Friday, February 10, 2012

Open-source innovation: the new Carnegie system

A hundred years ago and more, one of the key players in British and North American technological supremacy was the workingman's educational institute. These early open-source systems for self-improvement allowed thousands if not hundreds of thousands of innovators to jump what was then a huge class barrier to college education.

The Carnegie system of libraries and reading rooms was one such organization in America. In Britain and the Commonwealth countries, private non-profit Workingmens' Institutes and reading rooms dominated, and served an identical purpose. An example is the Oakdale Institute, now in the Museum of Welsh Life near Cardiff.

When I was a kid, my self-taught engineer godfather gave me an encyclopedia from this early era -- the "Harmsworth Self Educator." This was the same set he'd been given as a kid in the 1910s -- about five shelf-feet of massive grey volumes, full of engineering know-how and technical data.

They were out-of-date by then, but I appreciated them all the same. Today we have Wikipedia and Google, and I use them just as hungrily each day. And, I just discovered, the full text of the "Harmsworth Self Educator" is now available online.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

I think we are mistaken when we tell the story of industrial development as a sequence of "big names:" the Watts, Edisons, Alexander Graham Bells, Henry Fords and so on. These were important people, don't get me wrong. But each of these engineering greats used dozens, if not hundreds, of design employees, many of whom would be self-taught in or by these early open source educational resources.

The skills and ideas developed in these organizations were put to use in the design workshops operated by what was then a massive system of small fabrication workshops in every major industrial city. If your design needed a special part, the chances that it could be made in a city like Birmingham or Pittsburgh were close to 100%.

Today's innovator needs access to technological information in much the same way. The Internet largely serves that purpose, and as someone who repairs his own vehicles, builds his own buildings, and occasionally makes his own prototypes (primarily in anemometrical systems), I've learned how to use a Google search to track down just about anything, from a special component, to a design element, to something as mundane as an elusive trouble code for a family vehicle.

But if I can't make a component myself in either my own or the college's workshop, I need to hire a fabricator.

(It turns out that in Unity, Maine, the best equipped fabrication shop is run by an Amish wind power engineer, but that's another story.)

If I lived in San Fransisco, I could turn to Techshop, a public workshop for do-it-yourself-ers, innovators, and entrepreneurs.

Now that would be cool. If I had all the time in the world, I'd like nothing better than to make my own turbine and solar PV panels mostly from scratch, and fit them to this old Maine farmhouse.

That's my idea of fun.

It doesn't matter where I live, if what I want is to learn to write code and make computer applications. I could use Noisebridge, an online and open-source network for computer engineers.

I wonder how many of our conference goers will have heard of these kinds of organizations, or thought about how vital they might be to the future of western and American technology.

And I wonder how many of them see the need for open source, decentralized, and non-commercial systems for disseminating this information.

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