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Matter of Life & Tech

The next DIY tech revolution

About the author

Jonathan Kalan is an independent journalist and photographer specializing in social innovations in emerging markets. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, he frequently reports from around the region, specialising in the spaces where technological innovation, social justice and media converge. You can find him on Twitter at @kalanthinks

  • We can rebuild it
    The Kano kit, which comes with a processor and other plug-in pieces, aims to be “a computer anyone can build”. (Kano)
  • Super fly
    Among the earliest self-build kits was a plane called the Parasol, sold by the Heath company in the 1920s. (Holcomb's Aerodrome)
  • Heathkits
    In the mid-20th Century, Heathkits allowed people to build computers, audio equipment and much more. (Prestingers.net)
  • Kit star
    In the 1970s, the $400 Altair 8800 self-build computer kit launched to great fanfare – and sold thousands. (Popular Electronics)
  • Micro machine
    The BBC Micro, launched to accompany a British TV show in the 1980s, inspired many computer engineers. (BBC)
  • Tech, in your hands
    Arduino circuit boards help today’s makers to program their self-made robots, gadgets and other devices. (Arduino)
  • DIY drone
    Many people now build or modify their own flying machines, attaching cameras, for instance. (AR)
  • Green future
    A “biohacked” glowing tobacco plant that comes as a seed-growing kit – could DIY biology be next? (Glowing Plant)
Build-it-yourself computer kits spawned PCs and Bill Gates. With a new wave that encompasses 3D printers, drones and even biotech, what will be possible?

In early December last year, first-time entrepreneur Alex Klein found himself stunned. After designing a $100 build-it-yourself computer kit called Kano, Klein and his colleagues had been trying to raise $100,000 on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, to start manufacturing their first kits.

Kano is described as “a computer anyone can build”, with Raspberry Pi (a basic credit-card sized single-board computer), a keyboard, operating system, games and a speaker.

Klein and his co-founders had modest expectations. “$100,000 didn’t seem low to us at the time. We were just starting out,” he says. Yet in just thirty days, they surpassed their goal 15-fold, raising $1.5m and getting pre-orders of 13,500 kits. “We were shocked,” he recalls.

Kano’s surprising early success comes at a time when the culture of DIY kit-building – encompassing self-build 3D printers, drone kits and even backyard biological hacking – is flourishing. Yet it also finds its roots in a rich history of tools that have allowed people to unpack and rebuild the latest hi-tech innovations.

While such kits may look like simple hobbyist tinkering toys to some, their makers claim that they help to fuel a cycle of innovation that leads to some of society’s greatest technological breakthroughs. Is this really the case – are there truly broader social benefits to self-build kits? And if so, what technologies or industries might we see being “hacked” next?

Modern build-it-yourself technology kits date back to at least the early-20th Century. In 1926, The Heath Company began producing a kit-aircraft called the Heath Parasol, and in 1947, introduced its first electronic kit, the 01 oscilloscope (which measures electricity). Twelve years later, it introduced the EC-1, a desktop computer kit for under $200, with self-assemble vacuum tubes, sockets, capacitors, resistors and other components.

These early kits succeeded in making cutting edge technology available at a cost that enthusiasts could afford. They also picked up fans that would go on to create world-changing innovations. In an interview with Computer World, Steve Jobs once described what appealed about Heathkits. “It gave a tremendous level of self-confidence, that through exploration and learning one could understand seemingly very complex things in one's environment.” You might look at a TV set, Jobs explained, and with Heathkit experience, you might feel confident enough to try and build one.

In the mid-1970s, computer kits began to take off. In 1974, the cover of Popular Electronics, the world’s largest electronics magazine of the time, unveiled the $400 MITS Altair 8800 microcomputer (see gallery). It was at least a thousand dollars cheaper than rivals.

While the company hoped to sell a few hundred kits to hobbyists, they ended up shipping thousands in the first few months. The Altair helped to launch the personal computer revolution – Paul Allen and Bill Gates of Microsoft even wrote their first software for the microcomputer.

