The Soul of America – We Are All Amateurs

No matter where you are in America – the United States of America – you’re within shouting distance of an amateur. Maybe it’s a garage tinkerer, a homebrew geneticist, DIY archaeologist, or “self-taught sky-buffs” fabricating home telescopes that rival the technical ability of major institutions. These characters and their creations are explored in This American Life contributing editor Jack Hitt’s newly published book, Bunch of Amateurs, which hits stands today.

America’s self-invented tinkerers are back at it in their metaphorical garages—fiddling with everything from solar-powered cars to space elevators. In Bunch of Amateurs, Jack Hitt visits a number of different garages and has written a fascinating book that looks at America’s current batch of amateurs and their pursuits. From a tattooed young woman in the Bay Area trying to splice a fish’s glow-in-the-dark gene into common yogurt (all done in her kitchen using salad spinners) to a space fanatic on the brink of developing the next generation of telescopes from his mobile home, Hitt not only tells the stories of people in the grip of a passion but argues that America’s history is bound up in a cycle of amateur surges.

In celebration of the amateur spirit, we’re giving away a bunch of prizes (including an Orion 90mm refractor telescope) starting today and in the coming weeks – more information after the jump.

For our first prize we’re giving away an Orion AstroView 90mm refractor telescope. Also included is an adjustable tripod and multiple eyepieces for various star-gazing applications. Celestial objects in the night sky will appear bright as day with this awesome entry-level telescope. You can find more information on this device on the manufacturer’s website.

To enter to win: all you have to do is leave a comment below! Comments left before May 17th @ 11:59PM PST will be considered to win this prize. Be sure to leave a valid email so we can contact you if you win. Feel free to tell a story about your own amateur pursuits, although this is not necessary – just leave a comment! For complete rules please click here.

We’ll be offering two more prizes, on Tuesday May 29th & Tuesday June 12th, accompanied by interviews with the author Jack Hitt – be sure to check back then for another chance to win!


These prizes are provided by The Crown Publishing Group, publishers of Bunch of Amateurs.

582 thoughts on “The Soul of America – We Are All Amateurs

  1. Looking forward to reading the book! Oh man… I want to do astrophotography so bad.. I would put that telescope to use!

  2. Everyone wants a telescope. If anyone is interested, it looks like this book is way cheaper on amazon, new in hardcover.

  3. This looks like a great book, and one that tells a better story of how many Americans use their leisure time more productively than consumer culture would lead us to believe.

  4. Go Makers!!! I have an 11 yearold son who is a huge fan who would take that telescope apart and build a sensor array out of it allowing for power to be re-routed to the main deflector shield and saving all life in the universe!!!

  5. The spirit of the inventor is truly immutable. Now, onward ye dilettantes an make professional your amateur methods!

  6. In college, I was actually on a track to be an astronomer for a while, but decided it was too difficult. I feel so sad having given that up, and I feel sad for everyone who thinks they can’t make a difference because they’re not a professional scientist. Before all these fancy degrees, anyone could be a scientist. Power to the amateurs!

  7. One of my favorite quotes I heard listening to Pale Blue Dot by Sagan on the audio book as I drove across the desert – “TELESCOPES ARE TIME MACHINES”. Awesome! I got home a week later & bought my daughter a telescope!

    Pete Grady/peterjgrady.com – Art Gever on FB

  8. The telescope would be an awesome addition to our Makerspace. We are the amateurs who occasionally hang out with the pro’s up at the UH Institute for Astronomy here on Maui. jerry at mauimakers.com

  9. I got gifted a half working Bausch & Lomb telescope. Since it wouldn’t work with the eye pieces I grabbed some PVC pipe that would fit inside and grafted the body cap of my DSLR onto it (with a hole cut in the center). I now have essentially a 900mm lens and have managed to get a picture of Jupiter with all 4 Galilean moons, I was so excited! It would be awesome to have a real working telescope too!

  10. There are so many talented people out there! I had visions of doing crazy things that were hardly practical, but that doesn’t stop some people.

    *salute*

  11. As a painter, I delight in all the amazing, creative, crazy fun creations at the Maker Faire. Alas I can only dabble with line, shape, space, texture, form and value in a two dimensional manner. I can’t wait to see the show in San Mateo this weekend!

