Maker’s knowledge is the unique understanding of a thing by the person who made it. Author and Make: contributor Bill Gurstelle talks about his books, his favorite projects and his ongoing study of the history of science and technology, where the concept of Maker’s Knowledge has been developed. It is knowledge only available to the person who has made the thing.
Bill Gurstelle was trained as a mechnical engineer but started a career on the side writing technical books with how-to projects. His first book, published in 2001, was “Backyard Ballistics.” His three-volume, Remaking History, is published by Make:. In this conversation, I talk to Bill about how he got started writing books, how started writing for Make, and discuss his favorite project, a spud gun. A cool version, a see-thru potato cannon, the Night Lighter, was published in Make:. One of his more difficult projects was the Ornithopter.
We discuss two trips that we took together:
He talks about studying the history of science and technology. We discuss James Watt’s flyball governor and the invention of the steam engine. In Volume 79 of Make:, the Boards issue, we publish “Raise Water by Fire”, Bill’s recreation of Thomas Savery’s proto-steam engine, the first industrial machine to use fossil fuel. His next “Remaking History” project for Make: will look at a device that allows you to see underwater — the aquascope or bathyscope.
Link: A listing of projects by Bill Gurstelle published in Make: and available online.
Bill: Maker knowledge, if you pare it down real simply, is that the things that you make provide — if you make something, you have a better understanding of how it was made, why it was made, when it was made than anybody else. That’s maker’s knowledge.
Dale: Welcome to Make:cast. I’m Dale Dougherty.
I’m joined today by Bill Gurstelle, who is a author of many non-fiction books which we will cover here. He’s a columnist in make. We’ve also published several of his remaking history books, three of them to be exact.
Bill, where are you right now?
Bill: I’m in my office in St. Paul, Minnesota, where it’s very cold today. It’s three degrees above zero. And it’s sunny though. That’s something.
Dale: That’s good. I thought I’d ask you– how did you first become a book author? What even made you think of doing that? And where were you in your life and how did you know that’s something you wanted to do?
Bill: This would be about I’m going to say 19 98, 19 99. So it’s been a long time since I’ve been doing this.
At the time I have a degree in mechanical engineering and I was working as a mechanical engineer. I actually was was a registered engineer in the state of Minnesota. And that was my full-time job. That’s how I supported myself and my family. well, 1998 decided that, I wasn’t totally involved in my profession.
So I want to do something in my own spare time. And what I’ve always liked to do is make things, just make my own things. And, the more exciting it was, the more attention I could get from other people who, who saw me make things the better. I liked that. I decided that I would kinda make a listing. These are the very early days of the internet, Dale. And I would look online, I’d see what other people were making. And boy, this was all, nobody was doing anything like that at the time, but I find these really weird things on Usenet and listservs and things of other people who make things and it inspired me. It really did. So I decided I’d make a book of a 10, 15, whatever really exciting things to make. So I went ahead and did that. And then when I looked at it, I said, huh, that’s pretty cool. So I gave it the name, Backyard Ballistics, and I decided I was going to be able to self publish it. I bought a book on how to self publish your own book.
And I said print it out, make a bunch of Xerox copies, the time you go out to Kinko’s or some copy shop and get a bunch of them. And I made, I don’t know, maybe 25 copies and I sent them out to famous scientific and technical people. And I said, please review this book so I can get a back cover blurb, and I just sent it out. There just aren’t a lot of, even at the time of scientists who are like everyday names, besides Stephen Hawking. Yeah, where are you going to go? Stephen, Jay Gould. He was dead. He just died. There just weren’t a lot of them.
So I would send them out to whoever I could think of. I said about to astronauts, so I sent it out to Carl Sagan’s widow. I sent it out to a woman named Dana Sobell, who was the chief science correspondent at the New York Times. And she loved my book. She said, this is great. This is what the world needs.
She doesn’t know me from Adam. And she says, Bill, I’m going to help you. So she gave me the name of her publisher. And I talked to them and they liked it. They didn’t like it enough to publish it, but they liked it enough to find me an agent who ultimately got my book published. So that was my first book, Backyard Ballistics.
And I got to tell you it’s sold and sold. I couldn’t believe it. And I started making some good money. And I said I’m gonna do a second book. So I did a book on making robots, combat robots. This was when BattleBots was all the big rage. So me and my son, Andy, we’d make BattleBots not Battle Bots. They’re actually a different league, but it was same kind of thing. And that sold pretty good too. And then I wrote a book on making catapults and these are all things that I had done, in my ancient past and never thought I could make money doing. I liked it. I said, this is way more fun than working as a registered engineer.
