An Early Maker Story From Holland

An Early Maker Story From Holland


We think of the maker movement as a modern phenomena propelled by the internet, the growth of makerspaces, and increasingly affordable digital tools. But making, of course, is anything but new. Humans have always been makers. Jan van Cappelle’s career as a maker began when he read a novel by fellow Dutchman Leonard de Vries called “The Boys of the Hobby Club.” Written under Nazi occupation and published in 1947, it’s essentially the story of a group of boys creating a makerspace before such a word existed. The book, which unfortunately is not available in English, had a lasting impact on Jan: “De Vries showed that you can make something yourself, in collaboration with others, instead of buying it of-the-rack.”–Stett Holbrook

Making in Time of War

We have to establish a club for boys with a technical hobby to, like Verburg so strikingly said, get grand results by cooperation. A club with its own clubhouse, where you can experiment, where you can make a mess and loud noise, where you can be your own boss and disturb nobody! A club of merely enthusiasts, of boys, who love technique, one with their hobby! A club for radio, photography, film, chemistry, electricity and more! A club that has never been, but that we will found! Our club…. The Hobby Club!                                                                                                                                                                                           

The Boys of the Hobby Club

The story starts in 1942. WWII rages through Western Europe. Leonard de Vries, a 22-year old writer from a Dutch Jewish family, has to hide from persecution by the Nazis.

To escape the loneliness in his hiding place he starts to write a story. It’s not the first book De Vries wrote. Just before the war he published two technical books for young readers, The Boys Radio Book (about how to make your own radio) and The Boys Electricity Book. During the later war years, the Nazis seized radios from civilians in occupied countries. During the war de Vries’ radio book helped many people construct their own radios from old parts and clandestinely listen to radio broadcasts from London. These broadcasts were very important for the Dutch resistance which in turn spread the information across Holland through underground newspapers.

De Vries’ “Boys Radio Book.”

In 1944, American paratroopers reached de Vries’ hiding place and set him free. Hidden under his clothes was the 500-page typewritten manuscript for The Boys of the Hobby Club. The book was published in 1947 two years after the war ended.

Let’s Start a Club

The book starts in science class with two boys, Fred Vermeer and Leo van der Sluis, listening to Mr. Verburg, the teacher. He gives a passionate talk about the wonders of science, how they came to be, and the benefits of collaboration. After the lesson the boys decide to put  Mr. Verburg’s words into to practice. They call a meeting at home with five friends. Leo explains their plan:

“Gentlemen!” he started, after asking for some silence, “have you ever heard about the Hobby Club. No? Well, I will tell you what kind of club it is. The Hobby Club is a club of boys with a technical hobby. When you enter their clubhouse, you don’t know what you see. A big, bright room with boys, boys everywhere. Boys behind large workbenches, making radio-receivers and amplifiers, cutting and drilling metal chassis, winding transformers and lacquering metal casings. Boys with headphones behind tables filled with electric devices that receive shortwave transmitters, play gramophone records, conduct sound tests with microphones and speakers and measure currents with a milliampère-meter. Boys that construct stage lighting with spotlights, light bulbs, wires, switches, and dimmers. Boys in white jackets behind acid- and fireproof tables doing chemistry experiments. Boys with cameras, making pictures under high voltage lamps, and filming their friends. Boys who develop films and enlarge photos, editing movies and project them. Boys that design new equipment and schemas, boys, doing woodwork and soldering, crafting and closely experiment: boys who are captivated by their hobbies and love technique, that publish their own newspaper and organize excursions, film, and lecture evenings. THAT is the Hobby Club!!!”

The cover of “The Boys of the Hobby Club.”

The other boys enthusiastically ask where such a miraculous place exists. Leo explains that they have to make it themselves. That afternoon the “Hobby Club” is founded, a board is chosen, and plans and charters compiled.

Leonard de Vries.

