Welcome: The Little Engine That Could


Talk about coming from out of nowhere. Arduino could be the name of a high-flying Italian fashion designer or top chef. It just happened to be the name of a bar frequented by art students from the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea near Milan, Italy.

In 2005, an associate professor at the Institute, Massimo Banzi, offered the name of that bar for a simple new microcontroller aimed at artists and other non-technical users.

Banzi and colleagues, building on the work of others, wanted a cheap and uncomplicated way to control sensors, lights, sounds, motors, and other elements of what could be a museum exhibit, a performance, or an article of clothing.

From these humble origins, Arduino has surprisingly become a tinkering platform for all kinds of people, even engineers. At the Open Source Hardware Summit in Queens, N.Y., just before World Maker Faire last year, you could feel the enthusiasm from engineers thinking like artists, and artists thinking like engineers. They were working together and learning from each other.

While Arduino is familiar to many makers, it’s unknown to most people. Arduino doesn’t have a hype machine behind it and there are no ads on TV touting “Arduino Inside.” As far as I can tell, no analyst is studying the Arduino market; as a commercial technology, it’s practically off the radar. Perhaps those who don’t know Arduino don’t understand why you’d use one. It’s not just another gadget.

Yet Arduino continues to pick up steam. A popular 20th-century children’s book, titled The Little Engine That Could, told the story of a little blue engine that did what larger locomotives either refused to do or didn’t believe was worth doing. The little engine, normally used to move cars in and out of the roundhouse, set off to pull a train of freight cars up a hill. The little engine climbed the hill, meeting the difficulty with determination, saying, “I think I can.”

Arduino is the little engine that has proved to be more than capable for an amazingly wide range of projects. While largely ignored by the “big boys,” Arduino users are the ones saying, “I think I can.” The Arduino community is growing fast, defined by cooperation and creativity more than competition. These tinkerers are discovering more imaginative and functional applications and sharing them, which only spurs others to think about what’s possible.

It reminds me of the emergence of the World Wide Web, which also came from out of nowhere: Geneva, Switzerland. Those who were extremely technical would talk about all the limitations of the web, but miss how its simplicity and openness allowed so many people to do what they wanted with it.

Like the web, Arduino began with modest ambitions. It’s not the most powerful microcontroller. Its virtues are being cheap and open and easy to use. Each of these virtures is important — you can freely share hardware designs and code, you can use it with any OS — but being cheap is first.

Cheap means you can try out Arduino with little investment. You don’t have to know in advance whether it will do what you want — or even know exactly what you want. You can experiment and find out without risking a lot of money. An Arduino board is cheap enough that you wouldn’t feel bad breaking it, burning it up, or leaving it behind embedded in a project.

You wouldn’t do that with an iPhone or a PC, but you can do it with Arduino, and for DIY, that’s revolutionary. In this issue of MAKE, we devote a special section to Arduino as an engine and as an ecosystem. We want to see even more people join the Arduino revolution, saying “I knew I could.”


Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

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


Ready to dive into the realm of hands-on innovation? This collection serves as your passport to an exhilarating journey of cutting-edge tinkering and technological marvels, encompassing 15 indispensable books tailored for budding creators.