So I cast my net wide and it came across Make Magazine, which is this brand new startup magazine. They were just doing crazy stuff, just like what I wanted to do. So I reached out to them, to you, Mark Frauenfelder was the editor in chief at the time, and we got along famously and I’ve just been doing that ever since.
Dale: So how did you know that? Did you worry that there was an audience for backyard ballistics? Or did you just publish it hoping there was?
Bill: Like I said I was going to publish it myself, but because I got an agent, my agent got a publisher is up to them to market it. It was a really good publisher. It was top-notch publisher and they really ran with it. Got great publicity and the book sold and sold. So did I worry? No, it wasn’t. Yeah, it’d be nice if it sold well, but I wasn’t investing in it money.
Dale: Do you think say this is the late nineties when you publish that book and it’s what leads to Make in some ways. I realized that there are a lot of projects that maybe, a new generation had never done. They weren’t new necessarily. It’s building a trebuchet or something like that, but a lot of fun and pretty cool. You could certainly present them as school projects in another light if you wanted to.
But the idea was this is exciting and fun to do. And maybe it’s a little dangerous, or maybe there’s things in here that people aren’t telling you that you could do these things and it opens up a whole new world to you. Oh racing cars or something. Yeah. It’s a little dangerous, but it’s fun, people like to do it.
Bill: But the danger is a big aspect. I was the first guy to really come up with projects that said, okay, you’re on your own. There’s no guarantee of your safety. If you’re going to do these things, it’s on you. I’ve done these things. I’ve done them safely. If you don’t follow directions, even if you do follow the directions, you’re still on your own.
People accepted that. And I think that was new and it really worked out. That’s why the books are popular. That little aspect of danger might be overstating it, but there are some risks here. If you didn’t do it, things can go haywire in a bad way.
Dale: And to some degree, culturally people telling their kids not to do these things and the kids go, man, I could do this. I might not tell my parents, but I’m going to go out and do it.
Bill: The most popular project in Backyard Ballistics, one of the most popular project in any book I’ve ever written is something called a potato cannon, a spud gun. Whenever you want a tuber shooter, whatever you want to call it. And if you make one, you go and it works the first time you shoot it, it’s POW, it’s a visceral shock to your system because you made something so powerful, so noisy, so loud, and yet it works. So that’s pretty cool.
Dale: Yeah, definitely. You did a version of that in make, the Night Lighter, I think.
Bill: Yeah, that was, I think it was volume four if I’m not mistaken, but yeah, I did. I did that. And I made that one on a clear PVC. So you could actually see the explosion in the combustion chamber and that’s pretty neat.
Dale: Is there another project from your books that’s a favorite of yours?
Bill: I love all my children equally. In my books? There are a lot, they’re all different, so that’s a hard question. I think maybe a question I could answer for you is, I’ve written a lot of columns and articles for make magazine. And I look back and there’s some, I’m tremendously proud of.
I’m proud of all of them. I don’t think I’ve ever said, boy this is real stinker because I wouldn’t send it to you if it was. But early on I made something really challenging, called an ornithopter. Do you know what an an ornithopter is?
Bill: It’s a it’s like an airplane that flies by flap. Okay. It doesn’t have a propeller. It flaps its way through the sky. And early on, I built a an ornithopter around out of a rubber bands and balsa wood, and we published that in make, and that was a challenge. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more time on a project cause it’s really hard to get their dynamics right. It has to be so light Dale. It’s really hard to get an order appear to fly, but I got it. It finally flew and then I published it and I felt that was pretty cool. I liked that.
Dale: Did you ever hear from people that it was difficult for them or that it worked or it didn’t?
Bill: I didn’t, I don’t get tons of feedback. People just don’t write to magazines. And again, this would be, In the early two thousands. So there wasn’t a lot of email or maybe there was, but I don’t remember getting much, I did another one that I liked and I liked this because it’s so clever. I’m always proud of myself.
James Watt. He didn’t invent the steam engine, but he improved it a great deal and made it practical. And it powered the whole industrial revolution. And one of the things Watt did was he made something called a flyball governor, a centrifical governor that controlled how fast the steam head would spin around because you don’t want it to go out of control. And maybe you’ve seen these things. There are these balls on the end of rods and the faster the thing spins around, the higher the balls go up into the air and the higher the balls go up in the air, the harder it is for the machine to turn. So it maintains a valve at a set opening.
I recreated that for a Make magazine article. And, there’d be a lot of machining and there’d be a lot of expense in making a real James Watt flyball governor. But I was able to come up with a really cool analog and I don’t remember which issue it is, but it really works surprisingly well.
