Steve Hoefer is a San Francisco-based inventor and creative problem solver with nearly 20 years of experience. He’s contributed projects to the pages of MAKE, including his Indestructible LED Lanterns, Secret-Knock Gumball Machine, and Haptic Wrist Rangefinder. He’s also active in the open source hardware and software communities and is a super nice guy.
One project you’re particularly proud of:
1. The Secret Knock Gumball Machine. A lot of the things I do are for a specific audience or solving a specific problem, but the Secret Knock Gumball Machine has something for everyone and it manages to make candy more fun. It has a feel of forbidden magic to it. It’s not immediately obvious how it works, but you get to see how the trick is done. It’s mechanically and technically pretty simple — you can build your own! I still regularly get messages from people, usually young people, who are inspired by it and have used it as their own springboard into making.
Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from:
1. The first one is one I didn’t learn from. I didn’t fight it when my math teachers thought teaching me was a waste of time. My primary and secondary school math teachers were not effective, and I didn’t complain when they put me in alternative (non-math) classes. I should have been more involved in my math education and asked my teachers to challenge me more, or simply invested more effort into it. Having a stronger, more confident base in mathematics is something I could use every single day. It’s a lot harder to catch up with some of that learning as an adult.
2. Second is not bringing in an expert. I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count and I still fight with it. I come from a very DIY background and I’m really curious, so I want to know how everything works and how to do it. That means that I take on tasks that I hate or are much better suited to a domain expert. I’ll spend hours/days/weeks trying to learn how to do something I don’t want to do, or that an expert can do better and faster. While it’s great to learn a new skill, sometimes it’s not a good investment. Trying to do it all myself keeps me from working with some really great experts and soaks up my time that keeps me from working on more projects.
Three new ideas that have excited you most lately:
1. Crowdfunding. Kickstarter gets a lot of love and hate, but the idea is powerful and transformative. It takes the idea of patronage away from popes and kings supporting a handful of artists, and lets anyone support the people and projects that they enjoy. Project flame-outs get a lot of attention, but everyday sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and RocketHub are making things possible that couldn’t happen any other way. I’m really keeping my eye on how it will change science. Projects like uBiome and sites like PetriDish and Microyza are ways for scientists to do important research that government and industry ignore, while giving ordinary people an ability to directly contribute to science.
2. Small-scale or personal factories. Makers creating machines that extend their creativity and making power. The explosion of hobbyist 3D printers, CNC mills, etc., is creating standardized and affordable motion control. Combining them with more sensors, cameras, increased dexterity, etc., you can create custom machines that make complex objects. A good example of a project dipping its toes in that water is DIWire, an open source CNC-controlled wire bender.
3. Tomorrow. I’m hugely optimistic about the future. The world’s not perfect, but historically, earthlings are living longer, healthier, more productively, and more peacefully than they ever have, and I can’t wait to see how much further we can go. Humans in orbit and robots on Mars are sharing pictures that come directly to our pockets. Other robots are being controlled directly from people’s minds. We’re 3D printing cartilage and blood vessels. There is a private space race to mine asteroids. We have flying cars, jetpacks, and hovercraft (though it turns out they’re not practical in most situations). My only worry is that reality is outstripping science fiction’s ability to make up new things.
Four tools you can’t live without:
1. Dremel rotary tool. My Dremel model 395 is durable, portable, and I use it in some way on most projects. I have mounts that turn it into a drill press and a router. I’ve even used it as a tiny lathe.
2. Ryoba (Japanese pull saw). It has a crosscut blade on one side, rip blade on the other. The blade is thin so the kerf is small, and the blades are replaceable. Since it cuts on the pull of the stroke the saw won’t flex when cutting, and it makes straighter cuts with less fatigue than a standard wood saw. My 300mm Gyokucho gets the most use, but I have a 100mm one for special occasions. Great on wood, plastic, and other non-ferrous materials.
3. DLSR. My smartphone works for photos when I’m in a pinch, but when I want a project to look really nice I can’t beat the control and options of a DSLR. At the moment I use a Nikon D5100, which I really like. It’s more affordable than the true professional-grade cameras, but has the same sensor and most of the features of the higher-end models. It works with all the past (and future) Nikon lenses and it shoots great-looking video as well.
4. Sleep. I can’t count the number of problems that have become manageable or vanished altogether after a good night’s sleep. Being well rested gives me patience and optimism I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Five people/things that have inspired your work:
1. The Apollo program. I was only a few months old when Apollo 17 took the last people home from the moon, but the brainpower, engineering, research, and design that were applied to the problem were unprecedented. It shows that motivated people can come together to make positive things happen. They solved problems that seemed impossible only a few years before. Seeing the things that SpaceX and Copenhagen Suborbitals are working on today gives me similar inspiration.
2. Benjamin Franklin. Humble, but not afraid to think big. Polymath. Made the best of misfortunes. Constantly worked to improve himself. Most everything he set out to do was for the good of others, yet he rarely lacked for anything.
3. Japan. I lived in Tokyo for a couple years and, like many people from the West, I became enamored with certain parts of the culture. The current Japanese design aesthetic combines simplicity, functionality, and whimsy, which are all things I value. (I’m flattered that it goes both ways since my projects have been featured on Japanese TV more often than American TV.) I also appreciate Japan’s relationship with technology. In the US technology is often thought of as an adversary. Real robots take our jobs, fictional ones destroy or enslave humanity. We tend to let our fears triumph and try to legislate it away instead of profiting from its merits. In Japan technology is embraced much more optimistically. Real robots provide opportunities and fictional ones are protectors and companions. Maintaining a positive framing for technology helps me make technology that is more positive.
4. The early Royal Society and Natural philosophers. Maker/hackerspaces of today have a lot in common with the early Royal Society. It’s formation as “Promoting Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning” and their motto “Nullius in verba” (Take nobody’s word for it) could apply to a modern hackerspace. Its early members, people like Robert Hooke, Issac Newton, and Christopher Wren, were not, generally, professional scientists, they were architects, theologists, diplomats, poets, etc. But they did revolutionary experiments in biology, astronomy, chemistry, and physics, essentially creating modern science. They had ideas, made experiments and devices to prove them (or disprove them) and in doing so changed the world.
5. Kids. They’re honest, earnest, curious, and more fearless than adult makers, all features I can use more of. The stuff they make is incredibly inspirational. And quite often when I see what they create it makes me realize I need to step up my game.
Steve’s Book Light project.