“Well, Andy,” said a judge, “we thought your
machine was dangerous. After all, it uses electricity
and it gets very hot.”
“Of course it does. It’s a toaster,” he protested.
“It’s supposed to get hot and use electricity. If it
didn’t, it wouldn’t be a toaster.” Unswayed by logic,
the judges would not reconsider.
So who won? First place went to a girl who made
a cap and vest for her hamster. Second place went
to a boy who “made” radar by cutting out pictures
of antennas and gluing them to a poster board.
Some might say our society has become obsessed
with safety to an unhealthy degree. There are labels
that say “do not use in shower” on hair dryers,
“do not eat toner” on laser printer cartridges, and
“allow to cool before applying to groin area” on
McDonald’s coffee cups. (The only one I made up is
the last one.) Some people feel that everyone else
ought to watch out for them. They want someone
to vet their lives, to check things out in advance.
Basically, they want a nanny.
In a “nanny state,” somebody else — governments,
insurance companies, education administrators
— decides which projects makers may attempt and
which they may not. In the nanny state, experimenters and builders find themselves deprived
of the materials, tools, and information they need
to carry on their interests.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the “night
watchman state.” Here, authorities try to keep thugs
off the street, keep the electricity on, and that’s
about it. You’re pretty much on your own.
Most of us prefer to live, work, and play somewhere in the middle. Let’s call it the “Maker State.”
In the Maker State, everyone takes reasonable
precautions and wears protective equipment. Safe
working practices, if thoughtfully incorporated into
the act of making things, can become a performance-improving feature, just as athletes wear better
equipment to enhance their performance.
The Maker State provides freedom to attempt
projects on the edge. Still, laws of chance and statistics ensure that sometimes stuff just happens.
There are two fundamental realities of working in
the Maker State: risks can be reduced but not
eliminated, and not everything is somebody’s fault.
It’s up to each person to determine his or her
personal “zone of reasonableness.” It’s not the
same for everyone. It depends on the quality of
your equipment, the extent of your experience and
training, and your willingness to assume risk and
responsibility for your actions.
In the late 1950s, Americans, especially teenage
boys, went rocket-crazy, their interest lifted to
stratospheric levels by the patriotic frenzy surrounding the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite.
By the early 1960s, thousands of young people
were busily building homemade rockets.
Unfortunately, few had any idea what they were
doing, so most wound up building what in reality
There are labels that
say “do not use in
shower” on hair dryers,
“do not eat toner” on
laser printer cartridges.
were pipe bombs. Unarguably, mixing inexperience,
surplus enthusiasm, and powerful chemicals makes
for a dangerous situation.
Estes Industries, now the biggest name in manufactured model rocket engines, published a booklet
40 years ago called The Rocketeer’s Guide to Avoiding
Suicide. It provided example after chilling example of
rocket engine explosion injuries, some presented in
gruesome detail, e.g., “He was making rockets out of
pipes filled with match heads. The pipe blew up and
he almost blew his stomach and intestines out.”
While Estes had a vested interest in persuading
young rocketeers to buy their engines instead of
building them from scratch, nonetheless, there did
seem to be an extraordinarily high accident rate
among youthful rocket builders of the time.
Makers of the 1960s might not have known about
various hazards that we now recognize. We can’t
ignore these hazards. Instead, we must learn how to
avoid them and work safely by taking precautions
and wearing protective equipment. By employing
adequate preparation and knowledge, and by
incorporating safety as a positive, performance-enhancing feature in projects, the Maker State
engenders a wide variety of challenging projects.
With any luck, the next self-buttering toaster at
the science fair will win the blue ribbon.
William Gurstelle is a MAKE contributing editor. He wrote
“Happy Blastoff” in MAKE, Volume 10.