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Talk about coming from out of nowhere. Arduino could be the name of a high-flying Italian fashion designer or top chef. It just happened to be the name of a bar frequented by art students from the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea near Milan, Italy.

In 2005, an associate professor at the Institute, Massimo Banzi, offered the name of that bar for a simple new microcontroller aimed at artists and other non-technical users.

Banzi and colleagues, building on the work of others, wanted a cheap and uncomplicated way to control sensors, lights, sounds, motors, and other elements of what could be a museum exhibit, a performance, or an article of clothing.

From these humble origins, Arduino has surprisingly become a tinkering platform for all kinds of people, even engineers. At the Open Source Hardware Summit in Queens, N.Y., just before World Maker Faire last year, you could feel the enthusiasm from engineers thinking like artists, and artists thinking like engineers. They were working together and learning from each other.

While Arduino is familiar to many makers, it’s unknown to most people. Arduino doesn’t have a hype machine behind it and there are no ads on TV touting “Arduino Inside.” As far as I can tell, no analyst is studying the Arduino market; as a commercial technology, it’s practically off the radar. Perhaps those who don’t know Arduino don’t understand why you’d use one. It’s not just another gadget.

Yet Arduino continues to pick up steam. A popular 20th-century children’s book, titled The Little Engine That Could, told the story of a little blue engine that did what larger locomotives either refused to do or didn’t believe was worth doing. The little engine, normally used to move cars in and out of the roundhouse, set off to pull a train of freight cars up a hill. The little engine climbed the hill, meeting the difficulty with determination, saying, “I think I can.”

Arduino is the little engine that has proved to be more than capable for an amazingly wide range of projects. While largely ignored by the “big boys,” Arduino users are the ones saying, “I think I can.” The Arduino community is growing fast, defined by cooperation and creativity more than competition. These tinkerers are discovering more imaginative and functional applications and sharing them, which only spurs others to think about what’s possible.

It reminds me of the emergence of the World Wide Web, which also came from out of nowhere: Geneva, Switzerland. Those who were extremely technical would talk about all the limitations of the web, but miss how its simplicity and openness allowed so many people to do what they wanted with it.

Like the web, Arduino began with modest ambitions. It’s not the most powerful microcontroller. Its virtues are being cheap and open and easy to use. Each of these virtures is important — you can freely share hardware designs and code, you can use it with any OS — but being cheap is first.

Cheap means you can try out Arduino with little investment. You don’t have to know in advance whether it will do what you want — or even know exactly what you want. You can experiment and find out without risking a lot of money. An Arduino board is cheap enough that you wouldn’t feel bad breaking it, burning it up, or leaving it behind embedded in a project.

You wouldn’t do that with an iPhone or a PC, but you can do it with Arduino, and for DIY, that’s revolutionary. In this issue of MAKE, we devote a special section to Arduino as an engine and as an ecosystem. We want to see even more people join the Arduino revolution, saying “I knew I could.”

 

Dale Dougherty

I’m founder of MAKE magazine and creator of Maker Faire. I am CEO of Maker Media, the company that produces MAKE, Maker Faire and Maker Shed. I am Chairman of the Maker Education Initiative (www.makered.org).


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