Even at the age of seven, I had a makerspace. The cellar of our family home in suburban New Jersey was dark in corners and the cement floor was cold year round. But the combination of semi-discarded machines, random material selection, and my father’s seldom-used tools turned this underground cavern into my own proto-fablab, a place where I was free to imagine and explore with making things, where I could tinker and create, a place where I could learn at my own pace and study in my own way.
My workshop was huge, encompassing the entire footprint of the largest house in the neighborhood. A generic wooden staircase descended into the middle of the room, splitting the floor plan into four main sections. The right side of the wall facing the base of the stairs was lined with the hot water tank and furnace that warmed the house. Mysterious noises would emanate from this area of the basement. Sometimes my brothers would cruelly turn off the switch at the top of the stairs and the only light in the room would be the flickering blue glow of the furnace reflecting on the shiny concrete floor.
Turning right to face the front of the house, one long windowless wall was lined floor to ceiling with steel shelves. These muscle rack units were stacked with junk and treasures packed into boxes and old luggage. There did not seem to be any order to what was in each container. So it was up to me and my brothers to find out. The lower shelves were filled with boxes of our old toys and broken sports equipment. This discarded bric-a-brac became raw materials for make believe and fantasy. The upper shelves seemed to contain older items, foreign detritus from our parent’s childhoods. Reaching these archaic items was dangerous. The shelves were free standing and we had to climb up them to reach the upper levels. More than once, a whole shelving unit tipped over on a small child, spilling ancient report cards and thank you notes all over the concrete.
One entire shelving unit, closest to the staircase, was filled with my father’s tools. This was my favorite of all the shelves. I knew I was not supposed to play with these adult toys, but there was something magnetic about them, their heft and their power. On the lower shelves were one large box of nails and one large box of screws. When my parents were not home, or if they were all the way upstairs two floors removed from the basement, I would bang those nails with a hammer into scrap two-by-four at wild angles bending them haphazardly. Then I would use the pry bar on the hammer to remove the nails slowly. Some of the nails were harder to pry out. I remember discovering that a small block of material between the claw and wood would help pull out those more difficult nails.
On one of those shelves just above my head, my dad kept a few big 12 volt batteries. I have no idea what they were for, but I’ll never forget when one fell on my big toe while I was trying to climb up and pull it down off its perch. I lost my toenail soon afterwards. I used to love those batteries. They were so different from the wimpy batteries that powered my toys and remote controls. I remember playing with those giants and how I discovered that placing a nail across the two metal springs would produce a shower of sparks. My early experiments with electricity were fueled by a dangerous level of unbridled curiosity. I would connect my toys to those big boxy batteries and observe the effects. Sometimes my poor toys would make crazy sped-up noises, or popping sounds and smoke. Usually they would stop working afterwards.
I lost interest in those batteries once I discovered the power of alternating current. In fact my favorite toy growing up was an old electrical power cord that had been pulled out of a lamp. I don’t remember where I found it. Maybe in one of those boxes on the shelves, or more likely, I cut it off a lamp myself. I used to run tests where I’d send 120 volts of alternating current through various materials, and observe the results. My favorite objects to observe were metal bolts; they would get white hot. I could pick them up with pliers and burn hexagonal holes in paper or plastic. Now that I know a bit more about electricity, I realize my experiments could have caused some serious accidents. But I learned more about the principles of nature by getting electrocuted through that damn lamp cord, than I ever could have in a classroom.
In fact I learned plenty of real lessons in that basement that I never could have learned in school. In school the advisors and psychologists were saying that I had an attention deficit, that I had a hard time paying attention to the task at hand. In classes where we had to sit row by row for 45 minutes at a time listening to a teacher talk about science or math, I was dreaming of doing science and math in the basement. And as soon as I got home, I would forget about that two page worksheet that I was supposed to fill out for homework and get right to working on blueprints for my latest creation. In school I was a failure, but in the basement I was a designer, an engineer, and an inventor. In the basement, I would take stuff apart and put stuff back together. I was always trying to figure out how things worked. I would make things and often break things.
When Dad brought home a brand new Sony Triniton TV, everyone in the family was excited about the huge curved glass and those giant red, blue, and green pixels. But I was more excited about the prospect of disassembling the old TV, an ancient black and white box. I was convinced that if I could take the television apart, I could figure out how to source all the individual parts, but smaller, and build my own handheld television set. Of course once I took that box apart, I saw how complex the system inside really was. I kept breaking that TV down into smaller and smaller parts until every single screw was removed and the giant glass cathode ray tube stood alone. It was not until years later, in graduate school, when I learned that the capacitors inside a television set hold enough current to kill an adult.
Not all of my explorations in the basement were as dangerous as the electricity and pyrotechnics experiments. Most of my time down there was spent playing and building with a set of materials that included a giant rolled-up wall-to-wall carpet, a bed frame on wheels, a pile of scrap two-by-fours, plywood, bricks, and cardboard. This stock of components was enough to build space ships and racecars, forts and portable lemonade stands.
One winter, I decided to build a snow bike. In the basement, I had all of the supplies and tools that I needed. The bicycle that I learned how to ride on was small but heavy, a pink and white trainer with tassels on the handlebars. I studded the solid rubber back tire with screws spaced every inch around the entire circumference. I attached a short child size ski with c-clamps cuffed around the bindings and the rim of the front tire. I’ll never forget the satisfaction that I felt as I rode that pink bike around the snow covered streets of the neighborhood. It might have been the first time I made a real working prototype of one of my inventions.
When I was twelve years old, my family moved to another town, another house. A house without a basement. Into my teens I continued to fail classes at school. My parents sent me away to a traditional boarding school where I don’t ever remember making anything. My love of doing math and science in the basement faded as I was asked to fill out endless worksheets and memorize vocabulary and study for quizzes.
It wasn’t until years later, after college, when Alan Alda appeared on PBS touring around the first Fab Lab, that I recalled the joys of making in that basement. While the fantastic machines that I saw in that lab at MIT were way more advanced than any hammer, battery, or lamp cord, I recognized a playfulness and creativity that had disappeared from my life as I left childhood.
In search of that feeling, I went back to school and I learned how to use those fancy digital fabrication tools. I learned how to program a computer and build machines that sense and respond to the physical world. I learned more in those two years in graduate school, than I learned in all of my years of primary schooling combined. I rediscovered learning by making.
I realized that in New York City, most kids don’t have basements or garages, so I’ve been teaching in Fab Labs and starting makerspaces for kids. I’ve become obsessed with the idea that school should be more like my childhood basement, a place where students are allowed to explore and experiment, to tinker, to make, and to discover principles of nature all on their own.