The author Gareth Branwyn was once the Editorial Director at Make:. And before that, he was a contributor. With the release of his latest book, Borg Like Me, he is sharing all kinds of stories, memoirs, and essays spanning the last 30 years. He paints pictures of the various DIY cultures he’s been a part of and watched grow, such as the commune movement, zine publishing, and even the maker movement.
One that particularly strikes us here at Make: is his recollection of a project gone from horrible to fantastic. He’s given us permission to share this chapter that just happens to be about Make:.
A VCR Was Harmed in the Making of this Article
I was thoroughly screwed.
I’d been assigned an article for MAKE about how to build BEAM robots, little solar-powered critters inspired by biology and made out of junk. I’d made many BEAMbots before, but usually from kits or parts bundles, or by carefully following someone else’s instructions. For this assignment, I was going to have to completely design and build one of the two solar-powered vehicles. Called a solaroller, the basic circuit and concept had been done many times before, but there was no set design for the vehicle itself, so it was up to me to figure out a workable chassis and drive system (one that others could easily replicate). I’d seen many other robots in this class of BEAMbots before and thought “how hard could it be?”
Thinking it easy, I went ahead and wrote up the rest of the how-to (all of the steps for the 2nd BEAMbot, a kind of solar-powered spinning top called a Trimet, and all of the steps for constructing the common solaroller circuit). Being the devout procrastinator that I am, I waited until two days before the piece was due to begin working on the solaroller’s mechanics. I figured I had two full days to build a simple vehicle no bigger than a pack of cigarettes – plenty of time!
The first morning I got up, gathered my tools and supplies, and set to work. My first attempt was a little drag racer made out of soldered paper clips. It seemed like an obvious idea (I’d seen a number of them online), but I couldn’t get it to work. It just wasn’t structurally sound enough to handle the stresses of the drive train. I was trying to use the little rubber drive belt from a cassette player to transfer the motion from the motor (also from a cassette player) to the drive wheel. The alignment had to be perfect – and it wasn’t.
I moved onto a body cut from plastic stock. I couldn’t get that to work either. I tried epoxy-gluing all of the parts together so that I didn’t have to fashion tiny hardware mounting brackets. No joy. Same problem with the alignment of the drive components. A solaroller needs to have incredible smooth rolling action. The solar cell and the energy it generates to power the motor (stored in a high-capacity capacitor) doesn’t really offer that much juice to turn the motor, so you want to squeeze out every bit of it that you can. Everything needs to be strong, perfectly aligned, and the wheels need to be level with the ground. It all turned out to be a lot trickier than I’d assumed.
I was thoroughly screwed.
I went to bed that first night with nothing to show for a full day’s effort. My dining table looked like it belonged in the Unibomber’s cabin, littered as it was with electronic components, bits of epoxied cardboard and plastic, little fussy paper clip assemblies, and wires, nuts, bolts, and batteries everywhere.
One day down, one to go.
The next day was as maddening as the first. I spent a large portion of the morning searching for other solarrollers online, hoping that I could swipe one of their designs. By lunchtime, I was no closer to a solution. I knew of a design approach that used one of the large tape rollers from a VCR as the main wheel, but I didn’t have a spare VCR, in fact, the VCR we did have was only a few month’s old. It was a cheapie (we didn’t watch VHS tapes much anymore), but I obviously couldn’t use it. You make BEAMbots from junk, you don’t junk new consumer electronics in search of BEAM parts! I made another pot of coffee and redoubled my efforts.
The day ticked away on the living room clock as I tried design after failed design. Time was running out and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I’d reached that dreaded point in a project where it all seemed cursed, where every move seems designed to frustrate your efforts. It was now closing in on dinner time… and desperation was closing in with it. The piece was due the next day! My editor had already asked several times how everything was going and I’d said “Great.” How could I now tell him that, in fact, one half of the article, one whole project, was not working, and was not going to be delivered?
That new VCR had been taunting me all day. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that one of the critical components I needed, one that would likely make my project a success, was just a few feet away, calling to me from its shelf on our living room entertainment center.
Suddenly, a bottled-up, frustrated rage exploded in me. Without thinking more about it, I attacked our defenseless VCR, angrily yanking it from the shelf, sending a device-switching box tumbling back into the spaghetti tangle of wires behind the media center. I unplugged all of the connections from the back of the VCR and rushed it over to the dining table like a gunshot victim onto an EMT gurney. I had the case off in seconds and found myself furiously disemboweling the machine’s innards. I was thrilled to find the precious part I’d been lusting after, the large tape roller. As I suspected, it looked perfect for my purposes.
The next few hours were as enjoyable and inspired as the last two days had felt frustrating and cursed. Once that precious part was in-hand, everything fell into place. The big, very stable and smooth-rolling tape wheel married perfectly with the pancake motor from the cassette player. The tape wheel from the cassette machine easily epoxied onto the other side of the motor case. A large nylon control wheel I had from an old servo motor fit snuggly onto the motor gear and was the right size to create a large drive wheel. This wheel was the exact width of a rubber band, allowing me to glue one around it to serve as a tire.
I was even able to use part of a paper clip assembly from the day before as a rack to mount the electronics and solar panel. Within a few hours, I had a working solarroller!
The sense of accomplishment I felt was indescribable. I had come so close to giving up several times, just telling my editor that we’d have to cut the piece in half and have it only cover the Trimet. And that’s if they even wanted such a different piece than the one I’d pitched. The article that I’d proposed was about how this one simple electronic circuit and solar cell could be used to power different types of BEAM devices.
But I didn’t have to worry about any of that now – I had a working and very cool looking solarroller. As I went to bed that night, I knew that, because of the East Coast/West Coast time difference (I’m east coast, the MAKE offices are in California), I could get up early the next day, finish the how-to instructions for the chassis, and still be able to deliver the piece on time. I drifted off that night into a very satisfied slumber.
The piece was very well-received, but the real icing on the cake came a month or so later when my contributor’s copy of the magazine arrived in the mail. I pulled the issue from the mailer and was shocked and delighted to discover that my BEAMbots had made the cover!
Staring at my two little bots below the MAKE masthead, I recalled those two very frustrating days. Holding the issue in my hand, I couldn’t think of a better way of driving home the idea of never giving up — and always being willing to improvise in the clutch.
Years later, when I joined the staff at MAKE, I had a giant poster of that cover (MAKE, Volume 06) printed out to always remind me of the lessons it represents, to never give up… and to not be afraid to cannibalize perfectly good hardware in search of the parts you need. Who knows, they just might end up as a robot on the cover of a magazine!
If you enjoyed that story as much as I did, you’re probably wondering where to find the rest. Well, you can buy Borg Like Me at Amazon, or directly through Gareth at Sparks of Fire Press. If you purchase it through Gareth, you get an autographed letterpress-printed bookplate and a mail art-decorated envelope!
Gareth will also be speaking at the World Maker Faire in New York this year! Maker Faire will be held at the New York hall of science on September 20 and 21st. Gareth will be appearing in the author’s tent talking about Borg Like Me.