The Sneaky DIY of Cy Tymony

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Cy Tymony and his "Sneaky" books

Cy Tymony is well known as the author of “Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things” and “Sneaky Math” and he’s written for Make Magazine as well. However, I didn’t know much about him and his life story. Cy has a wonderful DIY worldview that he shares through his many books and it comes across in the interview. He promises to reveal a secret world to you if you’re willing to be a little sneaky, something he’s learned from being so curious.

To Cy, sneaky means you learn about something that not everybody knows, the way a magician has learned to do a trick and then can amaze their friends.  Cy says his point is to encourage everyone to “discover the power and resources that you have,” which is some ways is the life story of Cy Tymony.


Transcript: The Sneaky DIY of Cy Tymony

Dale: Cy Tymony began publishing pamphlets that he sold through mail order in comic books. Then he published his first Sneaky book in 2003. He did a second edition of the book in 2020, and he’s also published a book called ‘Sneaky Math’. There’s always been a connection between Cy and Make going back to the beginning of the magazine. In April, 2005. Cy and Make’s then associate editor, Phil Torrone, both appeared on an episode of Ira Flatow’s Science Friday to talk about DIY projects.

Science Friday excerpt from April 1, 2005 show.

Ira: You’re listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. 

Well, for the rest of this hour, we’re We’re going to talk about things that you can, and we hope possibly you should try on your own. Fun weekend projects for folks who like science and technology, or maybe inspiration.

We’re going to talk about all kinds of interesting things you can do at home with objects around your house that already exist and you can just modify them, hack them as they say in the business or change real simple stuff and joining me on this old lab are two people who know about doing it yourself.

Cy Tymony is a author of the book Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things. There’s a title, a guide to projects you can try on your own like making milk into plastic. I’d like to try that. Phillip Torrone is one of the editors of a new magazine called Make: Technology on Your Own Time. They’ve only published one issue so far, but it’s filled with projects that might appeal to, uh, shall we say, the more geeky among us. Present company included. I’m waiting for the next issue. Cy, you’re author of Sneaky Thing, Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things.

I tantalized everybody, I hope, by talking about how to turn milk into sneaky plastic. Yes. Why would we want to do that? 

Cy: Oh, for many reasons. You might have a battery clip cover or something that you need to replace. Or you may want to make some crafts. Or you just may have milk that’s gone bad and you can still use it.

Basically, milk has plastic in it called casein. And by bringing it to a simmer and adding a little bit of vinegar to it. It’ll rise to the top and you can pour it through a strainer. It’ll clump up just like a Play Doh and you can shape it into any shape you want and after about three days, it’s hard as plastic because it is plastic.

Ira: Wow. 


Dale: Welcome, Cy. 

Cy: Thank you for having me, Dale. 

Dale: What’s something that people don’t know about you? 

Cy: Let’s see . I love dollar origami. I roller skate a lot indoors. I’ve been an avid skater since I was a kid, and I have a couple little videos that were taken at the indoor roller skating on quad wheels.

I’m from Chicago, that’s a big thing there. I also do dollar origami. I get bored sometimes or whatever and I make rings and cars and spaceships out of dollars. And it really helps out because if you’re in line at the rental counter or on an airplane, it just takes your mind away from everything.

And then when you give it away, people don’t throw it away because it’s made out of currency and we always have currency on us, so you never run out of something to do. 

Dale: So you grew up in Chicago, but I believe you live in Southern California now? 

Cy: Yes, I live in Southern California. I moved out here when I was about 23 . I love it. I love both places. 

Creating The Magna Power Ring from a Reed Switch

Dale: How did you get into doing what you do, which, I think you work in tech, but you started writing books about, like Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things and how did that develop?

Cy: I’ve always been into– We could say MacGyver-like things. MacGyver wasn’t around when I was younger, but I really liked the professor, Fred Johnson on Gilligan’s Island. It’s one thing to be a spy or high concept character that has a lot of skills and things, but I really liked when the professor’s on the island and he could make things out of coconuts and tree branches, everything except for a boat or rowboat.

He could make a bowling alley. He could make all sorts of things. And I like that. Also, I was attracted to the character of Columbo, by Peter Falk. Most of the other detectives were capable and they’d come in and they’d do this and they mostly interrogate suspects the normal way. But Columbo would usually come in after the detectives were there and he would spot an everyday thing or something out of the ordinary or something missing like a Sherlock Holmes.

