The demise of Tinkering

The progress of engineering over the years has brought us many triumphs of human ingenuity, but it has left quite a bit of roadkill behind. One species driven to the brink of extinction is the Tinkerer.

The attitude to Tinkering has always been ambivalent. Look at the dictionary definitions:

tinkerer [noun]

1. a traveling mender of metal household utensils.
2. A clumsy repairer or worker; a meddler.
3. a person who enjoys fixing and experimenting with machines and their parts.
4. a person skilled in various minor kinds of mechanical work; jack-of-all-trades.
5. Scot., Irish English.
a. a gypsy.
b. any itinerant worker.
c. a wanderer.
d. a beggar.

What a mix! On the one hand, a person skilled in fixing things; on the other, a beggar, a clumsy worker…

The truth is, this was an extremely useful person in centuries past. This was the ingenious man who made the rounds of the county, a wanderer indeed, and who knew how to fix everything that had broken down since he last came. All the newfangled contraptions that were useful to the villagers but beyond their ability to fix: sewing machines, radios, bicycles, gramophones, tractors… And this tinkerer had manifold skills – a real jack of all trades – but even more so, he could improvise, making replacement parts from whatever was at hand, working around the missing or broken pieces. Take my favorite definition of engineering – The art of making what you want from things you can get – replace “making” with “fixing”, and you have the Tinkerer’s calling. Above all, this is “a person who enjoys fixing and experimenting…” – someone who loves his work, hence deserving our respect.

And now he’s a threatened species, for two reasons having to do with how we design our technology today: first, because we design it to be discarded at the first failure, so no need to fix it; and second, because with the advent of microprocessors, most items cannot be fixed by improvisation. If your car acts up, you need to get it to an authorized garage where they hook it up to a computer that tells them what to do; no way can you take a screwdriver and a shoestring and fix it… and in any case we specialize so much that no one person can fix the electronics in a sewing machine, a DVD player and a car.

Too bad – those tinkerers had a technological flair to their way of life and their vocation that will be missed – or not, once we forget they ever existed. 🙁

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