When my son Andy was 12 years old, he entered his junior high school science contest. His challenge was to invent something new and useful. He badly wanted to win, but inventing something useful is hard, especially when you’re 12.
After various aborted attempts, he came up with a self-buttering toaster. What a brilliant idea from such a young person! (I readily admit my fatherly bias.) The device was intricate yet simple: a wood and steel construction that held a slice of bread at an angle in front of a carefully wound matrix of nichrome wire heating elements. While the bread toasted, the heat from the wires melted a glop of butter on a perforated metal holder positioned over the bread. The butter dripped through the holes and onto the toasting bread. Voilà! There was a slice of automatically buttered toast. By my lights, this was a pretty terrific invention for a sixth-grader.
The evening of the fair approached, and Andy and I looked forward to a night of glory. The judges, a collection of teachers and parent volunteers, methodically walked up and down each aisle. They asked questions, measured things with rulers, made notes on clipboards, and generally maintained a judge-like demeanor. When the judges came to Andy’s table, the toaster worked perfectly. With self-assurance and a smile, he handed each judge a slice of warm, buttery Wonder Bread for a snack.
But when the winners were announced, Andy’s name wasn’t called. Crestfallen, he approached the judges and asked, “Why didn’t I get a ribbon?”
“Well, Andy,” said a judge, “we thought your machine was dangerous. After all, it uses electricity and it gets very hot.”
“Of course it does. It’s a toaster,” he protested. “It’s supposed to get hot and use electricity. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a toaster.” Unswayed by logic, the judges would not reconsider.
So who won? First place went to a girl who made a cap and vest for her hamster. Second place went to a boy who “made” radar by cutting out pictures of antennas and gluing them to a poster board.
Some might say our society has become obsessed with safety to an unhealthy degree. There are labels that say “do not use in shower” on hair dryers, “do not eat toner” on laser printer cartridges, and “allow to cool before applying to groin area” on McDonald’s coffee cups. (The only one I made up is the last one.) Some people feel that everyone else ought to watch out for them. They want someone to vet their lives, to check things out in advance. Basically, they want a nanny.
In a “nanny state,” somebody else — governments, insurance companies, education administrators — decides which projects makers may attempt and which they may not. In the nanny state, experimenters and builders find themselves deprived of the materials, tools, and information they need to carry on their interests.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the “night watchman state.” Here, authorities try to keep thugs off the street, keep the electricity on, and that’s about it. You’re pretty much on your own.
Most of us prefer to live, work, and play somewhere in the middle. Let’s call it the “Maker State.” In the Maker State, everyone takes reasonable precautions and wears protective equipment. Safe working practices, if thoughtfully incorporated into the act of making things, can become a performance-improving feature, just as athletes wear better equipment to enhance their performance.
The Maker State provides freedom to attempt projects on the edge. Still, laws of chance and statistics ensure that sometimes stuff just happens. There are two fundamental realities of working in the Maker State: risks can be reduced but not eliminated, and not everything is somebody’s fault.
It’s up to each person to determine his or her personal “zone of reasonableness.” It’s not the same for everyone. It depends on the quality of your equipment, the extent of your experience and training, and your willingness to assume risk and responsibility for your actions.
In the late 1950s, Americans, especially teenage boys, went rocket-crazy, their interest lifted to stratospheric levels by the patriotic frenzy surrounding the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. By the early 1960s, thousands of young people were busily building homemade rockets.
Unfortunately, few had any idea what they were doing, so most wound up building what in reality were pipe bombs. Unarguably, mixing inexperience, surplus enthusiasm, and powerful chemicals makes for a dangerous situation.
Estes Industries, now the biggest name in manufactured model rocket engines, published a booklet 40 years ago called The Rocketeer’s Guide to Avoiding Suicide. It provided example after chilling example of rocket engine explosion injuries, some presented in gruesome detail, e.g., “He was making rockets out of pipes filled with match heads. The pipe blew up and he almost blew his stomach and intestines out.”
While Estes had a vested interest in persuading young rocketeers to buy their engines instead of building them from scratch, nonetheless, there did seem to be an extraordinarily high accident rate among youthful rocket builders of the time.
Makers of the 1960s might not have known about various hazards that we now recognize. We can’t ignore these hazards. Instead, we must learn how to avoid them and work safely by taking precautions and wearing protective equipment. By employing adequate preparation and knowledge, and by incorporating safety as a positive, performance-enhancing feature in projects, the Maker State engenders a wide variety of challenging projects. With any luck, the next self-buttering toaster at the science fair will win the blue ribbon.