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Why great minds need toys

Evan Baehr

One of the greatest inventors and innovators in the last century barely went to school.  Where did he find his creative inspiration?  How did he devise world-changing machines?  He played with toys.  

Henry Ford lived a life of extraordinary impact. His company was responsible for more than 50% of the automobile production from 1911 until 1925, and along the way earned dozens of patents on everything from engines to automobile seat coverings. Yet most impressive about Ford is that he actually had no training: he had no laboratory experience, no mathematical background, and no theoretical grounding.  

As Joseph Epstein writes of Ford, "What he did have was inexhaustible energy ('No work with interest is ever hard'), perseverance ('the man who has the largest capacity for work and thought is the man who is bound to succeed'), wondrous organization powers ('I never saw Mr. Ford make anything,' a blacksmith who worked for him said. 'He was always directing'), and an insatiable desire to tinker."  Technically, Ford inventing nothing, but he tinkered with everything.  Recalling his childhood days on his father's farm, Ford said: "My toys were all tools--they still are."

Toys, tools, and tinkering were central to Ford's life and, perhaps, the fuel of his creativity.  In preparation to propose to his future wife Clara he built a special sleigh for the purpose, with steelcut wheels and cushioned shocks.  As a young married man he moved to a farm so he could build by hand a sawmill.  In his spare time he made a copy of the Otto engine, built a double cylinder engine he planned to mount on a bicycle, and built his own designs of steam engines.  Over the coming years--1896 to 1903, he built twenty-five cars--dissatisfied with them all.  Ford's life was one of relentless, creative expression and learning through curious experimentation.

In the knowledge economy, our tinkering no longer includes metal, blueprints, or physics--now it is about silicon, data, and sociology.  For many of us (e.g. those who do not write software), our tinkering has been relegated to introducing a new component to our system of coordinated wireless network devices to livestream a 1080p film to a smart TV, while simultaneously posting comments to twitter, facebook, and ephemerally snapchat--in case we want to say something "crazy."  This is a process we used to call:  "watching a movie and talking with a friend."  Our tools are mostly software and our tinkering is--usually--just about getting things to connect to each other (c.f. IFFT).  Amidst a sea of apps and APIs, I am looking for some real tools--something I can touch, use, and maybe even be injured by. 

When sitting with this thirst, I discovered a veritable lemonade of satisfaction for my new interest: Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, A Catalog of Possibilities.  It's origin is heartwarming: Kevin wanted to put together the ultimate box of tools for his son to take with him to college; he started with a box of a few dozen items... and years later ended up with a collection of literally thousands of items. 

Kelly's inspiration came in part from teh Whole Earth Catalogs, about which Kelly writes, "

The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools.

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I had no idea that a catalog could pull this off--but spend an hour flipping through these pages and you'll actually be learning.  When perusing Skymall my reaction is, "who would buy that?" When perusing Cool Tools my reaction is: "I had no idea!  I want to try that!"

My reading and purchasing a few items from this book marks the beginning of my journey to find a few cool tools that that let me tinker, which inspires me to create, which enables me to live. Perhaps in Kelly's own foreword I find a beautiful and inspiring case for this approach: "I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool."

So: what tool are you going to pickup? I'm starting by picking up a pencil and learning to draw from Betty Edwards.