  12. I don’t think I reach even amateur-level skills in so many areas that fascinate me, including astronomy, but I’m working on it — one garden, one knitted shawl, one Coursera course at a time.

  13. I’m going to go check this book out right now on Amazon! BTW can’t wait for this weekends maker faire!

  14. I’ve been enjoying my old telescope that I got as a kid recently (an old TASCO with a “Watch Haley’s Comet!” sticker on the box)… there is a lot to look at one the moon!
    Cheers.

  15. I’ve always wanted to see the stars and constellations a little closer. I’m always looking at the stars.

  16. I look forward to turning this telescope into a home brew Portal 2 weapon replicate. And yea, you guessed it, it will have lasers. PEW PEW PEW!

  17. I love this new ” renaissance” outlook on life now a days. I think its so important to not be content with what they show to us, and try to figure life out ourselves. Maker faire gives this ideology the great push and support it needs.

  18. Here is my response. In college, I had a strong interest in astronomy, but when I went through the Engineering building to find the astronomy department (housed for some reason next to engineering) there was a prominent sign outside of the departmental office indicating that there was virtually no work in astronomy, and there was no point in trying to sign up for astronomy classes as nobody studying in the department was likely to ever make a living at it. Good grief!

  19. I would love to win this telescope! Always wanted a telescope again since my parents took back the one I received for Christmas when I was a kid because it was broken.

  20. Doing an exhibit on the sun at the Maker Faire this weekend. I need to learn about the stars and moon now. (hoping this comment posts, as I dont think my others did)

  21. Love listening to Jack Hitt on TAL, and my boys would love to learn about telescopes. We were talking about them just yesterday.

  22. The book is a great idea..From sculpting odd lamps and mobiles,and making toys all from found objects I’ve delighted in building these things and having openings.I suppose the best thing so far was the drum set {Trap set} I made from lamp parts and cans; called the CAN TRAPtion. -Or was it the lighted ball that spun around so fast that it rotated at frightening speeds? The motorized device with wheels called the Pest Chaser was a hit. Found object Art predetermines what it will become.Disparate things just fit together.. OOh Yes.. I would love the telescope..What is more inspiring than the stars?

  23. I have studied astronomy extensively while in college and borrowed telescopes from my friends on more than a few occasions. Despite this, I am ashamed to admit I have never actually owned a telescope in my life.

  24. My chemistry professor says if I stand in a deep enough well that keeps sunlight from reaching my eyes, I’ll be able to see all the stars above us clearly, even during the day. But until I find a deep enough well, I’d like this telescope please!

  25. I used to be an amateur astronomer, but I had to sell my telescope when I moved cross country and couldn’t take it with me. A replacement would be great!

  26. One of my earliest memories was when I was maybe 4 years old and my family moved out of San Francisco and down the peninsula away from the city lights. I had never seen so many stars before! Shortly after moving, our new neighbors set up their large telescope and invited out family over to have a look. I got to look at Saturn and it looked just like a marble with a ring around it. I spent the next 8 years or so completely absorbed in the idea of exploring space. It was a defining moment for me and turned me towards a life of scientific inquiry and exploration.

    If I were to win this telescope, I’d use it to give my son the same introduction that I got (though if I don’t win this, I appreciate the reminder that I’ll need to get access to a telescope in the near future). The book looks like a good read too, thanks Make!

  27. For a while Ive always wanted to get into amateur astronomy. Ive been using my SX130 IS to take photos of Orions Belt, but the photos arent to my liking. Id Love to have this telescope :)

  28. There is nothing greater than spending a night out in a field with a few close friends, sharing the amazement of the incredible universe we live in. I’d love to win this telescope for planetary viewing! Venus is incredible right now and all I can see it as is through NASA’s virtual telescope…

  29. The other night I saw my first nebula in the Orion constellation. The next object I want to find is the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbor galaxy. I am definitely an amateur. I’ve built two CNC machines in my garage from old copier parts and a controller I soldered together myself. I make my own soap even the lye from soaking ashes in rain water. I put linux on devices that were never meant to have it. I tweak and tinker an void warranties all in the name of wanting to learn or try to make something new or better. I love being an amateur. I will definitely check out this book.