And that intrigued me. I liked the way this show was produced and so that got me into looking into the minutiae of details and adaptations. So I love that I was building things and then one day, I discovered a reed switch. Reed switch is a magnetic switch that’s usually on doors for alarms and it’s sensitive to magnetism. It’ll close or open depending on the magnet is near it. And once I found that, I went, Oh, wow. Wow. I could put a magnet on a ring and put the reed switch connected to a battery in the light that’s hidden and turn on something Green Lantern style.

And so I did that. Then I started a mail order business. I bought ads in comic books. It was called the Magna Power Ring. 

Dale: Let me ask, how old were you? 

Cy: I was 19, I believe. Okay. 18 or 19.

Dale: When you were 19, you started to make like gags, pranks and things and you sold them from the back of comic books?

Cy: Yes. 

Dale: Two inch square ads or one inch square ads.

Cy: Yep. Yep. I have copies of it. I wrote to the comics and found out how much of those little one inch and two inch ads. And they gave me a price.

So I said am I going to actually do this? And I did. So I did. I started selling that Ring and then added a few more things, a PowerSwitch and I started selling things from other distributors too, because if I’m buying the ad. So then what happened is to get into writing, I had to have the instruction sheets, so I had to write the instruction sheets, go get the parts, solder, put it together, and I said, I’m getting a little tired of making all this stuff, right?

Super Powers Made Simple

Cy: So I put the instruction sheets together and added some more resourceful ideas and, science projects and created a book called Super Powers Made Simple, and I sold that mostly [through mail order]. 

Dale: Did you self publish it? 

Cy: Yes, it was a booklet about 60 pages. Yeah, okay. It had projects and things that you could make and scientific principles and other things. 

Dale: Do you remember your first mail order, like the first piece of mail you got? It’s a pretty exciting moment, isn’t it? 

Cy: Oh my goodness. My P. O. box was two and a half blocks away. As there’s a long lead time when you place an ad, and you have to wait months, okay? I went over to that P. O. box, and when I got that first order, And by the way, the ring was $1.50, so they would literally send quarters. A dollar and a couple quarters in there. And the first one came, the next one came, and then every single day. Here’s the funny part. Comic books are– they have comic book stores, they’re still traded. Those comics are still out there. I still get orders from the late seventies, because those ads and those comic books are traded, old back issues and things.

Dale: They still send you a dollar fifty? 

Cy: No, they know not to do that. When I pick up an old comic, sometimes I’ll see it.

The genius gizmos of Lex Luthor 

Cy: Around that time the Superman movie was being produced. Now, I’m in Chicago. We only just saw movies, but this was the first time I read articles about making of a movie. They were talking about casting it, etc. Now, my biggest hero in fiction is Lex Luthor. Because he’s the most resourceful character there is.

The other ones already have wealth, money, powers, and abilities. He just has his mind. And almost every issue, he’s already in prison. And he does something resourceful, fly a kite out of his window, and lightning strikes the bars, and he gets out. I love that part. And then he’s only a man, but he takes on Superman.

And he does it with gizmos that he creates and that just propelled me when I was a kid, say five, six, seven years old to keep reading science books and making things. I had to have fiction and practical technology and learn physics together, just propelled me to keep doing stuff.

So that’s propelled me to start a mail order business. Now, the Superman movie was. articles about it, about casting and things were coming out. When it came out I sent letters to every Chicago publication and some national ones about how I have a company called Super Powers Made Simple.

What I did was I wrote people. It came out like the winter of 78. I didn’t hear anything from anybody until the spring of next year, and a lady from the Chicago Tribune called me and said, What’s this all about? I started describing. She says, Come on downtown, talk to me. So I went down there and told her everything, brought her some things.

She says, Okay go ahead and come down one more time. We’re gonna have a photo shoot. I said, Wow, photo shoot? So I did that and forgot about it. A few months went by. You had a call super early in the morning, Cy, your article’s out. I said, really? I went to find it, and I thought it’d be like a two-inch blurb.

