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Review | The Tinkerers By Alec Foege

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on January 11, 2013

The Tinkerers by Alec Foege

ISBN-13: 9780465009237
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 1/2/2013
Pages: 224

Inventor and Squid Labs co-founder Saul Griffith is often asked how to encourage innovation in young people on visits to Asian countries. He offers a generally unexpected answer:

“Deliver free pizza to a well-equipped workshop.”

Author Alec Foege interviewed Griffith via Skype for his recently released book, The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers and Inventors Who Make America Great. In their conversation, Foege queried Griffith about ideas on reviving the American tinkering spirit.

Griffith hoped Foege would cast tinkerers in the book apart from the great man archetype mythologized in the likes of Thomas Edison. We now know how aggressively Edison acquired patents to prosecute them before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office rather than develop potential inventions.

In spite of this darker patent troll side, Edison did create a model corporate research lab in Menlo Park where multiple assistants experimented in teams and tinkered in the true sense of the word.

According to Foege, tinkering is essentially solving a problem with whatever resources are available. Not generally a part of a standard business model, tinkering is extraneous and rarely incentivized in corporations. Or classrooms, for that matter.

Foege writes, “True tinkering is all about risk and unusual behavior. The far-flung fanaticism that world-class tinkering requires rarely thrives in an institutional frame work.”

So where do tinkerers thrive? The author’s Skype interview with Griffith reveals that exciting new things are being created in the extracurricular activities of American graduate schools. Griffith proposes that future innovators learn best how to solve problems when they are given the mentors, tools and freedom to do whatever they want.

An alumnus of the MIT Media Lab, Griffith also proposed to Foege that individual creativity “cross-pollinates” in collaboration with others’ ideas. A lone inventor with a rich inner life can have excellent ideas, but feedback and encouragement from others makes the most interesting things happen.

Foege writes perceptively about the ideal mindset, the work ethic and the unlimited financial capital available to tinkerers in the United States. He also showcases along with Griffith other stand out visionaries who lead teams of tinkerers: Dean Kamen, serial tinkerer and inventor of the Segway; Jeanne Gang, founder of architecture and design firm Studio Gang; and Gever Tulley, founder of the experiential learning center Brightworks. Tulley penned a must-read book based on his popular TED Talk presentation, Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do.

Without scolding and chastising, Foege admits that the current educational standards and testing climate of American schools stifle an inclination to create or discover.

How do parents foster the curiosity of a tinkerer in their offspring? Where will investment in a future tinkerer’s education pay off the most? In a specialized field? In a liberal arts education?

According to Foege, a strong graduate program in design or engineering should help students unlearn what they learned in elementary school and “embrace ambiguity, experimentation and the possibility of failure.”

Foege writes that more and more recruiters acknowledge the value of “T-shaped” job applicants. The vertical bar in the T represents deep expertise in one discipline. The horizontal bar represents an ability to work with experts from other areas and exhibit understanding outside their specialty.

“A big part of the American tinkering spirit is about finding inspiration in the creative pocket that exists between the metronomic beats of business as usual. That American style of seeing possibility where others see nothing is why people like Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett have become contemporary folk heroes.”

The Tinkerers by Alec Foege is a highly worthwhile read on the extraordinary history, impact and revival of the American tinkerer spirit.

Category: Nonfiction, Scientists

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