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Ahmed Mohamed is not the first Maker with a project that upset people who didn’t understand it. Technology projects can look scary to the uninitiated. Several big names in this field have had to deal with the reactions engendered by their projects.

Their experiences, and Ahmed’s, offer the Maker community a chance to reflect on the things we build and how they are perceived.

Here are five more Makers who built gizmos that others found upsetting. You may agree with their approach to tinkering, or you may not. In some of the cases, upsetting people was the goal. But for many Makers, scaring people is an unfortunate and unforeseen side effect of tinkering with technology.

Woz

Back in 1967, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was arrested for building a metronome and storing it in a friend’s locker. He rigged a tin-foil contract sensor to the metronome in the locker, and set up the device to tick faster when his buddy opened the locker.

Woz recalled his reaction on Facebook.

I couldn’t hold my laughter when Principal Bryld told me how he extracted the ‘bomb’, ran out to the football field, and dismantled it. I wound up spending a night in ‘juvie.’ I did teach other inmates there how they could remove the electric wires from an overhead fan and attach them to the metal bars [to] shock the guards.

Limor Fried

Before she founded Adafruit, Limor “Ladyada” Fried ran afoul of the MIT Campus Police. While pursuing her Master’s degree at the MIT Media Lab, exploring the Design Noir philosophy outlined by Anthony Dunne in Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, she attached a black project box to a parking garage girder with a note explaining the device was an Art project for Course 6 EE.

Formal disciplinary letter to Limor Fried on her Art project
Formal disciplinary letter to Limor Fried on her Art project

Though formally disciplined by MIT, Fried now subversively displays the reprimand as Selected feedback on my work on her personal website.

Star Simpson

Jordan Bunker testing Star Simpson's LED hoodie
Jordan Bunker testing Star Simpson’s LED hoodie

On September 21, 2007, Star Simpson, wearing a custom LED-accessorized hoodie and holding a DIY clay rose, arrived at Logan International Airport to pick up a friend. It did not go well. Upon entering the airport, her attire set into motion the response of 40 security personnel, some with MP5 submachine guns. They arrested and charged her with possessing a hoax bomb device.

After a multiple court appearances, Simpson was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and write a letter of apology. You can make your own version of her shirt here.

Steve Mann

Steve Mann with EyeTap
Steve Mann with EyeTap

Steve Mann is a cyborg. No joke. And he alleges he was assaulted in a Paris McDonald’s for wearing his cybernetic seeing device, EyeTap. The device in question, a custom electronics forerunner of Google Glass, requires specialized tools to remove as it is literally wired to Mann’s brain. While his assailants were trying to remove what they thought was a wacky looking pair of spy glasses, they were in fact jeopardizing Mann’s safety.

Peter Hirshberg

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Hirschberg made it clear he “knew exactly what [he] was doing” when he was a kid:

When I was in high school I screwed a bunch of electronics, blinking lights, dials, and a telephone handset into a briefcase and took it on the New York subway system. People were bug-eyed when they saw me take that out. Some even changed seats.

I also loaded a tape recorder and microphone / transmitter (they were bigger back then) into a brief case and strutted it about high school as a surveillance device. That got a rise out of people. I knew exactly what I was doing.

I once took the tape recorder briefcase rig along with an FM wireless transmitter to the appliance store. I then tuned every radio to my frequency. And promptly broadcast an Emergency Broadcast System style alert that New York was under nuclear attack. I was very proud.

These were obviously the kinds of stunts that would get anyone arrested (or worse) today. 

Who is Responsible?

If you build something the world has never seen, whose responsibility is it to mind the reactions of the people who see it? Yours? The people? The media’s?  What if your project resembles an item that’s specifically designed to look destructive, like a gun, or even a toy or prop weapon?

Perhaps you’ve built something that, intentionally or not, freaked someone out. What did you learn from the experience?

And what lessons can we all learn from Ahmed’s clock?

 

35 thoughts on “5 More Maker Projects That Freaked People Out

  1. Not on the level of those in the story, but last month I wore my pocketwatch pendant to a local chess club. It’s a watch I gutted and replaced the insides with a battery, arduino, and a neopixel strip. Very simple device, but it makes a beautiful light display. I had it turned off and closed, so it looked like a normal pocketwatch. One of the other players pointed it out, so I handed it to him and told him to open it. Expecting to see a watch, he was confronted with wires and circuit boards. I could tell by his expression he thought it was a bomb, so I quickly explained, turned it on, closed it up, and let him see the light effect. We had a good laugh about it, but if he had overreacted before I could show him it could have turned out really bad. The experience definitely made me more aware of the potential for scaring people unintentionally.