It was the entire section of the entertainment section of the paper. It was the entire section, with me holding my ring towards the camera and another page too. I couldn’t believe it.

So subsequently, a day or two later, I went to my PO box and there was just a little card in there saying it’s too much stuff to fit in the box. And I had to take a bag full of orders home. 

Dale: Oh, wow. 

Cy: And then I got an offer to be on the local ABC TV morning show and WFLD TV. And I got to be in Future Life magazine. I sent that article out to other publications. That’s where I learned how to parlay publicity when you get it. 

Dale: What did they call you? We have this local kid who is like an inventor. 

Cy: They call me just like you said, Sneaky Cy. Sneaky Cy. 

Becoming a book author

Cy: Some people told me, why don’t you write professionally, like for publication? I said, what does that mean? He says that they pay writers for stuff. So I got some books on propositioning agents and publications and editors, and I couldn’t believe, I said, wait a minute. I can send them just an idea and they’re going to send me an advance ahead of time. They’d never met me. They never will. Oh, I couldn’t understand it, right? So I sent up a proposal. I told them who I was. I got a couple of book deals out of that, right? Those were technical books. 

The first one was called “99 Fun to Make Electronic Projects.” I did that and a couple more books. Then down the road, I started doing computer tech support and we had some problems way back then when Windows came out, multimedia came out and programs couldn’t stay in memory. Your computer would crash because of memory issues. So I’d be on the phone talking to people just like this. I would say, let’s edit your Autodesk bat. Let’s do this. I wanted to recommend a book that they could do this and there was nothing out there.

So I proposed a book about that, about say memory management. And they decided to call it “Computer Gamer Survival Guide.” Later on, I said, technical books are okay, but it’s a sort of a limited audience when it’s really technical. I’m doing okay in my job, but I said, I want to do another super powers book, but change it.

From Extraordinary to Sneaky 

Cy: So I did a proposal for a book called ‘Extraordinary Uses for Everyday Things." And it had different projects in it, etc. So I propositioned an agent, got me a publisher, Bantam Books, and they assigned an editor with me to make it better than I would have made it. And everything was going okay, and it was about to go to artwork.

And then an editor in chief came in, and pushed out a bunch of projects, including mine, and brought in their own projects. So I was disappointed, to say the least. I was ready to promote it and go out and do things. But it was a blessing in disguise. You can’t really judge things until later.

I kept the advance, because I still had the rights. Years later I said let me try this one more time. And by that time the Internet was flourishing, cheap computers were out there, everybody had one, you could go do this and that.

So then I said, the word extraordinary is complicated and big. Let me change it to sneaky. Sneaky is sexy. It’s mysterious. And, and then I took out all the more complicated projects like car modifications, soldering and things like that. I get it so that anybody with things from their kitchen or their pocket or just out in the street could do these things.

Show the trick first

Cy: What it really was this, I love science and I like teaching science to kids, but the thing is, a lot of books start off with a lot of complicated theory and formulas, and then you get to the trick in the end, which they really wanted. So "Sneaky Uses" is really the reverse.

I show the trick first and then I show them a little theory And I hope that propels them to stay and to read other books and to continue on because you got to excite kids and young people with something you can do that’s unusual, at least I thought, right? 

So anyway, I get another agent. We retitled the book and I got another publisher and it turned out fantastic because their art design, their sales team is fantastic. Now here’s one little snafu. They showed me the cover, which is great, I think, and they said here’s the cover and the blurb said, sneaky uses for everyday things. How to soothe your aching knees with alcohol pads.

I think, oh my God, no. I said, you got to say something like how to turn a penny into a radio, how to make fire with water, how to turn one screw in a radio and pick up aircraft broadcasts. And luckily they stuck with that.

And then 450, 000 copies later, over 10 books, of course, 10 sequels and spin offs and things. So the cover, And I think the compelling copy really sold it to teachers and parents. And it’s been used in schools and I’ve done every piece of publicity I could. And and it’s selling today, twenty years later, it’s still selling.

So I’m so happy. So like I say, sometimes you judge things by, oh my God, a disappointment, but I’m glad the first one didn’t come out at that time. 

Dale: You caught on to something that I think we reflect a bit in make, but you’re a pure version of it. And it is the I can’t think of a better word right now, but it’s like a little bit being naughty. It’s like doing something you’re maybe not supposed to do. There’s a little bit of danger in it or you perceive that. 

