Make something! Fix something!

Clive Thompson: I’m sitting on the floor of my apartment, surrounded by electronic parts… It’ll look awesome when it’s done. If it ever gets done — I keep botching the soldering. A well-soldered joint is supposed to look like a small, shiny volcano. My attempts look like mashed insects, and they crack when I try to assemble the device.

Why am I so inept? I used to do projects like this all the time when I was a kid. But in high school, I was carefully diverted from shop class when the administration decided I was college-bound. I stopped working with my hands and have barely touched a tool since.

I can relate a little too well.I think part of the reason I was misunderstood for so much of my career was because I used to do stuff like this. I still remember the day when a new OS arrived for my Amiga 2000. It came on a ROM chip (remember those?) and some floppies to install. I had the Amiga completely disassembled, sitting on Dad’s orange OMT table in the basement. Dad came downstairs, his eyes got big and his jaw dropped, he pointed, and then looked at me. “You going to be able to get that back together?”

I barely looked up. “Yep,” I said, continuing whatever I was doing.

Granted, the Amiga’s design made it look like an onerous task–you had to remove the power supply, the assembly that held all the disk drives, and at least one plug-in card to get at the ROM chip I needed to replace. But at this point, I’d disassembled at least a couple of PC/XTs even further than that. It wasn’t long before I’d replaced all those parts that were strewn about Dad’s table and fitted them back into the case, just as they all belonged. I powered it up, and immediately knew I was successful–all those royal blue screens of Amiga DOS 1.3 were replaced with the gray screens of 2.1.

Dad watched me put it back together, and although he didn’t say much, I think he was impressed.

That wasn’t the only modification I did to that computer. Amigas operated a bit differently in Europe and in North America because of the differing video standards. Software designed for European Amigas didn’t always run right. There was a soldered jumper on the motherboard to switch between PAL and NTSC operation. I bought a small slide switch from Radio Shack, soldered a couple of wires to the motherboard, and ran them to the switch, which I hung out an opening next to the mouse port. Elegant? Not at all. Functional? Totally.

There were tons of homebrew projects for Amigas in the early 1990s. Some worked better than others. But you learned a lot from them. And I think that’s part of the reason I look at things differently than people who grew up with Macintoshes (a closed black box if there ever was one) and PCs. Sure, people have been assembling their own PCs from components for 20 years now (ever since PC Magazine declared on a cover that you could build your own PC/AT clone for $1,000). But there’s a subtle difference between assembling components and modifying them. No two 286 motherboards were the same, while the design of Amiga motherboards tended to change very little, giving lots of time for people to study and learn to tweak them.

So while the PC owners were swapping their motherboards, we Amigans were tweaking ours to give ourselves new capabilities on the cheap. And in the process I think we were learning more.

So I agree with Clive Thompson that I’m a lot less likely to take a salesperson’s claims at face value. And I think that gave me a lot less patience with people who are. With only one exception I can think of, I always worked well with (and for) people who’d taken a soldering gun directly to a motherboard or programmed in assembly language. Thanks to these rites of passage, we had a much better idea of how things worked. And it gave a certain sense of skepticism. Commodore’s own engineers didn’t know the full capability of the machines they built. So if the engineers who design a system can’t know everything about it, then what on earth can a mere sales drone know?

And that’s why I’m reluctant to buy anything that’s just a black box if I can avoid it. What if it breaks and needs to be fixed? What if I need to change something about how it looks or works? And besides that, if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, I don’t want to just throw it out and buy a new one–I paid good money for it!

But I have my limits. A few years ago I checked out some books on repairing Lionel trains from the library. The books suggested using mineral spirits to clean out the old grease and oil from a motor and bring it back to life. That would be good advice, except for one thing: I had no idea what mineral spirits were (a kind of paint thinner), or where to buy them (a paint store or the paint aisle of a hardware or discount store). And have you ever tried to punch it into Google? Trust me, in 2003, there weren’t many answers. The Wikipedia article didn’t exist until 2005.

I’m sure there are lots of people who are laughing at me because I didn’t know what mineral spirits are. But I’ll bet you that if you were to go find my 120 or so high school classmates and separate out the males who lived in the suburbs whose fathers were white-collar workers, the overwhelming majority of them would have no idea what mineral spirits are either. Why not?

Because when we were growing up, we were college-bound. People like us didn’t need to know what mineral spirits are. We needed to know things like the fact that there’s no such thing as the square root of a negative number. (Yes, I know that’s not a correct statement–but those were the exact words of my Algebra II teacher, and those words cost me a lot a couple of years later.)

I even remember one time, a group of us were talking about something, and one classmate’s name came up. “He’s going to end up being a plumber,” someone snickered.

Never mind that the last time I had to call a plumber, my plumber most certainly made more money than I made that year, and he probably got a head start on me because he didn’t have to go to college for four years either.

One of the reasons plumbers make a good living is because so many people don’t even know how to shut off the water valve when their toilet leaks, let alone how to go about fixing that leaky toilet. For the record, I can shut off the water valve, but I don’t know how to fix the toilet. I’m hoping they’ll show me on This Old House sometime.

My gripe with DIY books today is that the authors don’t necessarily realize that there are one or possibly even two or three generations of readers who may very well not know the difference between a wood screw and a machine screw. They don’t learn it in school, and Dad might or might not know, but in an age when fewer couples marry and divorce rates are sky high, is Dad even around to tell them any of this stuff?

Today, I couldn’t care less about imaginary numbers. But I’m reading old DIY books, desperately trying to learn the lost arts of making and fixing things. Thanks to Disney and other useless companies, I can’t use a computer to locate digital copies of anything newer than 1922. That’s a shame, because it condemns all of the DIY books of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s to obscurity. They won’t be reprinted because there isn’t enough market for them, they aren’t worth the expense of hiring a lawyer to find out if they somehow slipped into the public domain before the laws started really changing in the 1970s, and they’re scarce enough that you won’t always find them where old books lurk, making them a bit more difficult to borrow or purchase.

That all but eliminates a golden age, limiting me to 1922 and earlier. But admittedly it’s very interesting to read how people made and fixed things in the decades immediately before and after the turn of the previous century. So many books today start out with a list of exotic and expensive tools before they tell you how to do anything. One hundred years ago, people didn’t have as much money to spend on tools, and since things like electricity weren’t necessarily always available, there weren’t nearly as many exotic and expensive tools to buy either.

I found an incredible quote in an 1894 book by Charles Godfrey Leland, a teacher and author from Philadelphia. “It is much better not to have too many implements at first, and to learn to thoroughly master what one has, and to know how to make the utmost of them. This leads to ingenuity and inventiveness, and to developing something which is even better than artistic skill.”

That’s not just good advice for metalworking, which was the subject of this particular book. That’s an excellent philosophy of life.

Unfortunately right now I have more time to read than I have to tinker. But I think once I have a little time to tinker again, I’ll be able to make some nice stuff. And maybe someday when someone says they don’t make ’em like they used to, I’ll be able to smile and say that I do.

%d bloggers like this:
WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux