Slides from my talk at UW Fond du Lac on May 13th, 2015. The theme for the academic year was DIY and I was invited to talk about my experiences.
Below are the notes I wrote up before the talk. I didn’t follow the script exactly, but used it as a guideline for talking points.
DIY to MWO by Pete Prodoehl
From “Doing It Yourself” to “Making With Others”
When I was a kid I got this box of old flashbulbs. A flashbulb is sort of like a lightbulb, and I knew how lightbulbs worked because I had a flashlight. You put a battery and some wires on a lightbulb and it lights up. Well, if you put a battery on a flashbulb it sort of blows up, but in a safe way, with a big flash of light. As a kid, I thought this was pretty cool, but who wants to connect a battery to a flash bulb? That’s not cool, so I made a flashbulb gun. Now, before I get into this, I need to explain that my dad had a basement workshop, and I spent a lot of time in that workshop, usually when he was at work. I probably did a lot of stupid things with power tools that I shouldn’t have, but I still have 10 fingers, so I guess it all worked out. Anyway, I took a piece of pipe and made a gun barrel, and shaped a piece of wood into a handle, and somehow I wired up a battery and stuffed it into the handle and painted it all glossy black and then I had a flashbulb gun.
I don’t have any photos of the flashbulb gun, so here’s a rough digital illustration I created last night.
Now a flashbulb gun is a totally ridiculous thing to make, at least I think it is, but at the time I thought it was the coolest thing to make. As a bored kid, you come up with crazy ideas, and sometimes you try those ideas, and hopefully if it all works out you still have ten fingers when you’re done.
When I was a bit older, probably 14 years old, I bought a motorized gearbox from American Science and Surplus. It had two motors in it, and if you hooked up a battery to one of the motors it would spin. If you flipped the battery it would spin the opposite direction. I did what any 14 year old would do, I started to design a robot. Now, I somehow decided this robot should be about three feet tall, and have a wooden platform for the base, and a sheet of aluminum for the body, and a head, and even an arm with a gripper hand made from wood with a solenoid to close the gripper. These were all amazing ideas that would never ever work.
Oh, I even decided that I could use an Apple ][+ to control a bunch of relays to turn the motors on and off to make the robot move. Hey, it was the 1980s, there were no Arduinos yet, and the World Wide Web didn’t exist, so I basically just kept trying things until they worked or until I gave up… Most of the time I gave up because they didn’t work because I was a dumb kid who didn’t know any better. Being a dumb kid who doesn’t know any better offers a huge advantage though, and you are willing to try things you don’t know are not possible.
Don’t worry… we’ll talk about MakerBot later.
I should mention that I always liked art. When I was a kid I liked drawing, and making things with LEGOs, and well, the typical stuff kids like to do. I would also make collages, and back when Ronald Reagan was president I made this entire collection of images from the newspaper where it was a photo of Reagan with a word bubble and some crazy caption I would come up with. I wasn’t a big fan of Reagan, probably because at the time I was getting into punk rock, and bands like the Dead Kennedys and subversive art like the stuff Winston Smith was doing. I got this idea that you could make art by just taking anything and smashing it all together somehow. Cut up newspapers and magazines and glue them together and you had something new and exciting. This is what the kids call a “mashup” today I guess.
At some point I should mention that I’m a cheap bastard. Being DIY is a bit easier if you’re a cheap bastard, or if you’re really controlling, or if you’re really naive. All of those things help.
When I really got into what I would call a DIY scene, it revolved around punk rock, which is fitting, because punk rock always had an attitude of “anyone can do this”, and didn’t rely on people being able to sing, or play guitar, or even tune a guitar… it relied on people who were willing to get out there and just do it. (And this was way before Nike ever used that as a slogan.)
Before I played in any bands I started publishing zines. For those of you who don’t know, zines are like magazines, only smaller, and they were usually photocopied, and sold pretty cheap or traded for another zine or a taco or something. Zines were done by people who loved to make things and share them with the world. No one made money from zines, just like playing in a punk band, it was a labor of love. I think I published more than 40 zines over the years, starting out as tiny smudgy bits of folded paper and moving on to more polished things that were designed using desktop publishing tools of the early 1990s. Along the way I also played in bands, mostly terrible, but a lot of fun, and there was always something new to learn. I learned how to book a tour, how to run a multitrack recorder and mix a multitrack recording (and yes, this too was all before we had computers to make these things easy.) I learned all these things by trying them, and doing them. The results weren’t always the greatest, but with every new experience there was something new to be learned.
I like to stress that I’m a huge fan of failure. I’ve failed a lot in life, but I like to keep the attitude that as long as you learn something along the way, even if that something is “what not to do” it’s not really a failure.
OK, so I was playing in punk rock bands, and putting out zines, and then I also made flyers, and weird pieces of art… and then there were t-shirts. While I was in college I worked at a screen printing company, and I learned a lot about designing for screen printing, and more importantly, how to screen print things. I ended up screen printing shirts for every local band that my friends were in, and at one point a touring band came through town, and I was able to design their shirts, burn a screen, drive to Target with them and buy all the plain undershirts we could find, and then print the shirts in my friend’s backyard in Madison before they played a show in the basement. I think one of the band members described the entire thing which we did in less than 24 hours as “Punk Fucking Rock”.
Sorry for saying the “F” word, but since I did, I’ll also show you this……
Book Your Own Fucking Life, was a book put out by Maximum Rock N Roll and it consisted of lists of addresses and phone numbers you could use if you were a punk kid who wanted to book a show, or book a tour, or get 7” records pressed, or tapes made, or stickers, or whatever. It was like the Yellow Pages for the DIY music scene. And hey, it was only a dollar or two. (Of course those were 1993 dollars.
So that’s a big part of how I got into the idea of Doing It Yourself. Punk Rock. Doing things because you want to do them, and because you didn’t know any better, and you thought anything was possible. Maybe that was just youthful idealism, but I hope not.
Anyway, most of my actual career took place in the digital realm. I ended up working on probably 200 web sites over the last 20 years, and eventually I worked at a small marketing firm where I honed my skills in photography and audio and video production. Those were things I was doing on my own before, but it was nice to work with others who were really good at those things and who I could learn from. Pretty much everything I learned there I went on to do on my own as well. For the things I make, I always document them with photos, and if I need to shoot a video, I can do that too.
I should mention that I’ve also been blogging since 1997 and tend to share a lot of the project I do and the things I make with others.
Making digital things was exciting for a while, but eventually I wanted to make REAL things. Real world things, things you could hold in your hands and touch and experience. I ended up getting involved with Milwaukee Makerspace, which started out as a group of about a dozen guys who would meet up and talk about making things. A few of them were robot builders, some were into electronics, a few just liked building weird things, like electric cars. And at the beginning there were a few system admins and programmers, computer guys. People who worked with digital things all day long, and yearned to make real things on the nights and weekends. These were my people!
Here’s a quick rundown of Milwaukee Makerspace. It started in 2009 and it was a good year and a half before they had a space. A lot of people get excited about creating a makerspace and say “I have a great space!” but in reality, you want a great community first, not a great space. A great community will support a space, even a crappy space, which is what we had. The first space was in a dirty old factory building in Milwaukee. It had been used for some sort of industrial grinding and everything was filthy all the time. But it was a space. All sorts of equipment got moved in for people to use. A new member joined and said he had a half dozen wood working machines in storage because he had nowhere to use them. They showed up at the space and everyone could use them. Another new member joined and said that his boss had an old laser cutter that they didn’t use anymore, then we had a laser cutter. They another member said he had an old laser cutter he wasn’t using anymore, then we had two laser cutters. That’s pretty much how it worked. No one ran out and spent thousands of dollars on new equipment, we got old equipment that broke a lot and we figured out how to fix it.
Tools and equipment are great, but if all you’ve got is a space full of equipment and no one that knows how to use it, well, that’s not much of a makerspace. The number one most important ingredient you need, is people. You need a community of makers, and tinkerers, and hackers, and people with crazy ideas that don’t know any better or know just enough to be dangerous.
So, I wanted to talk about making with others. A makerspace might have group projects, and it might have classes, but the most important part of being a member at a makerspace is being around other makers. You might really like to work on your own projects, and maybe you want to do it all yourself, and that’s ok, but at some point, you’ll need something… you’ll need to know how to etch a circuit board, or use a CNC mill, or weld one piece of metal to another piece of metal, and if you’ve got a community of makers, people who LOVE to make, and love to share their skills and knowledge with others, you’re in a good position, and you’re going to learn to etch a circuit board, and how to use a CNC mill, and how to weld a piece of metal to another piece of metal. These things just seem to naturally happen.
Oh, I forgot to mention MakerBot… I should mention that I am not an engineer. I studied art and design, and I’m a hacker and a maker, not an engineer. The guys who started MakerBot said that when they were trying to build a 3D printer, they just kept trying, and trying, and failing, and trying, and it was a good thing none of them were engineers because they would have known that what they were trying to do was almost impossible, and they would have quit long before they ever built a reliable 3D printer. (Some would say they never built a reliable 3D printer, but that’s a debate for another day.)
Obviously a makerspace isn’t the only place these things can happen. I’m currently enrolled in an MFA program at UW Milwaukee with a focus on Digital Fabrication and Design. I work in a lab on campus called the DCRL, or Digital Craft Research Lab, and I spend a lot of time in there sharing what I know with students. A lot of what I share is knowledge I’ve gained from failed projects. I’ve become more careful though, because the last thing I want to do is stifle their creativity. I tend to say things like “Well, you could do that, but you might also want to look at this” and other somewhat-helpful and somewhat-vague things. If I come right out and say “That won’t work, do this instead” there’s no real opportunity to learn something new through the process of failing. Again, failing isn’t bad, as long as you learn something along the way.
If you don’t have a real-world community of makers, that’s ok, because we’ve got this thing called the World Wide Web, which we didn’t have back when I was a weird kid trying to build a robot with a piece of Aluminum siding and a wooden solenoid powered gripper. The Internet is completely filled with people and projects and web sites and blogs and videos all showing you how to do things, and how not to do things, and just waiting for you to share the awesome things you make.
And once you share that thing that you make, there’s a good chance you’ll inspire someone else to make something, and to share the thing that they made, and it just goes around and around, and that’s the kind of world I want to live in, one where we create things and inspired each other.
And now… let’s share!
[Show all the rest of the slides and talk about them...]