Cy: Yeah. 

Dale: It’s like why skateboards are interesting. Because you might fall, you’re going to go fast, but you might fall off. Yeah. Don’t hurt yourself, but in education we make things so plain that they don’t have that edge anymore. And a kid’s looking for that, it’s that promise that you see in some of these older things. Your example of turn a penny into a radio, like it’s like a magic trick. The recipe is you’re going to know how to do that, but most people will think you just created something out of the blue. 

Cy: And I had a lot of stuff for survival there too, because knowing how to do certain things can save your life. Knowing how to build this and to just how to float or how to make a fire in the wilderness. So a lot of the things that I have in the book, a lot of people, they won’t do them all. Of course, they buy them for gifts for other people, but they are fascinated with that you could do something and it can reveal gifts.

Dale: But it gets your imagination going, in a way.

Cy: Really the theme of it is to realize the power and resources that are right in front of you. That’s what I mentioned Colombo. He’d come around. The other detectives have looked. They didn’t find anything, but he did. He looked or he listened. He, of course, he interrogates the suspects and gets on their nerves. That was part of the allure of the show, but he finds something that the others didn’t, that they missed. And that’s what intrigued me.

If I just have a book called Science Projects, that’s one thing, but you want to have something that’s unusual, that the average person doesn’t know that you could do. And you can turn a milk into plastic. You can, like I said, make a radio with a penny instead of a crystal, as a tuner.. I use a penny and a paper clip, two unlike metals. You can take two unlike metals and make a battery. So it’s a lot of things that are around us. And that’s the theme of it. Discover the power and resources that you have. 

A lot of people are disappointed with their lives. They’re disappointed with their station in their life. But if they really realize their blessings and they can see that they have a lot, whether it’s their basic health, whether the network of friends around them, they have lots of resources.

And in today’s world, oh my God, we have. Just YouTube alone. To be able to study things that we could never, ever study so easily and for free. I’m constantly studying new things. 

Dale: What’s interesting to me is YouTube — we love to learn things from other people.

But we don’t always know people that know how to do something, that can show you. Yes. Yes. And not just talk about it, but show you how to do that. And a lot of your things need to be demonstrated. YouTube is the perfect medium for learning these kinds of things and seeing and listening to someone and then go and trying it yourself, ideally.

People want to pass on what they know

Cy: People want to be around people, and they want to learn from people.

And here’s the funny part, people want to pass on things. I became an auto mechanic because my neighbor was an auto mechanic and had a problem with my car, and he showed me how to fix it. While I was fixing it, I damaged something else. I actually broke part of the intake manifold because it was rusted.

I was just replacing the thermostat. He got me a replacement part, and once I took the top of the intake manifold off, and I saw the pistons and the valve, I went, wow, I got to learn all this. The great thing about it, I was lucky, my neighbor, he was a construction worker, but also a mechanic, and his son, who was a little bit older than me, in the same building, right across from me, his son had no interest in that.

So this person, Dave, who I’m grateful for, he wanted to pass on his skills and knowledge to someone. And here I was, right there, just ready to absorb it. And I went with him towing. He had his own tow truck. Towing and jumping people off in the wintertime and learning everything I could. I’d be reading books at night and going with him during the daytime to get the practical, every chance I got. 

Sneaky Math

Cy: Like you said, people can make a huge difference when something’s a little obtuse, especially math, that’s why I came out of retirement to do sneaky math. 

DD: Tell me about that. That’s interesting. 

Cy: Yeah. I wasn’t that great in math, not bad, not great, but with science, we have science projects, science kits, science museums, comic books, everything for science.

It’s relatively easy to keep someone interested in science. But math, it’s like you’re looking at somebody from a distance and a blackboard, putting strange symbols on a board and there’s nothing practical for you to do it, usually. Now they have some great teachers, so I said, you know what, what makes the difference– when you make something, I don’t care if it’s a, if it’s a clay ashtray that kids make or whatever, you never forget it because all the brainpower you’re using to construct it and make mistakes and all that, you’re making more memories.