And I talked to the editor. I was working with a man named Keith Hammond and we both enjoyed that one quite a bit. I was very proud of that one. I’ve probably done over 50 projects, so there are probably other ones I liked just as much, but that comes to mind.
Dale: I was looking at this issue of Make, speaking of the industrial revolution, you have a project in there. The steam engines really first kind of invented in that period to, to take water out of the mine. And so in this one, you’re talking about the first machine to use fossil fuel to do that, right?
Bill: So James watt, when he’d been at the steam engine. His work depended on somebody named Newcomen right. And Newcomen’s work rested on somebody called Thomas Savery and Thomas Savery invented the first machine ever to use fossil fuels to do useful work. And basically it would heat up a cylinder and then you would close the cylinder. So you would heat up a cylinder by filling it full of steam, then you’d close the valves off. So there was steam trapped inside that cylinder, and then you would pour cold water on it. And when that happened, the steam would condense. And when the steam condenses, it pulled the vacuum and then you’d open up a valve and that vacuum would pull water up out of the mine.
And that was Savery’s brilliant idea. Again, to make a real engine, you have to have a lathe, and a mill and all this, but in this issue, I guess it’s the latest issue. So I’m glad you brought it up. People could look at it if they have it in front of them. You can see how Thomas Savery invented this brilliant machine. It doesn’t have a piston. It’s real simple, but it does pump. Not efficiently, but it pumps water like it’s supposed to.
Dale: I find it interesting, like the origins of technology sometimes, because what was the problem that was facing them? We tend to think of steam engines for transportation — trains and boats and things –but, it was originally, it was moving water.
Bill: They had all these coal mines in Britain and they’re full of water. You dig down, you get water and they had guys with buckets hauling them out. So they needed something better.
Dale: You and I, in the early days of the magazine, got to take a few trips together that were just awfully fun.
Every time that Halloween comes around, it makes me think of the Punkin Chunkin contest in Delaware, And you were the perfect person to bring along because it’s a field of trebuchets, catapults and all these things. And to give some color to it, some of these the air cannons particularly are large. They’re painted colors, they have funny names and their crew often looks like a NASCAR team, they’re all decked out in pressed red shirts that have logos on them. I don’t think anybody makes money at a punkin chunkin contest. They might win money at NASCAR. People spend a couple of days in a Delaware cornfield, hurling these pumpkins. And I don’t know if you have a memory from that time.
Bill: Of course I do. It was a big moment in my life. Something I’ll never forget. If you ever, because I was part of the press. I had a good press credential. I could get behind the line to get back with the guys who are actually hurling the pumpkins, and as you say, there’s different kinds of pumpkin chunkers.
The biggest ones are these gigantic air cannons. And they’re huge. They’re just massive. And they’re built to toss a pumpkin, a 10 pound white pumpkin because white pumpkins are really hard and they’re built to toss them as far as they can possibly be tossed. We had various teams and as you mentioned, the teams had real personalities, real personalities.
So you had some teams that were like these engineers. They’d have CAD CAM drawings and they’d have everything figured out. And it was really nice. And then you’d have teams that were just — I think probably hillbilly is a pejorative term, but they were just like guys who just started pounding and welding and see what comes up and, they would do just as good, just as well as the engineer teams.
And there was no love loss between the good old boys and then the college kids, They didn’t love each other, but they both made a mean pumpkin chunking device.
Dale: Yeah, they did. And it was fun to talk to these people because it was a big part of their life.
And I recall he had, when he’s air cannon rigs, it might be, 70 feet long and. And I said where does this go when you’re not at Punkin Chunkin. He says my front yard.
He’s like somewhere in rural Virginia, I think, and just parks it there. The one I also remember was a big iron catapult, Yankee Siege. Do you remember that one? And it’s 50 feet, 55 feet tall.
Bill: I remember that it was Yankee Siege. And the guy who built it was a dentist. A New Hampshire dentist. And he’d spend thousands on this thing. And they was so big that when I remember when they erected it at Punkin Chunkin, they would bring in a crane. They would need a rocket crate and just to set it all up, it was so big. But that thing could really toss well.
Dale: I remember asking him. Did you build a bunch of smaller ones and then eventually you get to 55 feet tall. He said, no, this is the first one I’ve ever built!
The other comment that I made was that this man’s obituary, even though he’d been a dentist all his life in the community, will say builder of Yankee siege and the 55 foot tall catapult.
Bill: Yeah. You got to hear that. That just shows some kind of really cool craziness. Wow.