  30. There is an idea that persists in this country that it is money that fuels innovation. This idea has been foisted upon us by people who, while they may understand money, have no concept of what it is to be possessed by an idea. Innovation, invention comes from another, deeper place. Money does not fuel innovation, but it does lubricate it.

    1. Well said. In most parts of the United States, people innovate with what they have. They make do. Spending any real money on their avocation is a luxury. But, they keep a craft alive, even innovate, through sweat equity and passion.

  31. Wow, I’d love to have a telescope! Not only would I use it just for looking through, but I’d pair it with my DSLR and take pictures that I never could before of the heavenly bodies!

  32. What a wonderful sounding book, and thanks, Make, for bringing it to our attention. As a daughter of an incurable tinkerer, I look forward to some oddly familiar stories about people I’ve never met.

  33. Our Cub Scout Pack would love to use this with 1st-5th graders for years to come! We are looking forward to bringing our Scouts to the Bay Area Maker Faire this weekend!

  34. The book sounds fascinating! Will request it from my library. My library also has telescopes to loan, but it would be way more awesome to own one ourselves…

  35. my son would totally flip over an actual working telescope! i would lovr to learn more about space with him!

  36. Mostly I try to feel big and confident…to see the stars so clearly would make me feel so small in the best way possible…and now I’m daydreaming of stargazing.

  37. A Homebrewer who’s starting to dabble in Arduino’s married to a Candle/Chain Mail/Jewelry maker. I’d love to add Astronomy to the list…especially since I live about 30 miles from one of the darkest night viewing sites in the Eastern US.

  38. I can’t actually believe I don’t already own a telescope, I figured in childhood that would defiantly be one of the things I would own when I was an adult. Well heres my chance!

  39. Everything from looking for comets to building a homebrew weather station I am always working on a project. Lately it has been focused on keeping our earth green and making a difference in my community.

  40. My amateur story involves a nail, a hammer, a finger, and a lack of coordination. You won’t need a telescope to uncover the outcome.

  41. Jack of All Trades, Master of None? Renaissance Guy? Toad of Toad Hall – that’s me…
    New telescope means new hobby

  42. That is a very nice looking telescope. Maybe MAKE could do a DIY astronomy month? There are tons of cool projects for adults and kids to do. Astral photography, grinding your own lenses, simple optics systems, and dark site discussions among other things.

  43. Some of us amateurs would use something like that on Sunday to go see the annular eclipse (only with a solar filter, of course). But only AFTER going to the Maker Faire (for the first time) with my son on Saturday!!! See you there.

  44. This would thrill our Cub Scout pack as we are encouraging all of our kids to get their Astronomy badges before our next recognition ceremony! As for amateur endeavors, I’m just starting to gather ideas as my 9 year old is exploring much. On his own accord, he’s been exploring concepts of electrical circuitry including use of conductive paints and/or conductive thread to make his own light up projects in recent months with leds and batteries and anything else in his path that can be tweeked with little lights.

  45. I come from a long line of amateurs, and as an artist it opened me up to that wonderful state of mine only a tinkerer would understand: to play with something physical and learn how you can do something with it that it wasn’t made to do. Things get recycled, and re-purposed. It’s passion doing something really fun and maybe even something useful! Americans are dreamers in the best sense of that word.

  46. As a artist of the abstract and real creations I sure feel like a amateur on some of the projects, as of lately I have been interested in using more interactive creations that the viewer of my creations would enjoy. Telescope to expand my reality, very interesting thought and the Bunch of Amateurs a great idea.That’s how we learn.

  47. It would be great to enjoy this beautiful telescope looking at the solar eclipse on Sunday, I’ll be at maker faire this weekend so I can pick it up :) get it ready for me!!!!

  48. I have always dreamed of a telescope! Albeit, being in Southern California I need to get away a bit for a good view.

  49. I never win something but it is always worth to try. This one would be quite improvement over what we have now.

  50. Never thought of “amateur” as a label I’d proudly wear, but now…

    I’m looking forward to reading the book and my son would love that telescope!

