not using ready-made components, but entirely from basic parts.

So I spent long days, burning my nails in the process, soldering snaky lengths of wire onto a messy circuit board, and fashioning a steel sheet into a primitive casing.

But makeshift though it was, the joy I felt from building that radio could never be matched by buying a new one from the shops.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I've just build an amplifier from bits, cost very little, musically sounds like thousands of pounds worth to me, satisfaction from success ... priceless :-)
Andy, Nottingham, UK

What a great piece of PR for so-called "geeks". The energy and enthusiasm of the people in the piece is infectious even for an old git like me who can barely switch on an iPod let alone repair it. We are plundering resources to make gadgets which are destined for landfill often in a matter of months.
James, Roden, Salop/UK

Fixing an iPod or building a radio would be useful but building and installing your own solar panel and sustainable energy source would be more rewarding, dontchathink?
Paul Newby, London

This is the new rock-n-roll kids. TV/radio and going out are for deadheads, hacking electronics is IN big time with the intelligentsia. I have an ever increasing collection of test equipment and design stuff which enables me to create all sorts of stuff.

Ironically I get much more challenge and sense of fulfilment hacking away at home rather than doing it for real at "work". I've worked in the electronics industry for years and found it soul destroying.
Dave Barraclough, Gloucester, England

Not sure why you find this blokes have been doing this for years - it's just a high tech garden shed!!!
Fred the Shed, Ipswich

This is really inspiring, it makes me wish I had an interest in taking things apart and putting them together to make something unique. Just fantastic, the unending ingenuity of the human race is delightful!
Ren, UK

I absolutely agree that things aren't designed for repair anymore. I've been taking things apart since I was 10 and putting them back together in working condition since I was 16. Unfortunately, as technology progresses people are regressing in equal measure and it is socially unacceptable to know how to so much change a washer on a leaking tap among most young adults.
Peter, Stowmarket, Suffolk

The screen on my laptop had an intermittent problem last year. Taking it apart, I found the cable between the motherboard and screen was getting worn through repeated opening and closing. It had a part number, but HP don't sell the cable individually, only the complete screen assembly for £650 (the laptop only cost £800 in 2001 and a reasonable replacement would be £350). So I left the cable exposed and occasional wiggling and prodding with a cocktail stick has kept it operational. The cable's getting worse due to this regular prodding but the laptop still suits all my needs, so I've bought a 2nd hand cable on eBay for less than £15 inc. p&p. Hopefully, I'll get another couple of years out of it! If HP sold the cable for a reasonable price, they'd have made some easy profit from me, but too many people give up, throw away and replace - which generates far better profits for the manufacturers/retailers.
Chris, Radlett, UK

When I was at primary school in the late 1960's my dad bought me the Ladybird book 'Build a transistor radio' together with the required components. We built it and then modified it to receive Radio 2 on long wave. From this inspired choice of birthday present has come a career that has seen me design and build submarine sonars, satellite earth stations and miniature satellite tracking devices. I also earn lots of brownie points for fixing broken gadgets at home and for friends.
Ian, Herefordshire, UK

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific