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Dan Crow


The Return of the Tinkerer

Posted: 12/05/2012 00:00

Tinkerer: a person who enjoys fixing and experimenting with machines and their parts.

In 1814, a man named George from a small village in Northumberland built something that was to change the world. He started out as a humble colliery worker, working at nights fixing clocks and mending shoes to make more money for his family. He was the classic British tinkerer, largely self-taught and with a passion for understanding how things worked and how they could be made better. He ended up inventing some of the key technologies of the industrial revolution.

Most notably, George Stephenson perfected the steam locomotive and ushered in the Railway Age. Before the locomotive, most people never travelled beyond the immediate vicinity of the village where they were born. Suddenly travel and communication became available to everyone. The world was transformed by this Geordie tinkerer - indeed even the term 'Geordie' refers to George.

There is a strong tradition of tinkerers in the computer world. Many of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley started from humble origins - famously both Hewlett Packard and Apple were founded in garages. In the UK, the first generation of hobbyist programmers sprang up in the early 1980s as the first affordable personal computers arrived. The most successful of these early machines, the BBC Micro range and the line of computers from Clive Sinclair strongly encouraged the tinkerer mindset. They were operated using the BASIC programming language, immediately exposing every user to simple programming. They had expansion ports that encouraged you to plug in and build external hardware - an early Sinclair advert even claimed their ZX81 could be used to control a nuclear power station; fortunately this claim was never tested in practice.

Personal computers rapidly grew in power and complexity. Graphical user interfaces were developed to hide this complexity from users and harness the power of improved hardware in an easy to use way. These user interfaces, pioneered on computers like the Acorn Archimedes and Apple Macintosh, were an unmistakable improvement, but they are harder to program and this led to the professionalisation of programming. It became harder for hobbyists and tinkerers to play and learn these much more complex programming environments. During the 1990s and early 2000s computers became largely the realm of professionals, as the personal computer became the work computer. Even computer games became something you needed a large team of highly educated specialists to develop instead of something an amateur could make in their bedroom.

In the last decade and especially the last few years, we have seen a swing back towards to tinkerer, the hobbyist and the hacker. Simpler systems that encourage anyone to play and try out new ideas are much more common.

This trend started with the rise of the web. It is easy to build a simple web site; you don't need a degree in computer science to master HTML. The open source movement rose alongside the web. Open source software is free, allowing everyone to use it and critically to modify it. This is the key for tinkerers: with free software, everyone sees how the software works, can learn from it and improve it. Open source software often develops a community of like minded people who you can exchange ideas with - a key component of the computer magazines and clubs that grew up around the early personal computers.

Most recently we have seen the wildly popular Raspberry Pi launched. This fully-fledged computer costs just £21.60 - it's so cheap that it can be bought for pocket money. Virtually anyone can buy one just to play around. It's designed for the tinkerer: fun and easy to program, easy to plug in external hardware, cheap enough that if your experiment fries it, you can just buy another. The Pi manufacturers are running flat out to meet demand for these marvellous little machines. A community of hobbyists is growing up fast - the MagPi magazine has just launched and there are Pi blogs, forums and email lists springing up all over the net.

The return of the tinkerer is wonderful. I started out as an enthusiastic amateur playing with a ZX81 and then a BBC Micro. I enjoyed tinkering so much that I went into a career in computer programming that has taken me to Silicon Valley and back, via New York. Its not a bad way to make a living. The Raspberry Pi will make computers truly personal again and, I hope, spawn the next generation of technologists and entrepreneurs in bedrooms and garages across Britain.


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