  51. I would love a telescope. I’ve not had one since I was quite young. As a side note, the “Leave a reply form” is broken in Chrome 18.0.1025.168 m, Firefox 9.0.1, and IE 8.0.6001. http://goo.gl/3aJeg

  52. And queue one of the most commented stories in some time. If only the signal to noise ratio was higher I’d try looking through them for peoples amateur greatness. I am constantly amazed by the activities that are moving into reach of the dedicated tinkerer.

  53. I love being an amateur – it means I can have multiple hobbies with no pressure to commit huge swaths of time to any of them. I can brew beer, hack a circuit, build a table, and bike to work. I may never win any competitions, but I have a lot of fun.

  54. Viewing the moons orbiting Jupiter with my kids, seeing their faces light up in that AHA! moment that Galileo must have had was priceless. Telescope. WANT!

  55. It’s great to finally see Makers getting some form of mainstream press what what they do. I’m looking forward to this book…although I wouldn’t say no to a telescope…

  56. :- ) awesome giveaway! My son and I, as well as radom neighbourhood kids I hustle to “look up”, have been tracking the path of the moon since winter, we love it! Would love to have them see more, especially since we will be planting biodynamically ;-) ….great giveaway guys!

  57. I hope this helps to reinspire people to work hard at your dreams. Don’t settle and don’t take no for an answer. I can’t wait to read the book.

  58. As a Canadian, I find the part of the post that says, “No matter where you are in America – the United States of America – you’re within shouting distance of an amateur,” a little arrogant. Considering people in Canada and Canadian amateurs invented stuff like the telephone (Bell was Scottish, living in Canada, when he came up with the idea for the phone), and basketball (Naismith was a Canadian living in the US), it would appear the US doesn’t hold any particularly special claim to amateurism.

    In fact, it could likely be argued that because of the remoteness of some of Canada’s people, there might even be more amateurs per capita than in the US. You can’t just order stuff off Amazon Prime and have it UPS’ed overnight, so you’ve got to tinker, and modify, and make do….

    1. That quote isn’t exclusionary. Nobody said anything negative about Canada. No reason to get all cranky and offended.

    2. hi Greg. Thanks for reading. And I couldn’t disagree with you more. American amateurism is distinctly unique. As Hitt points out, the Franklin-inspired phrase “pursuit of Happiness” (with a capital H) from the Declaration of Independence is something deeply rooted in the American psyche – something my Canadian friends (from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Nova Scotia, cities with cultures as diverse as America) acknowledge they simply don’t (can’t) relate to. If you disagree I would encourage you to write about Canadian amateurism – I don’t think the game of basketball debunks my claim.

      1. And to be clear I mean our idea/version of amateurism is unique; I’m not proclaiming that amateurism only exists in America.

  59. The recent views of Venus and the Moon within such close proximity to each other would have been even more spectacular with a telescope…I am wishing upon a star to receive this wonderful gift…Thank you!

  60. Thank you for this salute. Amateurs often bring a fresh way of looking at a problem and innovative new solutions.

  61. What a fantastic topic. It makes me swell with pride to think of the creative thinkers and innovators that spend their own time an money to accomplish great things here I our country.

  62. What a fantastic topic. It makes me swell with pride to think of the creative thinkers and innovators that spend their own time and money to accomplish great things here in our country.

  63. Ooh… that scope is just ripe for attaching some stepper motors for long exposures! I want one.

  64. My personal goal would be to bike up Mount Hamilton, and look up into the stars with this refractor telescope. And see the beauty of the skies.

  65. I’ve so enjoyed getting back to making in the last year. So many of my generation, like Lady Ada and her ilk, lost sight of he fact that they were playing with building toys and taking things apart long after others would deem it behind them. They can have this for a career. It’s there for the taking. Here’s to the Makers.

  66. I like making DIY equipment for brewing beer. I am also into armature electronics. Someday I would like to combine the two. I am always looking to expand into a new amateur pursuit.

    1. hi Arsene – sorry but the chance to win has finished for this prize. Be sure to visit back on the dates in the article for the next prize giveaway!

  67. This looks like a great book – I can’t wait to read it. I could definitely see the words better with… a … telescope? Haha, I had to try it.

  68. I’ve been thinking about buying a telescope… I’d probably appreciate the universe more if I won it instead.

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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