So I said, I gotta have a book about math, but project based. Okay. So my sneaky math book, it’s nothing but projects, but I do have the theory in there. So as Pi Day is March 14th of every year. So what I did, I said, instead of just talking about Pi, which in a way is just random numbers, it’s the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

But basically I made what’s called a Pi detector. And it’s a strip of paper like a ruber style that you can wrap around or measure so that you can actually see it so that you can teach somebody, hey, how would you like to know the distance around that car tire? Now we can’t put a tape measure around it, but all we have to do is measure across from it or even from the outer edge just to the center. And then we know that, or we, now when you know that, you can just go into a huge circular garden and walk from the edge to the center. And from there with pi, boom, you got everything you need. You have the radius, the diameter, everything.

So in Sneaky Math, everything is project based because when you make a project, one, just the the memories you’re making. Plus you can give it away. Everything is made out of cardboard, paper, paper clip. 

Give it away to somebody struggling with math. And it’s also sold in schools and parents like it too.

Dale: I’m very interested in that because, I know kids love to make, if we give them the opportunity, they like to do it. But I’d also like to make sure they learn math. And I have to think many of them think of themselves as bad at math or whatever that, and they’ve been told that often by teachers. But it’s just a capability, right? It’s just a tool set that you can use. If you’re lucky to have a good teacher that turns it on in your mind, you love math and if you don’t, you struggle. 

Cy: You have to have something practical, a reason to say, if you do this, you’ll be able to do that.

Dale: And making, whether it’s basic carpentry or other kinds of things like even, how do I know how fast that car is going? Measuring and testing and all those things. Often when you make something it gives you the grounds to study it. I have hoped that we could make that connection between math and making. 

Can you put the context in for them to find math as something they can do, and overcome any fear or phobia they have of it?

Cy: Yeah. So one of my favorite projects I showed young people, I say, can you see that flagpole? or that tree up there. I can tell you how tall it is without going up there. They said, how? I said, watch this. All you have to do, we just measure the distance where we’re standing to the tree and have an angle.

Once we know the angle, everything else is just trigonometry. So I made a little device to show them if we step back, say, 40 paces and we angle this little device. And now that gives us an angle. We know the distance to that tree. Now, bang, we know exactly how tall that tree is. And they go, wow.

And I said, that’s how we know how the, how far the planets are away from us. That’s how we know how far islands are away without having to go there. So when you give them something practical and astonish them, and you actually have something to make that you can give away and they can make, they want to show it to everybody they can.

And they want to make a science project. So a lot of things you can show with math that you can make with simple items, paper, cardboard, et cetera, that’ll fascinate young people. 

Dale: Can I ask, it sounds to me like you are the kind of person that learned on your own and were curious and interested in lots of things, went to the library or found it, any source you could learn from, including comic books.

Chicago Museum of Science and Industry

Dale: What was school like for you? 

Cy: School was typical. I was mostly interested in math and technology and a little bit of history here and there, but I was lucky. I came up in Chicago in Hyde Park and I was in two different places, Hyde Park and South Shore, and I was so close to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

It’s the biggest museum except for Smithsonian. People visited from all over the world. And I was so lucky to go to so many field trips and on my own. It’s so big; they have a submarine in there, they have a train, they have a Mercury spacecraft, I could go on and on. They have mechanical gears that you can turn to show the ratio of a smaller gear and a big gear and levers and things that you could play with, not just watch at a distance. So that had a huge effect. And of course they had a science shop with books in it. One of the proudest moments that I have is I got my book in that science shop that I used to visit decades ago. 

Dale: That’s great. 

Cy: Yes. Yes. I, it took a lot of trouble, but what happened is I had a template for being able to market my books. It was called a thousand and one ways to market your book.

So I had that in the background showed how to do this. And one of the things that said was try to get your book in the non bookstores. I said, what does that mean? And he says, gift shops, the airport shops, museum shops. Oh, so I looked up on the site that has every museum shop in the world on it. I wrote to all the science museums and field museums and asked them to carry it. About twenty percent of the people responded, okay, we’ll take a try.

Now, the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, they’re part of a network . It took a while to find out who they were, but once I did, that one letter put my book in 18 museums, which is still selling today. You have to be relentless and driven and, but like I said, my proudest moment is to go into that museum store and see my book in there. Wow, because it influenced me, those books in there influenced me to come home and continue playing around and things like that.