The rest of the book tells of the adventures and challenges the boys face in their attempts to reach their goal. A clubhouse is found in the attic of an Amsterdam canal house. They clean it and furnish it according to their needs. A spectacular show during an informational meeting recruits over 40 members. They compile a library, organize technical courses, provide tools and machines, make workbenches, radios, amplifiers, transmitters, microphones, a device to cut records, spotlights, take trips to factories, and make their own promotional movies. And it’s all done in an optimistic spirit of collaboration. De Vries writes:

One knows this, the other knows that, the next can do this and another that; the next one has this and the other has something else. Combine it, make a melting pot of everyone’s technical knowledge, experience, parts, tools, materials, books, money, and see the results. All of our usual expressions will fall short to characterize that! 

Pedal-powered recording unit, circa 1947, as pictured in De Vries’ book.

The last chapter of the book is written as a speech given by main character, Leo van der Sluis, for the Dutch national radio. It summarizes the whole book, all the activities of the club, but it can also be read as a manifesto. De Vries states the purpose and goals of hobby clubs: To arouse interest among youth, providing a place were young people can learn, explore, develop, evolve and create, all in collaboration and friendship for a better and more beautiful future for all. Further, he shares his vision about the future of post-war Holland. Agricultural activities cease to expand because of limited territory. Industry will be the future, demanding men who can use their heads and their hands, who are affiliated with technology and science. Employees with a technological hobby will have more and better opportunities in life.

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the book was that all is done by people under 23 years of age. Adults are welcome for advice and lectures, but executive power and financial responsibility is in the hands of the young. Unheard of in the late 1940s!

Fiction Becomes Reality

Shortly after the book was published, the publisher received letters from young readers asking how the book could become reality. In 1949 a magazine called The Hobby Club was created. Later, the Manual for Founding a Hobby Club is published. [An early version of Gui Cavalcanti’s Make a Makerspace series–S.H.] Across the Netherlands and Belgium 17 clubs were started and over the years their number increased to more than 80.

After years of great success there is a turning point. The magazine ceased publication in 1952 due to financial problems. In the 1960s the decline is unavoidable. The last club closed in 1974. In a later edition of the book published in 1965 simply called The Hobby Club, De Vries explains that television and increased welfare caused club activities and ideals to decrease. There is no need to make your own radio anymore…

For the rest of his life, de Vries remained devoted to technology and science. He published over 100 books on various subjects, mostly popular science, inventions, and their history, reaching a broad audience. In the early 1980s he hosted a television show on national television, teaching children simple science experiments. De Vries died in July 2002 at 82. Shortly before his death a Dutch history show made a short documentary about his book and the forthcoming hobby clubs, and its members.

De Vries’ Legacy

De Vries was a visionary. His books helped interest of hundreds of teenagers in science and technology and the value of sharing knowledge and resources. He showed that you can make something yourself, in collaboration with others, instead of buying it off the rack. As far as I know, the book is one of the earliest publications that describe starting a maker movement and makerspace. The worldwide long wave radio amateur network was as marvelous to its users in de Vries’ time as the internet is to us. Explaining how to make your own radio had the same impact in the 1940s as 3D printers or laser cutters are having right now.

It’s a pity de Vries didn’t live long enough to see the growth of the maker movement. The fablabs, makerspaces, Maker Faires, the advanced technology of recent years…I bet he would have loved it!

I discovered de Vries’ book about 15 years ago. This was before the maker movement started, but –despite being slightly old-fashioned- the book’s ideas really appealed to me. The book moved me to become a maker myself (luthier) and to seek out my peers. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet Mr. de Vries. But his words and vision live on. The Dutch version of The Boys of the Hobby Club and his war memories Chaweriem are digitized and available online from the Dutch National Library.

Jan van Cappelle lives in the middle of Holland with his wife and two cats. He graduated from the International Lutherie School Antwerp. He makes everything from stringed instruments from the Middle Ages to electric guitars. He’s currently working on a guide to building Masonite guitars to encourage people to build from scratch instead of bolting a kit together.

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