Dale: Then the origin story of Punkin Chunkin was that it started as a bar competition locally that, they were throwing pumpkins after Halloween. And eventually they got around to say could we do this with a machine. And it went crazy from there. And we probably hit it in about its heyday cause I think it did dissolve.
Bill: Doesn’t exist anymore. Good stuff always dissolves. It’s too bad.
Dale: The other event we went to was the Osh Kosh Air Show. I’ve been twice I believe. That’s the ultimate DIY project to build your own plane. And there’s, this is what we learned from is I thought it’s fascinating. It’s organized by the EAA, which is Experimental Aviation Association. And they came together after World War Two to largely because insurance companies wouldn’t insure private planes. And people couldn’t fly and they passed legislation saying if you built more than 50, I think it’s 51% of your plane yourself, and you could fly it.
You didn’t need insurance. And so it launched an entire industry of people building their own planes, kit planes. And that’s kinda what the core of the show is still is people, but it’s so cool. I’m not a pilot or anything. People fly into the show and they camp out next to their plane and people come from all over.
It really felt like a Maker Faire kind of event because people. They do and they like to talk shop, they like to stand around, their plane. The other thing that I remember was what maybe tell the story about the Breezy pilots.
Bill: You’re right. There’s a lot of home built aircraft there. In case anybody’s interested. I guess the cheapest airworthy craft is called the Breezy. It’s a kit craft, and it’s really very simple. You buy wings. You don’t make the wings, you buy the wings, but then you bought these wings to what looks like an oversized stepladder turned on its side.
And then it had a 65 horsepower pusher, a 65 horsepower pusher prop, pushing, pointing backwards. So it pushed you and then you would make the control stuff. And then basically the owner would mount like lawn chairs on this really thin metal frame. And you would take it up in the air and it’s there’s really not much — let’s put it like this. There’s nothing between you and the air around you. You’re just sitting there on top of anothin’ in a lawn chair at 900 feet and it’s a genuine experience. Let me tell you, because the guy gave me a ride on his Breezy. There’s the pilot who’s in front of me and then there’s a chair that’s wide enough, just wide enough for two people, in back of the pilot. So he took me and this 11 year old girl and she said, we’re going up. So we go up. I had a camera and I get scared of heights, but you know what, in a normal airplane, nobody thinks about it. But in this, I was just petrified the whole time, just petrified.
And I knew I, okay, I’m up here. I’m a journalist. I got to take some pictures. So I do everything I could to get my camera up and I pushed the button, put it down and oh, I’m so scared. I’m so scared. And this 11 year old girl next. She’s having a great time. She’s not scared at all. She just thinks this is the most marvelous thing.
And I was like, oh, get me down. But I didn’t actually cry out, but I felt like it. It was quite the experience. Let’s put it like that.
Dale: I remember the fellow we were talking about. He flew his plane from Texas all the way up to Wisconsin. He said,, you know, we could see a storm coming and we’d try to get away from it to the right. Or we’d eventually land if it was bad, but he had no protection. And it was almost like being a dare devil to do that, but he also said that commercial airline pilots wanted to fly his plane because of just the sensation of flying that you were up in the air, wind in your face, it was as raw as it could be.
And they don’t feel any of that in a commercial airliner.
Bill: Yeah. It was like being Daedalus up there. It’s just an unmediated climbing experience. You really are just up there. It’s cool.
Dale: To go back to history a bit, you’ve really been studying and working and looking at makers making in the past and looking at what inventors and other people, scientists and others have created. You have three books and why don’t you talk about how those are structured?
Bill: Yeah, I’d love to. So I have three Remaking History books, which are published by Make and what they are is they are projects that I’ve come up with that are a combination of first of all technology or science, history and DIY. So you mix science history and DIY together, and that’s what you get. You get these Remaking History books. Remaking history means like we’re remaking this history. We’re learning history by making important historical things. So there’s three books and each book covers a particular period in history chronologically.
I don’t remember off the top of my head what the exact demarcations are, but you’ve got early, then you’ve got the ancient world through medieval times then you’d have basically the scientific revolution through the enlightenment and then you’d have everything that went after that.
Bill: And the whole idea is that each project is some important bit of technology or a scientific experiment, like an instrument of some sort and you recreate those. And they’re not exactly recreations, but they’re functional recreations. They show what that was about.
And I just fell in love with this whole idea of recreating history to find things out because you can learn a lot. If you’re a historian, I think of myself as an historian as a profession. Now there’s a lot of stuff that’s not available by reading text. You can’t find notes from every scientist of what they did in the laboratory or anything.
