Computers in the Mist

Craft & Design
Computers in the Mist


Carl Helmers was designing spaceships in kindergarten. He “lucked out” by learning computers in high school in New Jersey, where he eventually got a summer job programming at Bell Labs. Then, as a NASA contractor in Houston, he installed compilers and even wrote a landing program for the Apollo Lunar Module.

Computers were big, expensive machines in the ’70s. At an Intel press introduction for the 4004 and 8008 microprocessors, Helmers realized he could now afford to build one from off-the-shelf parts: “A lot of guys like me who had experience working for other people with computers began building computers of our own.”

Just what were these small computers good for? Hobbyists were searching for answers, so Helmers created a magazine for them called Byte. In its first issue in September 1975, Helmers wrote that for the hardware person “the fun is in the building,” not using or programming. “The software is an exploration of the possibilities of the hardware.” But the whole point of homebrew computers was “to come up with interesting and exotic applications.” A computer experimenter was looking up at a large, unclimbed mountain with three possible ascents — the long, technical climb of hardware; the tethered, steep climb of software; and the guided, well-paced climb of applications — each of them dependent on the others and ideally converging at the peak. Nobody was sure what you’d find there.

The hobbyist revolution that Byte chronicled through the 1980s brought computers into everyday life, and our experience of computers today is largely defined by applications. Indeed, the revolution has come full circle so that networked computers have become what the mainframe once was — only now it’s the cloud, and computers are hidden in the mist.

“The computer has become an appliance,” said Jason Kridner, the developer of the BeagleBoard. “The machine loses relevance if it can’t interact with the physical world, if it sits in the corner and just connects to the internet.” Kridner remembers the computer that he had as a youth. “My mom took the floppy disks and put them in a safe, so I could hack that computer top to bottom.” Like Eben Upton of Raspberry Pi, Kridner wants to bring that kind of computer back.

Kridner was an electronics hobbyist growing up, reading Forrest Mims. “Using a microcontroller to blink an LED would be the stupidest thing to do,” he remarked. “I’d use a 555 timer.” He started developing BeagleBone to satisfy his own goals and help out Texas Instruments as well. His target was Linux developers. “The goal was to put in their hands a platform that would allow them to do new things to advance Linux.”

“I didn’t know about the maker market, per se,” said Kridner. “Yet when makers started picking up the board and doing crazy, fun things, the lights went off.” At Maker Faire Detroit, near Kridner’s home, there was a pick-and-place machine by Jeff McAlvay and a security device by Phil Polstra, each powered by BeagleBone. The OpenROV project, featured in Volume 34, also runs on BeagleBone.

In this issue, we chronicle a second hobbyist revolution that’s starting small with new hardware — a growing number of credit card-sized microcontrollers and processors including Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and BeagleBone.
“What interests me is seeing technology connecting to everyday life, not just stuff in the cloud,” Kridner said. “It’s about taking away the mystery of computers and allowing people to build things out of electronics.” Projects like ArduSat, an open source CubeSat satellite (see Volume 24, DIY Space), and the Earth-imaging satellites from Planet Labs demonstrate that it’s possible to get above and beyond the cloud.

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty