Give us an example of the things you have been making A really interesting one on data visualisation. A group named Demand Energy Equality was running projects with communities to build solar panels. They get hold of broken solar cells, which are very cheap, and fix them. People learn practical skills (soldering, and so on) and also get into discussions about energy equality. They did a Solar Tree project which involved hundreds of people in half day workshops making small solar panels which were then installed on an amazing ironwork skeletal tree made by John Packer, a Bristol blacksmith.
I came to that project really late on, at the point when they were looking to log all the data about energy generation and energy use from a special charge controller, and they needed someone who knew about the ins and outs of networking. It’s a really thankless task to know about that kind of stuff. We did it using a Raspberry Pi. All the data now goes to a website where people can see it as graphs.
Are you looking forward to the Bristol Mini Maker Faire? It will be a good chance to meet lots of people and talk about something I am interested in.
Would you hope that what you are showing will inspire other people to get into making? I have allegiances with hard tech and engineering as a way of making a living. I’ve have had experiences in soft things, textiles and clay, woodworking, woodturning, welding, metalworking, electronics. The process of creating things is somewhat different in all those different fields. I am interested in learning and creating and one of my dreams is to spend time somewhere where there is more necessity. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. But the kind of inventions that tend to be made in the 1st world are mostly pointless. These days people are filling gaps that aren’t there or creating the gaps through advertising. Whereas, if you go to somewhere like Sub-Saharan Africa, people are struggling to charge their phones and get clean drinking water. These are challenges I would like to get involved with.
I like to keep eye on, and my hand in energy sustainability and in education. This is a combination of subjects where we have a lot of room to grow. In the UK we use way too much energy. People don’t really know what energy is. I disguise a workshop about the importance of efficiency by making a competition to see who can make a car go the furthest distance on a fixed amount of fuel. The idea is that by getting involved in the competition, the kids are engineering more and more efficient car designs. If I’d have tried to lecture the kids about efficiency they’d probably have all gone to sleep!
Can you remember the first thing you made? I remember the first thing I broke. My grannie used to buy me alarm clocks and radios to take apart on the kitchen floor. You could say that making anything involves breaking stuff, if you create music you have to break the silence which takes us into a philosophical direction. If you open up something that someone else has already made, or a whole team of engineers has spent years making, then you can understand how people have solved those problems, that then gives you insight into how to make things. So I think: Break stuff, fix it, make it is quite a good order to go by. So, the message is: don’t be afraid of breaking stuff.
How did school help you develop your skills and interest as a maker, or otherwise? It didn’t really. I chose CDT (Craft, Design and Technology) as I was trying to avoid other things. And I liked it. It wasn’t really done that well in our school. I have since visited other schools that have really amazing departments with forges and laser cutters and all kinds of tech. We had a whole room full of lathes and milling machines that we never used because they never had the staff to be able to teach us to use the equipment safely so it just sat there. Which was a real shame.
Looking back on it there were maybe 2 people to look after a class of 30 making stuff with saws and files and bandsaws. That’s why. And one guy was always sitting in his office. He was an interesting guy but there weren’t enough people around to support learning new things so for the kids it was just endless filing and hacksawing. I made cooler things at home with my own limited selection of tools.
Is this how you make your living? Yes. Making things and teaching. We just finished a massive project, the London Schools Hydrogen Challenge. It was a London wide competition to build the most efficient car. Twenty workshops with 13 to 14 year olds all over the city, with a final at City Hall.
The big thing I have on the horizon is with the Bristol Film Institute. They run film workshops and are also starting to run Raspberry Pi workshops. I am going to be teaching teachers to teach Raspberry Pi to the kids. It’s really exciting. Computers are the most amazing tool we have but most people don’t really know how to use them as a tool. Rather like a DJ who plays other peoples music; most people use a computer to play other people’s applications. So, in the UK we have had ICT in schools for ten years but what we teach is how to format word documents and make excel spreadsheets. We are teaching children to be dependent on non free, not very good software instead of teaching them to be independent and create their own tools in a world that is increasingly dominated by computers.
Have you worked with people who have very different skills or knowledge from you? It is always a good opportunity to see how other people do things. It is a stereotype, and there is some truth in it, that electronic, geeky people have more difficulty working with other people, so they are often loners working on their own projects. A collaboration may be frustrating and stressful for them. They key to it is good communication. It’s vital.
Can you name anyone who inspires you? Joseph Whitworth, a famous engineer from Manchester. The Whitworth screw thread isn’t in use that much any more but the amazing thing was that before his work there wasn’t a standard. So if you were making a machine you would have to make all your own screws and if the machine broke five years down the line you, wouldn’t be able to buy a new screw, you would have to find someone to make you new screws to fit your machine. He pioneered making accurately flat surfaces which were essential for a wide range of engineering products.
I recently heard a bio on a mathematician named Mary Cartwright who was important incoming up with the maths behind radar. She was really important to the Second World War, but you wouldn’t have heard her name because she really didn’t want to take the credit. She was very humble.
Marie Curie who died of radiation sickness as a result of her commitment to her research. She and her husband blew open this whole new field of research.
Laura Youngson from the Lightyear Foundation. She’s a co-founder of a hands-on science charity going out to Africa where teach science to students hungry for knowledge. They don’t have money for labs, tools and equip to teach hands on. This group goes over and empower the teachers to teach science.
Thinking about what you are doing now, if you were able to go back and give advice to yourself at age 14 or 15, what would you say? Learn how to get on with people more easily. I would try to teach myself to swim in the school environment. I sunk a lot. It took me till I was 25 to realise I had a problem with working well with teams of other people. And the advice you would offer to a young person with an interest in making in today’s world? Get involved. Find some people to do it with. Take things apart and find out how things work. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do it.
What do you think of the Maker Movement in the USA and UK? It would be brilliant if we turned from a disposable consuming society, to one where we have to make our own solutions because we enjoy making. A world in which we repair things because the things we do buy are really beautiful and well built and easy to look after and maintain. Like a bike. There is no reason to ever throw away a bike, because you can keep it on the road for longer than you are going to live for. They are easy to maintain. Our culture has to change and if the maker culture can help with that by empowering people to maintain, repair and make their own things.
As a maker, what would you like to see happen in Bristol over the next 5 years? It would be great for Bristol Hackspace to turn into a bigger and busier place, a bit more like the London Hackspace where they have an enormous space, and a thousand members. Everything is always being used and people are always there. I would like Hackspace to get so popular and successful that they begin to be set up in other parts of the city so as to handle the demand for people who want access to tools and workspaces and community. Toolshops, fablabs and tool libraries. It is a shame that libraries are being shut. I wonder whether they could become a place where people can borrow tools as well as books. Instead of all owning individual tools they could be booked out and shared.