The first personal computers also followed in this tradition – even the Apple II computer came in kit form. And in the 1980s, the BBC’s Micro computer inspired many successful entrepreneurs and engineers today. The device was part of a BBC TV series on computing, and would allow people to practice at home or in schools. It sold millions. “I owe my career to the BBC Micro. I bought it 1989, for just £220,” explains Eben Upton, CEO of Raspberry Pi, the open-source mini-computer launched in 2012, which is the technology at the heart of a Kano kit.

DIY returns

Fast forward to the present day, and DIY kits are once again experiencing something of a resurgence, a spike in both popularity and availability. “There’s a lot of excitement now”, explains David Mellis, co-founder of the Arduino platform, an open-source electronics prototyping kit. “More people are interested in how to make technology interesting and accessible to new people.”

And some, such as Kano, are pitching the kits to a broader mass market. “The goal of Kano is to do something for the majority… a generation of innovators. We want to be a part of this massive upwelling,” says Klein.

So what might be attracting people’s interest today? For children at least, it might be a reaction against growing up in a digitally-dominated culture. “I don’t think most kids find digital creation very interesting,” argues Upton. “The existence of a physical thing you can own and put in your pocket still seems to be a motivator today.”

Klein agrees. “A kit is an experience, as opposed to just a consumable. It’s physical, you plug and play, lights come on, sounds activate. It’s real,” he says.

As has been the case throughout recent history, self-build kits still allow people access and hack technology they might not be able to otherwise. Many of these kits are becoming tied to a broader educational mission- the growth in a notion of “universal access” to technology.

“We’re not saying everyone needs to be computer programming,” explains Upton. “But what you’ve got to do is make sure everyone has an opportunity to discover. That’s the important thing of very low cost, the motivation of universal access.”

In fact, some argue that allowing each new generation to access technology in such a way has broader societal benefits further down the track, serving as training for future innovators – like the Altair did for Bill Gates.

“Every industrial revolution that’s happened recently has been triggered by when the underlying technology became ‘kit-ized’,” argues Antony Evans, founder of Glowing Plants, a DIY-Biology kit which uses software and DNA printers to install glowing genes from bacteria of fireflies into the DNA of plants to make them glow.

We’ve seen it in industry after industry, and it catalyzes enormous growth. Steam engines, radios, computers, the internet.”

This raises an intriguing question: after computing, what will the next big DIY kit trend be? What cutting-edge technology today will hobbyists soon want to pull apart and build themselves?

One candidate already in the running is DIY biology, or “biohacking”. As the costs drop for high-tech equipment – like a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine, which copies short strands of DNA – the barriers of entry to tinkering with biology are coming down. Already many DIY biology labs are popping up worldwide.

Costs are also falling in synthetic biology – the practice of extracting genes from one organism, or even building them from scratch, and inserting them into others to make organism do things not found in nature.

For example, 10 years ago, it cost around $100 million to make a new organism. “Today, we’re doing it for half a million,” says Evans. Decades ago, it took years to clone and sequence a gene. Today, with kits, you can three days.

It is essentially the “democratisation” of biotech, and it paints a future where people will be building biological applications as easy as mobile applications, from medicine to food. Groups like DIYbio.org are already advocating making biotechnology available to everyone.

It’s impossible to predict what people will make with biotech as the tools become more widely available, yet if the pattern follows build-it-yourself computing, it could inspire all sorts of creations, from new medicines to food. Such activity will surely raise questions about safety and the need for regulation. Indeed, Evans’ Glowing Plant project has already sparked debate about whether lawmakers need stricter controls on synthetic biology kits.

On the other hand, advocates point out that there’s much to be gained by allowing a large number of people to pull apart and rebuild new things with the latest technology. Without these tinkerers, they say, we may not have had some of society’s biggest innovations. History suggests that modern computers owe at least part of their origins to the kits of the past – and in turn, today’s DIY kits could end up sparking the next big thing too.

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