Where do you get your ideas?

Dale: Someone might ask, where do you get your ideas? 

Cy: Where don’t you get ideas? They’re all in today’s world. Oh my God. Like I said, I’m an ex auto mechanic. I help people with their cars. I love electronics. YouTube is everywhere. I do computer networking. When you do a book, you say, okay, that’s it, that’s all you can do. Then a few months goes by, it’s that could be a project. That could be a project. That next thing you know, you got enough for half a book. That’s all you need. I proposition to publish it. Let’s go for it.

So I finally wound up doing nine of them and then they asked me to redo the first book, make a second edition, take out some, some anachronisms and put in some modern things, which I did. So there’s "Sneaky Uses For Everyday Things, Second Edition" is out and it’s selling too. So I kept going and going. Every time I didn’t think I’d have enough material for another one, after a few months, I did. Now, in my case, I stick to things that don’t have chemicals in it and they don’t have projectiles and things.

I had done three books, Sneaky, Sneakier, Sneakiest.

Sneaky Book for Boys

Cy: One day I found out about a book, the phenomenon of the book called The Dangerous Book for Boys. Okay. It started in England and it was a phenomenon over there. They brought it over here. That book was half projects and half things that the father wanted his son to know, like famous battles, how to paddle a canoe, how to make a fire, plus projects too.

So I wrote my agent. I was on the way to Chicago and I just like on a napkin in a way. It was just a quick email. I said, Hey, here’s an article about this phenomenon is very similar to what we do. I said, why don’t we have a sneaky book for boys? Okay. So I just did that. I had no query letter, no list of projects, nothing at all, just that.

Weeks go by and I don’t hear anything. Next thing you know, my agent says, we got a deal for "Sneaky Book for Boys" and "Sneaky Book For Girls." What? They definitely said, hey, send us a list of projects. Who’s the audience? Because by that time, it was a success.

When you said where the ideas come from, I go to the library twice a week. I get a stack of USA Today’s, Wall Street Journals, New York, took every paper and I look.

Knowing How Things Work

Cy: A lot of people say, why don’t you go to the library? You can get things on the internet. No, you won’t run into things that you’re not interested in though. If you want to expose yourself to– I like Fast Company Magazine, Fortune, I like people who are doing things and making things, and I like finding out about failures too.

Like, how come this movie failed? How did this little movie that had no budget, unknown people like Blair Witch Project or something like that, Mad Max, how did they become enormous success? So I love finding out details, how things work.

I love critical analysis and I love sharing that too to other people. I can’t use many of those things and I love publicity and promotional techniques too. So I’m just lucky. I love learning and my mom, dad– they fueled that. And I was bounced around from grandmother to babysitter, but they all gave me kits and comic books and whatever to bide my time, so to speak. In fact, when the babysitter, instead of going there and coming back, I stayed there a week. They had encyclopedias. So after my schoolwork, I would sit there and just read the encyclopedias and take notes. 

I said, wow, there’s so much to learn. Oh my God, I’m so far behind. And then later in life, I found out, I said, wait a minute, people don’t know how television works. They don’t know how radio works. They don’t know. I found that most people don’t know how anything works. And they don’t want to know. They may know how things work in their own job or whatever, but they’re not that cute. I thought I was way behind, because I’m doing it just on my own, but I’m still that way. I don’t care if it’s quantum physics or drywall, I don’t care if it’s sewing, style, fashions, and I love marketing too.

Dale: You have been writing for Make since nearly the beginning, I believe. Yes. And you were telling me a little bit of being on the Science Friday program. Do you want to tell us about that? 

Cy: Yes. Basically I sent out my information on my books everywhere I could.

And here’s a funny part. I set up events at Barnes and Noble and other schools when I came out, and I would send out press releases that I’m going to be there demonstrating things, and I got nothing. Until one day a lady at the UCLA Bruin, a newspaper, college paper, asked me what I’m doing, and she said, come into Westwood and we’ll have a little interview.

So she wrote up a little article and had a picture. And when I got that, I sent that out about my next events and everything was a piece of cake after that. Sending things out to other people that came before you makes a big difference. Nobody wants to take that first chance, but once they see something working, then they want to have you there, right? To get clicks, views, and listeners.

