One of the things I enjoyed in doing my most recent book, Tips and Tales from the Workshop, was using it as opportunity to celebrate my dad and his dad, both wonderful men and inspiring makers. They both helped instill in me a DIY view of the world; the idea that you can understand, construct, and improve the physical world around you. My dad is a retire civil engineer and building contractor who taught me a lot about tools, how to use them, and how to respect them. He was a role model to me in how to have confidence in myself in investigating technical problems and finding practical solutions.
My grandad was a self-taught maker who loved working on cars, his house and yard, and inventing crazy contraptions. He was a mirthful and funny man who, like my dad, taught me a sense of confidence in solving problems and coming up with creative solutions. His solutions were often very creative. I wrote the following piece in the book to describe his approach to invention and some of his more clever creations.
Happy Father’s Day to all of the dads and granddads out there who helped teach similar lessens to their kids. Many of us who are makers are driven by your inspiration.
My Granddad, Maker of Magic
My grandfather was a crazed inventor. All of his life he seemed to be joyously tinkering with his world, hacking the tools and everyday objects around him to improve his life (and to have a few laughs in the process). As a kid, I was in awe of Gramps (as we grand kids called him). He was like a magical being to me. When he lived in Framingham, Massachusetts, he sometimes played a department store Santa at Christmas. He was Santa Claus to me for the rest of the year.
When he and my grandmother retired to Florida in the late ‘60s, he converted a Sears metal shed into his backyard workshop. I have these wonderful memories of him flinging open the doors to that shop and standing there triumphantly, showing off some new device or wacky hack that he’d just dreamed up. Every few weeks, he would go to the local thrift store and buy whatever junk spoke to him. Hurrying home, he’d be banging around in his shop, strange sounds and his distinctive laugh (and his equally distinctive Arabic cursing) echoing from within. Finally, he’d emerge, fresh from some latest “Eureka!” moment.
One time, Gramps came out of his shop while I was doing some yard work that he’d assigned me. He was grinning ear to ear, and looking more excited than normal. He had on a pair of long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. He turned side to side to show me the getup before he revealed his great new invention. He reached up to the sleeves, undid some snaps, and removed the lower half of each sleeve. He then did the same thing with the pants, unsnapping the legs just above the knees. He stood there, thrilled with his own ingenuity. “Convertible clothing!” he chortled in his deep, Santa-worthy way. It would be years before we’d see this kind of convertible clothing become commercially available, with zippers, and then Velcro, as the fasteners. Gramps got there first.
Another time, he’d gone to the thrift shop and come back with a toaster, a waffle iron, and two electric skillets. He emerged from his mad scientist’s lab hours later in his typical flourish of chuckles and self-satisfied grins. He had turned this box of junk into a pita bread oven.
I wasn’t aware of the deep impression my grandfather was making on me at the time, but he ended up, and remains, one of my greatest inspirations as a maker and a creative person. He had this almost predatory eye, which was forever-trained on the world, looking for things to scavenge for parts realizing some idea that had been swimming around in his head.
Those who study creativity know that one of the habits of creative people is to see the world around them as a collection of parts that can be recombined in new, innovative ways. The inventor looks at a pair of skis and a motorcycle, combines them in the mind’s eye, and imagines the snowmobile. Thanks to my granddad, I saw this kind of creative “recombinism” in action at a very early age, and have never forgotten it.