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The Tinkerers

Fenella Saunders

THE TINKERERS: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great. Alec Foege. Basic Books, 2013. $26.99.

When we say someone is tinkering with something, the connotation is that they are aimlessly messing around, perhaps without really knowing what they are doing. In The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great, Alex Foege uses a different definition of the term: He takes tinkering to mean building something out of existing, available parts for an entirely new purpose. It is, he writes, “a disruptive act” that “emanates from a place of passion or obsession,” often with results that challenge the status quo. Foege backs up this somewhat subversive-sounding definition with historical examples: Benjamin Franklin and the creation of the U.S. postal service, Thomas Harris MacDonald and the U.S. highway system, Steve Jobs and Apple computers.

“America’s tinkering tradition has always been a key part of its ongoing greatness,” Foege writes, but he worries that the tradition is now being squashed by the country’s corporate culture. Corporations, he says, would rather have you buy a new item than try to fix your old one. Many people are discouraged from taking apart their electronic gizmos by manufacturers’ threats that doing so will void the warranty. Foege feels that the freedom to tinker needs to be revived in order for the nation to progress, and he discusses several education initiatives designed with this goal in mind, such as Dean Kamen’s FIRST robotics competition and an alternative education program in California called the Tinkering School.

For a book that lauds tinkering, however, The Tinkerers devotes a lot of discussion to its failures. George Washington was an unsuccessful tinkerer, especially regarding a canal system he worked on. Thomas Edison, as prolific an inventor as he was, couldn’t capitalize on his invention of the phonograph. Xerox didn’t pay attention when their research arm came up with the first personal computer. And then there is what Foege calls “virtual tinkering,” which produces intellectual property instead of physical devices. Some cases have been very successful, such as the invention of the MP3 music format and the Angry Birds video game. But he blames the recent financial collapse—and even the loss of the Vietnam War—on virtual tinkering gone bad. Perhaps these examples are meant to serve as guidelines for future efforts.

As its title implies, the book’s focus is on the United States, and its patriotic tones may wear on some readers. Nonetheless, in his discussion of the MP3 format—whose first iteration was developed by German audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg—Foege notes, “the story . . . is one of painstaking tinkering that might not have been able to occur in the current-day United States.” And he is not the only writer to have considered this subject of late; interested readers should also see Jack Hitt’s Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character (Crown Publishers, 2012).

Foege points out traits that many cases of successful tinkering share, such as working in small groups in which everyone brings unique strengths to the process, and avoiding large-scale test marketing, which can override tinkerers’ gut feelings. But he doesn’t try to find the perfect formula for an ideal tinkerer. Instead of urging U.S. citizens to become a nation of tinkerers, he has a more modest hope: to inspire people to incorporate more of the tinkering mindset into their everyday lives—and the lives of their children.

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