Role (and necessity) of the tinkerer

THE TINKERERS: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great. By Alec Foege. Basic Books (Perseus Books Group). 216 pages. $26.99.

Alec Foege has written an easily read, entertaining and enlightening book about the prototypical American tinkerers whose curiosity and creativity have brightened all of our lives.

He draws examples from current and historical figures, some well-known as well as several of whom who are scarcely remembered.

The best-known historical figures include Ben Franklin, Eli Whitney, Cyrus McCormick, Samuel Morse, Charles Goodyear, Tom Edison and the Wright Brothers.

Starting from their examples, Foege asks two primary questions: What makes a tinkerer? And, are they an artifact of our pre-industrial history?

The first question is difficult to answer in a simple, succinct form because there seems to be no common denominator. In our pioneering days, of course, necessity became the mother of invention.

Survival, or at least relative comfort, depended on the ability to make do without the proper tools or equipment.

Finding a creative solution to a problem was something you did yourself. If the church steeple needed a clock, some cabbage farmer would fashion the wooden gears, pulleys, escapements and weights to make a clock.

In the 1950s, the rite of passage for a teenage boy was to own and modify a car. Today, under-hood technologies tend to limit teenagers to just changing accessories.

Yet current electronic technologies have become a fertile ground for a new generation of tinkerers.

Steve Jobs’ first creation in his pre-Apple days was a “blue box” that could gener-ate the assorted dial tones that enable long-distance phone calls while avoiding any tolls.

Today’s inventions are more likely to come from entrepreneurial teams than from the single reclusive inventor laboring away in his garret.

A team of brainstormers with dissimilar experience, training and skill sets often can find an innovative solution to a difficult problem that a specialist could not find.

Foege spends the closing chapters talking about some of the more successful current tinkerers and concluding that the breed of eclectic, creative inventors and modifiers is alive and well.

He makes a convincing case that such folks are an important part of our well-being.

Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer from Hanahan.