Making Trouble — Baby Hacking

Having a child to build things for is the maker’s dream, and the maker’s curse. I had a son seven months ago. It is every bit as wonderful, and every bit as exhausting, as everyone will tell you. As a hacker, a maker, and a builder, I find that it’s definitely a humbling experience. This is, quite literally, my life’s work — in the strict biological sense.

It’s also humbling because he is so much cooler than anything else I’ll ever make (or half make). So far he’s done little more than transform from a strictly input/output device to an interactive robot; all the same, watching his operating system boot up makes any code I’ve ever written look trivial.

In observing his every movement, I can only be jealous of the evolutionary mechanism design-and-optimization that is his every muscle, digit, earlobe, and nostril. Because this is the pinnacle of mymaking, I’m rattled, but I’m also inspired, because he just set the bar so much higher.

If you suffer from inventor-itis, as I do, the first thing you notice about the baby world is that everything is broken. All the products on the shelf are pathetic. They’re toxic and poorly made. The bed options are hopeless. Those clumsy, bulky, awkward, ugly things called strollers are terrible. Car safety seats? I wouldn’t trust them to a high-school egg-drop competition. Enter the maker mother and father: time to get a fixin’ on it.

But there’s a downside. Time vanishes when you have a kid. Those moments of peace, contemplation, and low-level hand-eye tasks you used to have alone at the workbench? Obliterated. There is now a screaming, giggling attention magnet that’s the cutest thing in the world. You haven’t slept in weeks.

Hacksawing with the kid in the sling on my chest? I don’t think so (or at least my wife has trained me not to think so!). Actually getting things built on time? That’s a whole other story. My wife axed my goal of building the ultimate stroller, when the baby arrived and there was still no stroller. (Perhaps for the next kid, I wistfully think.) And my folding origami toy box concept will likely remain a dream.

So far I’ve managed to build a co-sleeper (a mini bed that attaches to our bed) with the help of a friend. Most are hideous and cheaply made — there was one in a design magazine somewhere that we liked, but it was only a concept! So I made it real, a bamboo and aluminum masterpiece.

Our cargo tricycle wasn’t designed with an infant sunshade, so my father and I fixed it. My wife supplied beautiful Marimekko fabric so the outcome wouldn’t be embarrassing at the new mothers’ group, and the result is a magnificent, aerodynamic sunshade made by two engineers with PhDs.

I find myself working on children’s toys out of compulsion. I have redefined the pinnacle of invention as “the next Lego.” It’s crazy and arrogant to believe that you could do it, but that won’t stop me from trying. I’m sure you know what I mean. I want my child to have amazing experiences, to grow up in a world of objects that are beautifully designed and thoughtfully made. Toys that are significant and memorable, not disposable.

Perhaps that’s the hidden desire I’m talking about. It’s not that my own childhood wasn’t magical (it was; my father used the best tools of his day to make me ride-on wooden horses, pedal-powered cars, and knitted 8-foot-high unicorns).

My love, and passion, and exuberance, and creative desire are overflowing, and every sheet of plywood or steel that I look at is some incredible object that I can make for him. Inflatable safety barriers for car seats? Easy. I’ll do it for him. Custom stuffed-animal-creation software? I’ll do it for him. An algorithm-based paper airplane generator? I’ll code it for him.

And that baby stroller? It was going to be made from aircraft-grade aluminum poles, cast-zinc universal connection pieces so it could be reconfigurable, and Abec 11 bearings with large-diameter rollerblade wheels (for low rolling resistance). It would fold into something smaller than a Swiss Army knife yet be sturdy as a tank.

All the drawings are still in my head. But the baby needs feeding, my wife needs a break, I need some sleep, and the stroller needs one of you non-parent makers to make it for us. Unfortunately, until you have a child, you probably won’t quite understand why.

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Saul Griffith

DR. SAUL GRIFFITH is founder and principal scientist at Otherlab, an independent R&D lab, where he focuses on engineering solutions for a clean energy, net-zero carbon economy. Occasionally making some pretty cool robots too. Saul got his PhD from MIT, and is a founder or co-founder of,,,,,,, and more. Saul was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.

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