On Science Friday in 2005

Cy: So I found out about Science Friday. It’s a one hour show usually on Fridays with Ira Flatow talking about science stuff. So I wrote them, didn’t hear from them for six months. All of a sudden, I get a call. Cy, you want to come on Friday? I said, yeah. They said, this is going to be a good hour show. Yeah, you’re going to be on with some people from Make Magazine. I said, okay, so I looked them up. 

So what I did was I get on the show and Ira was the host and he went back and forth between me and a couple of editors. What is this stuff that you’re doing? 

You know what, Make Magazine is something I wish I had as a kid. It’s a magazine comes out with all sorts of projects from different authors. Everything’s using pipes and wires and this and that. It’s educational fun. 

The thing is after I get off the call, I could look at my Amazon numbers to get an idea of what I did, right? Science Friday appeals to teachers and educators and parents, right? So my Amazon numbers, I’m just using this as a gauge. So I was maybe, I don’t know, we’ll say 30,000 on Amazon– the lower you are, the higher you are, right? You’re number one in sales compared to all other things selling. So I would say at 30,000, when I got off the phone, because Science Friday is two parts, it goes out to 200 stations live, then that night it repeats to 200 other stations. So when I got off the phone, I went from 30,000 to a hundred. I was number 100 on Amazon. And those people, they didn’t go out and check it out. They ordered while I was on the radio. That’s how much they trusted the show. Okay, later that night, the replay happened. After the replay occurred, I was number three on Amazon. Can you believe that? Number three. 

Also the Make editors, they contact and say Cy, you want to do a column for us called 1 2 3? I said, okay. So I wound up doing 20 of those. And I was in one of your compilation books, the 1 2 3 book.

Dale: That’s a great little book. I don’t know if people know about it. I’ll link to it here. But I think you worked with Mark Frauenfelder on that. Some of our projects are complicated and long, and so it’s nice to have things where you could do something cool in a couple steps.

Cy: Yeah, just one page. One, two, three. I got a two part article about everything you can do with electric toothbrushes. We use them, we’ll toss them, but there’s motors in there, batteries. So I show how to take that apart and make all sorts of things out of just discarded electric toothbrush. So part one came out an issue 87 and part two is supposed to come out in the next issue.

[The first part of Cy’s article appears in Make: Vol 87, “Hack Your Toothbrush” on page 102].

His Curiosity

Dale: What’s really wonderful, and I still feel it in you at whatever age you are today, is your boyishness, your childish sense of curiosity and interest and excitement over– I figured out how to do something. Let me show you. 

Cy: Yes. And the things that other people are doing from EVs to all these innovations are just amazing. In the past, I had to go get a book and be dependent on that book or whatever teacher I had. But now we’re unlimited with the internet, especially YouTube.

If you have any little interest and spark in you from learning, we’ve never had a time like this. I know people take it for granted, but the things that you can learn and look up and pass along to other people in a colorful way that’ll get to them and make them keep that interest going.

A lot of people drop out of school because they just didn’t have that one analogy, or a project, or a teacher. 

Parents would say my kids on our phone and the internet and gaming all day. I want to get them out of that. I want them to appreciate the things that came before them and to make something and build tactile skills.. And that’s important because you never know when you’d be in a dire situation, or you’ll have somebody stumbling in algebra or stumbling in electricity and electronics.

And if you can show them something, or have a fascinating story about the origin of making of something, how somebody discovers something, if you have to have that little spark or comedy or something like that and it interests people that aren’t even going to make things like that.

People go, wow, that’s what trivia is. Huh, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know this amazing fact. And that’s what I tried to make sneaky uses into sort of an amazing facts, trivia, conservation, science book that appeals to people, [Mic bleed] all the way around. 

Dale: That’s great. Cy, thank you for talking to me today. It’s great to learn more about the books you’ve developed and know the person behind all those books.

Cy: I appreciate you having me. Thank you. Thanks everybody.

Science Friday excerpt

Ira: Well, I only have a short time left. Let me ask, what are we going to expect to see in the future? Cy, you want to tell us a glimpse into the future?

Cy: Well, the more things we have around us, the more possibilities there are.

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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


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