Making the Future

Inside the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation there is a sign that reads: Henry Ford’s Kitchen Sink Engine On December 24, 1893, Henry Ford carried his first experimental engine, made from bits of scrap metal, into the family kitchen and clamped it to the sink.

Inside the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation there is a sign that reads:
Henry Ford’s Kitchen Sink Engine

On December 24, 1893, Henry Ford carried his first experimental engine, made from bits of scrap metal, into the family kitchen and clamped it to the sink. His wife, Clara, fed gasoline to the intake valve while Henry wired the spark plug to an overhead light and spun the flywheel. The little engine coughed and then roared to life.

Silicon Valley may have its garage, but Detroit has the kitchen sink.

The day I was in the museum, I was surrounded by makers, by people young and old who were involved in making and doing things, creating everything from prosthetic 3D printed hands (a young man sitting at the table at which there were several of these devices explained that he and his colleagues make them primarily for kids in developing countries so that they can grip things; he said that those made by bona fide, big companies are typically way too expensive; the printed hands he and other makers produce are made for a few dollars) to radio-controlled, powered, life-size Minions that were rolling through the parking lot outside the museum to the delight of one and all. Some things serious. Some things whimsical. All things evincing a level of dedication, engagement and imagination that is absolutely encouraging to anyone who might have any doubts about the levels of ability and ingenuity that exists, particularly among the young. It was Maker Faire Detroit (makerfairedetroit.com).

There was Heavy Meta, a giant, metal fire-breathing dragon that appears to have been built by iron mongers. There were races of small vehicles that the participants built before the event. There were tents full of electronics and what those of us who don’t completely understand what we were looking at might describe as “gizmos.”

There was a display from a group of people from Louisville, Kentucky, LVL1 (lvl1.org), who had a banner that included the words: “Solder, Break, Repair, Make” and “Design, Create, Develop, Code.” On the one hand, physical, on the other, digital.

Somehow, it strikes me that the ethos of Henry Ford is absolutely captured by the first group of words and it might not be too great a leap to think that Steve Jobs would certainly respect the other group.

And what is absolutely great about that collection of words is that they are strong, active verbs: Doing. Beyond that, there seems to be an understanding that for makers, it is important that there are both pillars, not just one.

There are extensive efforts underway to promote STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Math—among young people. The notion, of course, is that they’ll otherwise be distracted by doing or pursuing other things, so by promoting STEM they’ll go in the right direction. 

What strikes me as absolutely encouraging is that the STEM programs have extensive involvement by people in industry, people who actually make their living by soldering and breaking and repairing and making and designing and creating and developing and coding.

More importantly, by people who do those things and who are sufficiently motivated to share what they know with young people.

It would probably be hard for some kids to accept that “physics are fun” or that “electronics are engaging.” Yet they are. Scratch that. They can be. They can be if they are presented in clever ways, not in some rote manner that makes one want to find the nearest exit. This is not to say that it isn’t important to learn the basics, the fundamentals, but by having the opportunity to do physical things and to be engaged in doing them is a great way to learn.

Chances are the reason that we know something about gravity is because of the story of young Isaac Newton being bopped on his melon by an apple, not because we have spent time perusing the Principia. (Perhaps knowledge of the apple leads one to the Principia.)

The future of the automotive industry is being created right now. It is being created not just in the labs and offices and studios where there are employees hard at it. It is being developed in maker spaces that are springing up. It is being developed by kids in basements writing code.

It is being developed by those who are figuring out ways to improve their skateboards. It is being developed by those who are taking low-cost 3D printing systems and deciding that it isn’t about printing just avatars, but things that can help young people the world over.

It is being developed by people who are working at their kitchen sinks.