13 Feb 2019

When I was bored, I’d construct a pocket MP3 player just to see if I could -- open hardware pioneer Limor Fried

It is very easy to destroy people’s curiosity and creativity. It is important for me that people try to understand instead of criticizing. -- an interview with open hardware pioneer Limor Fried.

Wysokie Obcasy
Olga Wiechnik Wysokie Obcasy, Global
When I was bored, I’d construct a pocket MP3 player just to see if I could -- open hardware pioneer Limor Fried - NewsMavens
Limor Fried, YouTube

The following selections from Olga Wiechnik's interview with Limor Fried originally appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in February 2017.

Dear Ladyada, My daughter and I have been watching your program, “Ask an Engineer” for four years. Recently she asked me, “Can men also become engineers?”

That is one of the many fan letters received by Limor Fried -- the pink-haired hacker who uses the pen name, “Ladyada” on the net in honor of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, and the mathematician regarded as the author of the world’s first computer program.

Though Limor Fried is the first woman on the cover of Wired magazine, and the one to whom the magazine Fast Company gave the title of “most influential woman in technology,” her goal is not to pave the way for women into the male world of engineering. And it is not to run a successful business -- though the company she founded, Adafruit, earned 40 million dollars last year and placed first in a ranking of the five thousand fastest growing private companies in the New York state. What is her goal?

“I want to build people’s fundamental curiosity: How does it come about that something happens? I want them to discern the enormous creative potential of mastering basic technical tools,” Limor says with great speed and with enormous enthusiasm.

“Electronic equipment makers are always sending us the message, ‘Don’t touch! Don’t open! Don’t look! Don’t mess with this!’ But we’ve sent the completely opposite message, 'Open it! Look inside! Find out how it works! Try to understand it!' she explains. Adafruit Industries, the company she founded in her dorm room as a student at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), sells computer components for hobbyists and schools.

As for herself, Limor started by taking apart VCRs (“Humans are the most curious animals. They cannot be expected not to look into a carefully packed box!”), and hacking into phone booths. By using the appropriate combinations of tones she could make free long distance calls. “The internet was born when I was a child. We grew up together,” she says.

To get inside and divide something into parts in order to understand -- that’s her natural way of thinking. So it felt natural for her to study engineering. The problem was that many of the “parts” involved mathematics, which she didn’t like as much.

“In order not to go crazy from boredom, in my spare time I would construct a synthesizer or a pocket MP3 player of my own design,” she recalls. Then Limor decided to make these designs and detailed instructions for them available on her blog. She quickly attracted a community of people who wanted to try similar things, but did not know where to find the parts. Then she was flooded with requests to send them.

“At first I thought, ‘Leave me alone! After all, I have to learn this wretched math!’” she replied. In the end, she gave in and started to prepare mini-kits with parts for 10 dollars.

For a few years, she’s also conducted a weekly video chat called, “Ask an Engineer,” in which she answers questions from amateur engineers from around the world and encourages them to work on their own inventions. The staff at Adafruit also produce a blog devoted to, among other things, the concerns of the Open Hardware movement, where producers make technical documentation available for a given piece of equipment, allowing anyone who has sufficient knowledge and equipment to build their own version.

“It’s not theft, but research and development,” she emphasizes. “After all it’s not about making the same talking alarm clock as someone before you. It’s about making something better and faster, something new!”

Limor tries to devote half her time to the construction of new objects. This work, on which she provides a detailed running commentary, can be seen live on the internet.

What is there to see? “Some time ago water started dripping in the bathroom. I was afraid to leave the house in case it started to flood into the neighbors’ apartment,” Limor responds. “So I hooked up a device that generated a Wi-Fi signal from a water sensor. When the sensor detected a drip, I got an e-mail,” she explains. Making this device took her 90 minutes and was broadcast over the internet.

This is only one of many such devices. Thanks to Adafruit tutorials there are a homemade illuminated helmet, a remote-controlled bird feeder, as well as a sensor that sends an e-mail when a younger brother opens the drawer containing her sister’s diary.

Limor jokes that until recently one needed NASA technology for these projects, but now anyone can make something like this at home themselves.

“When you share your work with the world, whether it’s a book, a picture, or a robot, you expose yourself and are easily wounded,” Limor Fried says. “You show the world what is important to you.  On the internet, it is very easy to write, ‘you’re no good; I could definitely do it better.’ It is very easy to destroy people’s curiosity and creativity. It is important for me that people try to understand, instead of criticizing. They did not accuse others of stupidity, but only opened themselves to their own ignorance, in order to learn something. It’s not about everyone becoming an engineer. It’s about learning to think like an engineer, because that means seeing the world as something beautiful, complex, and fascinating!"


Translated by David A. Goldfarb


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