American tinkering, which is the engine of American innovation, traces its roots way back to the Founding Fathers. But contemporary American tinkering owes a lot to the California counterculture, the preservation of which is vital to our national future.
I spent two years thinking and writing about the American tinkering spirit, but only after my book was published did I detect its distinct West Coast vibe. Great tinkerers are rarely experts or specialists. Rather, they are dilettantes who know a little about a lot of things and just enough to think differently. They look at what is around them and try to fashion something new out of what already exists. They’re free spirits and freethinkers—the kind of people for whom California has been ground zero for decades and decades.
Long before the counterculture was even a twinkle in Haight-Ashbury’s eye, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were tinkering away in the one-car garage in Palo Alto where they founded Hewlett-Packard in 1939 with $538. While both were trained engineers, Hewlett and Packard spent their earliest days puttering about, building various devices but earning little money off of them. Their first saleable product was a precision audio oscillator they had cooked up using a small incandescent light bulb as a pilot light. Walt Disney Studios bought some of them for use on the movie Fantasia. One of their other early inventions, which never went anywhere, was an exercise machine that used electrical pulses to activate muscles.
But the real precursor to the tinkerers of the countercultural era was Buckminster Fuller, the futurist and polymath who is alleged to have coined the term “doing more with less.” Though Fuller hailed from the East Coast, he had a residency at San Jose State College (now called San Jose State University) in 1966 and frequently lectured in California around the same time. Fuller’s geodesic domes and Dymaxion House embodied the futuristic practicality that would later infuse the early West Coast developers of the personal computer. Fuller himself often espoused the geodesic form as simultaneously technologically pure and natural. He believed creative thinking was somehow more creative surrounded by such liberating structures, which provided their own airflow, created the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, and used fewer materials than structures of comparable size. The geodesic dome’s “more is less” aesthetic was very much in line with the precepts of tinkering.
By connecting technology and nature, Fuller created a bridge between the hippies and the techies of the decades that followed. In his 1985 essay, “From Satori to Silicon Valley,” the late Theodore Roszak, a longtime professor of history at California State University East Bay, who rose to prominence with his 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture, argued that just below the surface of the “bucolic hippie image” lay a deep interest in technology. Roszak claimed that science fiction was the preferred literary genre among many of the counterculture types he knew in the late ’60s.
Roszak and others cited The Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture catalog published by Stewart Brand—a longtime Bay Area resident, Stanford-educated biologist, and Buckminster Fuller acolyte with an artistic bent—from 1968 to 1972 and occasionally after, as an early nexus for California tinkerers. Beside its listings touting primitive tools and sustainable farming methods, the compendium included entries on stereo systems, welding equipment, cameras, and computers. Unlike other counterculture firebrands of the time, Brand favored tools and skills over politics. No wonder Steve Jobs famously labeled The Whole Earth Catalog “Google in paperback form” in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University.
Brand was building the relationship between tech and the counterculture even earlier. In 1966, he and Ken Kesey were among the co-producers of The Trips Festival, a rock music gathering held in San Francisco that drew 10,000 people and debuted one of the first light shows of the era.
By 1969, when Xerox founded the Palo Alto Research Center—PARC—the Bay Area had become ground zero for the hippie counterculture. It’s no coincidence that PARC’s first employees were mostly former academics who had never before experienced a genuine corporate culture. Thanks to a recent cutback in military spending due to the political backlash from the Vietnam War and a brutal recession, Xerox had its pick of the top research and engineering talent of the day.
What distinguished PARC from other industrial development departments was its lack of clear purpose, by design. That and premium salaries that easily surpassed those offered by even the most profligate universities.
A defining article about PARC ran in a December 1972 issue of Rolling Stone, then based in San Francisco. Its author was none other than Stewart Brand. Brand portrayed PARC’s employees as staggeringly brash, knowledge-fueled hippies determined to wrest control of computers from the hands of stern corporate factotums. They seemed driven by the notion that computers could only achieve their full potential in the hands of individuals, not corporations.
Known to bat around ideas while seated in mustard-colored beanbag chairs, the PARC engineers never reaped financial gain from their most successful project, an early PC called the Alto. But Steve Jobs borrowed its key elements for Apple’s first Macintosh computer.
Jobs’s flaky ethos owed everything to the California counterculture. While not a tinkerer himself, he knew how to appeal to true tinkerers’ softer side, as well as to their taste for chaos and abandon. The emotional, tactile elements of Apple’s products are a testament to enduring hippie values.
And those California hippie values persist in the culture of tinkering to this day. Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, headquartered in Sebastapol, California, promotes open source software and the concept of the global brain. O’Reilly’s company has played incubator to an astounding range of today’s tinkering offshoots, including MAKE magazine and the carnival-like Maker Faires that are multiplying across the country.
In my mind, Gever Tulley, the product of hippie parents in Mendocino, brings the history of California tinkering full circle. Tulley is the founder of The Tinkering School, an immersive summer program in San Francisco where kids build suspension bridges and working rollercoasters. At both The Tinkering School and Brightworks, a private school he cofounded, Tulley combines Whole Earth values with a contemporary notion of reality-based self-discovery.
Buckminister Fuller once said, “How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.” That’s the outlook of a true tinkerer. California’s success, past and present, is based on its ability to accommodate, and welcome, so many people with that perspective.