    1. That was the mistake made by the kid in school. His answers were vague.
      It’s the Maker’s responsibility to let everyone understand what their project is.
      Otherwise, one suffers the consequences of walking into a government owned building and being arrested for a misunderstanding.

      1. I definitely made a big mistake there myself. I’m more aware, and will be more careful going forward. But the thing that annoys in cases like Ahmed’s isn’t the misunderstanding in the first place. It’s the authorities pressing forward after they realize their mistake.

        1. Except he didn’t build a clock. He deconstructed a 70 era clock and stuck it in a case. If he actually made a clock, I could agree with you. He also wasn’t real forthcoming like you were with information on it.

          1. That rather seems like a matter of opinion. I didn’t make the arduino, lipo charger, lipo itself, the neopixels, nor the watch case. Where’s the line, who decides when it rises to the level of “I made this?”

            A lot of people seem to disagree with you on the him making that clock. I don’t really have an opinion on that specifically since I haven’t seen much in the way of specifics. What does seem clear to me though is that he believes he made it. Which says to me he was being truthful and forthcoming.

          2. Maybe it’s just me and mine (I have two young makers myself), they are thrilled to give the details of their projects. As a mom, that he didn’t was kind of off for me, but maybe it was the age group.

          3. Sounded like the kid was quite thrilled to give the details of his project initially, when he showed it to his engineering teacher. But by the time the police at hauled him out, maybe fear was making him not able to express himself well. But honestly what more could he have said. From all accounts I’ve read, the police kept asking him if it was a bomb and he kept replying it is a clock. He told them he brought it to school to show his teachers. What more explanation is there?

          4. Well I think that the problem is the zero tolerance policy in schools.
            Perhaps if they had pulled the Engineering teacher in, he could have explained it. Apparently, the kid couldn’t get it through to the cops. Another adult would have helped. That’s how schools work, pitifully. Kids do stupid things that make it hard for the good ones.

          5. I’m not a Maker, but honestly I think I will try my hand at tinkering, because all the stories about Ahmed have been very inspiring to me. I am, however, a songwriter. In writing songs, one is certainly using cord structures snippets of melodies, modulations, etc. that others have used. Pulling all those things together in a new way equals composing a new song, even though it’s certainly has components of all the songs before it. Unless one intentionally copies melody lines and cord structures pretty much verbatim, it is not considered to be plagiarism. No one composes or invents in isolation. So even though this kid didn’t personally manufacture every piece of the clock, he set it up in a new way. I’ve seen some pretty extreme statements on boards all over the net – it’s a “fraud!” People are acting like he intentionally set out to fool people into thinking that he had created some great invention. I think his use of the word invention is perhaps enthusiastic hyperbole, or you know he’s just a 14-year-old kid. I’ve also learned how common it is for kids learning about electronics to disassemble and then reassemble something. I really think that the story is so much simpler than people who are viewing it through their paranoid ideologies are making it.

          6. I disagree, he crossed the line saying it was his invention. The electronics were not modified in any way. All he did was switch cases. That is a cool maker project, but not an invention, a project!

          7. Bringing this kid into the White House is a disgrace.

            There are thousands of genuine MAKERS, of all colors and sexes, that DESERVE the honor.

            But because they don’t fit the Administration’s Political Narrative – they’ll never be invited.

          8. I view that as more of an apology than a political agenda, though I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t both. If the same happened to me I’d graciously (okay, probably not graciously) decline the invitation. As long as the police are holding to the line that they were right to persecute him, and he was dragged away in handcuffs for his own protection, I would continue to be furious. Because with that attitude nothing changes. An evening making nice in the white house doesn’t fix what the local police are doing in their ignorance.

            How about we hold some people accountable for their actions instead of continuing to try to sweep it under the rug with talk about what the terrorists did to us. We did this to ourselves by allowing the fear mongering to go on.

      2. Vague? He kept telling them that the clock was a CLOCK. I don’t know how you can be more precise than that with a non-electronics geek, or any less vague.

