A Wonderful, Whimsical Workshop for Tinkerers

At the Tinker's Workshop in Berkeley, California, people of all ages come together to tinker


| July-August 1999



As the world grows more virtual, it's easy to forget that we are direct descendants of the human genius that conceived the on/off switch. A black box provides our nightly focus, a stack of printed paper directs our thoughts, and a high-resolution video screen baby-sits our kids. While such external stimuli give us something to do, the passivity they induce doesn't exactly promote the creativity that produced them in the first place.

Fortunately, ingenuity hasn't entirely disappeared. Step inside the Tinker's Workshop in Berkeley, California, and you've entered a cavernous cross between Dad's garage and a mad scientist's lab, with some Wizard of Oz whimsy thrown in. This multidisciplinary “hybrid between a scientist's lab and a creative artist's studio” is actually “a place for young people of all ages to take things apart, build things, explore things, fix things, and meet with others who are already doing these things,” says the volunteer outfit's founder and director, Nick Bertoni. “Everyone, from novice to expert, is given the opportunity to actualize projects.”

A chef who dreams up a solar oven design comes here to find someone with the scientific know-how to tinker this vision into reality. A doctor with an idea for a noninvasive allergy detection device taps the Tinker talent pool for engineers to build the prototype and lawyers to bring the invention to market. An architect enlists a fine artist to refine a design plan. As Bertoni says, the possibilities are endless. “We are literally a 'think-do tank'—a cross-pollination of scientists, architects, doctors, engineers, lawyers, ecologists, artists, inventors, politicians, teachers, and students. By bringing tinkerers together, we intend to tinker our way to the next level of understanding.”

Predecessors to today's creative mavericks and hackers, the original tinkers were a band of much-maligned European gypsies (also called Irish and Scottish Travelers) who traveled in wagons, plying their mending services from town to town. Although they were treated as pariahs because they provided hands-on labor the general population disdained, they were, in fact, the lifeblood of society. And as unfettered outsiders, they were free to approach each day with a fresh perspective, devising innovative solutions to problems old and new.

“Today, believe it or not, tinkering is actually held in high esteem,” says Bertoni, who looks like a relative of master toy tinkerer Kris Kringle. “People respect you if you can actually fix a door, a car, a light, a heater, a radio.” And as he discovered several years ago, people who can tinker also respect themselves. As artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Exploratorium, a hands-on museum, Bertoni engaged museumgoers in artistic projects. “I could see that the youth, especially the borderline kids who were in trouble for behavioral problems and petty crimes, thrived when they had something positive to do. Once you engaged their skills, interests, and intentions, and got them involved with something practically meaningful, they turned around.

“Unfortunately, schools tend to operate from the mind-set that young brains are empty vessels into which facts and data can be poured,” he adds. “Our experience is the opposite. Something as simple as driving a screw, pounding a nail, figuring something out gets them to trust life. They say, 'I know how to do that, I can drill the next hole, let me measure it, let me, let me,' and before you know it, a light is turned on.”