Talking with Howard Eglowstein about micro-CHP and the maker renaissance

My guest for this week’s Innovators show is my old BYTE pal Howard Eglowstein. Nowadays he’s working for freewatt, a residential micro-CHP (combined heat and power) system, and our conversation revolved partly around that technology.

But I also invited Howard to reflect on the cultural phenomenon that’s celebrated in the pages of Make. Hacking at the intersection of atoms and bits is nothing new for Howard, he’s been doing it his whole career. One of his epic projects was Thumper, a machine he built for the BYTE lab to test the battery life of notebook computers. Thumper used optical sensors to notice when power-saving features kicked in, and robotic fingers to defeat them by pressing keys. (I resurrected this article about Thumper from the (now-abandoned) BYTE archive.)

It makes perfect sense for Howard to be deploying his hybrid skillset in the realm of energy innovation. But why, I’ve wondered lately, did we devalue those skills and inclinations? Why the long lull between the heydays of Popular Mechanics and Make? Here are some of Howard’s observations:

On toys, cars, and patents:

My background is in electronic toys. Toy engineers know how to take a really cool concept and make it cheap. In the 80s — not so much any more — you could get something at the toy store, open it up with a Dremel, and make it do something different. That’s how some kids get their first taste of reverse engineering.

But how many of us can fix our cars anymore? You just can’t. Even car people don’t have the tool and the documentation. A lot of things are done better than everybody else, and they’re secret.

In the toy industry we never patented anything, there was no point. If you patent something you have to tell everybody how it works, and then they have what they need to make an improvement and then steal the idea from you. So you do something amazing and cool, you wow everybody, and by the time they figure out what you’ve done you’ve moved on to something else which is even cooler.

On a friend’s son who is a Make fan:

We’ve really encouraged people to absorb information. But that gets boring after a while. You browse the computer, it’s kind of fun to click on links and see where they go, but it gets old. Meanwhile we’ve got a lot of kids who, let’s face it, probably aren’t going to get together and throw a football around, they’d rather play video games. So in this kid’s case when he gets tired of looking at stuff he goes and builds stuff. I hope that we’re encouraging more people to do that.

After speaking with Howard I was reminded of one project that is providing that encouragement: Natalie Jeremijenko’s feral robotic dogs, which are “upgraded commercially robotic dog toys that have been transformed into activist instruments to find and display urban pollutants.”

So I guess the toy business still is giving some young people their first taste of reverse engineering!

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