    2. Thanks for sharing your experience Michael. Have you written up documentation for how to make the pocket watch? You should!

      1. Thank you for the encouragement. I fully intend to, I’ve just been too busy with work. Not to mention making the next version of the watch, more user friendly, hopefully adding features. It’s a tight space to work in.

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  2. This is why building things should be left to professionals who work for companies. There is not need this day in age for anyone to build things themselves. It’s about nonsensical as growing your own food. Why do it? My 16yr old son somehow got some electronic parts and was messing around with them. I quickly put a stop to that due to the danger involved. I told him he wants to learn about that stuff, then he can wait until he get into college.

    1. Chris that is stupid we do it for interest and that fact we like it you can change someone of what they want to do you should let him do it if he wants to

    2. I sure hope that was sarcastic, because we need a lot more people interested in that stuff so they have the mind to tinker with and develop the next generation of stuff, rather than some artistic smutz that just changes the exterior paint job.

    3. I have to say I disagree with you entirely. There is a need for people to learn how to build things themselves, as there are, oh I don’t know, a few MILLION homeless or otherwise who do exactly that in order to stay alive. As for the growing your own food thing? You never know when you may be caught in an emergency situation in which growing your own food is a priceless skill (in fact with the economy, that day may be soon). As for you son messing around with electronic parts, I know a kid who built his own motorcycle when he was 11 and fine-tuned it when he was 13. In my opinion, you should be encouraging your son to keep messing around with electronics, in fact be PROUD of him. You can even look up safety guides on the internet or even a library. And also, your son is 16 for heaven’s sake! He is in more danger learning how to drive or going to sports clubs at school than he is messing around with electronics. And if he wants to learn about that stuff he doesn’t need to go to college. I am not even close to being 18 and I can probably hijack your car or remotly shut down your electricity to your house then turn it back on with a 97% chance of nothing remotly dangerous happening to you or me.

    4. Also, here:
      https://makezine.com/2015/09/18/creating-epic-halloween-costumes-for-wheelchair-bound-kids/
      and
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYTpPHjO7sk
      (These cosplay are all home-made with the exception of any wigs or contacts used)
      This is one reason why people make things. To improve the emotional well-being of others, to relieve stress, and to see someone that is happy. That makes it all worth it in the end.

      And if you have not seen a project made by someone (child or otherwise) that you thought “Wow! That’s cool!” or thought it was impressive instead of dwelling on the supposed dangers in your mind (that most likely did not take place), I feel very, very, very sorry for you.

    5. Are you trolling or are you just completely out of your mind? Or both? Adequacy.org shut down over a decade ago…

    1. I sure do.

      THERE was an overreaction.

      No terrorist before or since has created a device that glows and flashes.

      On the contrary, you want the bomb to fit right in and draw no attention to itself.

      1. I’ve been to a museum of bombs that had been used against Americans. Not one of them looks like something on tv or the movies, in fact, they all look perfectly normal. I think my favorite was the standard black telephone that would go off when the target hung up.
        Before anyone totally spazzes out like a complete moron, I was in the military, and my job was Munitions, aka – bombs.
        Hollywood never gets that stuff right because real bombs are boring until they blow. It’s like their gunfights where each gun fires hundreds of rounds before reloading.

  3. Clearly this device was intended to ‘freak people out’. I enjoy building things as much as the next person but this thing was not a clock, it was a prop bomb.

  4. Both need to take responsibility for what happened.
    The Kid is being a kid, maybe one looking for attention.
    The Adults in Texas have not once acted mature about it.

  5. Admed made nothing. Did not even touch a Soldering Iron.

    He took a Radio Shack Micronta Catalog Number 63 756 out of its plastic case and installed it into a metal case. Just to create something scary-looking. Something that had no other function at all.

    I’m pretty sure if someone submitted this “genius idea” to your magazine, it would end up in the trash can – instantly.

    His father is a known Political Activist, who clearly put his son up to it.

    Maker should know better than to get involved in Politics.

      1. I’m not sure about the “putting his son up to it” stuff but 14-year-old boys DO sometimes like the shock value. If anything, he threw it together to show off to his friends. That’s why he kept plugging it in even when the teachers told him to stop. It was a prank. 30 years ago they would have called his parents and he would have been sent home for mischief.

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I love to tinker and write about electronics. My days are spent building projects and working as a Technical Editor for MAKE.

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