There’s a lot of unanswered questions. So if you’re going to find new information, learn more about how people actually went through this act of innovation and creating and whatever. Sometimes a good way to recover that information is to try and remake it yourself. And that’s what I that’s what I’ve been concentrating on for the last few years. It’s interesting.
Dale: It does fundamentally get to the question of how do we know something, or how, that person is trying to build something to learn about something or discover something.
Bill: There’s a group of philosophers– you’ve heard of Francis Bacon.
Yes. Ever heard of a guy named Vico. V I C O.
Dale: No, I don’t think so.
Bill: Okay. There’s a whole group of what I call early modern philosophers, who really thought a lot about science and technology. And they came up with this concept that — it was a concept that was well known at the time they wrote, because they wrote about it.
It’s called maker’s knowledge. It’s actually something right along your line. The idea of maker’s knowledge, and it’s a really heavy philosophy of science concept that people spent their careers investigating the nuances of maker’s knowledge. And maker knowledge if you pare it down real simply is that the things that you make provide, if you make something, you have a better knowledge understanding of how it was made, why it was made, when it was made than anybody else. That’s maker’s knowledge.
And If you take a pocket watch. Okay. And you give it to me. It’s my watch now. I can look at it and say, yes, it’s four o’clock and I can wind it, but I don’t know everything about that. And I can take it to a watch repairman or a woman, and they can go in there and fix it, but they don’t know everything about it.
How, why it was made the way it was made? Why are there that many teeth on the gears? Why are these gears laid out in that way? Only the maker of that would know. That’s called maker’s knowledge. And it’s a really rich area to explore historically, because if you get into the maker’s knowledge concept of, into the heads of the people who are making.
You can find out a lot of stuff and not going to like, there’s a lot of philosophers who talk about this, but it’s something that I’ve been in.
Dale: That’s a great term. I’ve been fascinated with the term lately “know-how,” which is in that area.
Education is an abstraction of knowledge right now. Like they’re distilling something and you can’t know how it was created or how you, how that’s true. But know-how is connected to the process of making. And how did you get from there to there? Including all the mistakes and dead ends that happened there.
So tell me you’re late in life, you decided to go back to college.
Bill: Late in life.. I guess so
Dale: You’re not a 19 year old on campus.
Bill: I’m not a 19 year old on campus. And I feel that more and more as I walked through campus. But when you reach a certain age in the state of Minnesota, you can go go to school for not very much money. It’s low. They figured you’re too old, but you do get credit for it.
So I went back to school just for the heck of it, started taking a couple of classes in history and liked it. So I decided that rather than going after more money or something, what I want to do is go after knowledge. So I applied and was accepted to the the program the doctoral program, the University of Minnesota in the history of science, technology and medicine.
And I’ve been on that program. This is my third year now, when I’m working on my preliminary exams. And then after I pass that, then I start to write my dissertation, but it’s been it’s been a lot of work, but real rewarding. It’s fun and frustrating at the same time. But I’m learning a lot and I’m staying occupied and if everything turns out, I don’t really plan to get a job as a college professor. I’m done.
That’s not my interest, but what I do plan on doing is adding body of knowledge about the things that well, both you and I are interested in. And probably other makers as well. And that’s where I’m at right now.
Dale: That’s cool. Is there an an era that you focus on in time or history that you’re looking at?
Bill: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Every era has cool stuff. Just by default, I’ve spent more time what they call the early modern period. So we’re going to say from basically the end of the Renaissance to the industrial revolution. So this would be the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, which is, I grant you, that’s a very long window, but that’s my window.
Dale: Terrific. What is your next column in Make about?
Bill: So my next project for Make magazine is, It’s not very complicated. It’s really simple, but it’s really cool. There was a woman don’t ask me her name.
Dale (2): It’s Sarah Mather.
Bill: I don’t remember now women inventor who worked in New York at the time of the Civil War and her project or the thing she wanted to make was a way for the Navy to look down into the water and see what was going on underneath the ship in terms of dealing with the propeller or the hull, or see what’s down there. So she invented something called a aquascope or a bathyscope. Okay. And basically it’s a device that, you can’t literally look through the water because the optics aren’t good.
You have that light reflection and refraction. So the bathyscope allows you to punch down under the water and get a good view. A good clear view of what’s happened. So our next project takes us this brilliant woman inventor’s idea and simplifies it and allows people to look below the water on their own.
So I’m looking forward to it getting that one done..
Dale: Bill, thank you for spending time with me today. It’s great to reconnect and good luck in your studies. Thank you again for writing for make. And we look forward to reading about your bathyscope project.
Bill: Okay, thank you for having me. I enjoyed being here.