[David Strom's Web Informant] July 1, 2012: The return of the American Industrial Revolution

David Strom david at strom.com
Sat Jun 30 07:05:53 EDT 2012

Web Informant, July 1, 2012: The return of the American Industrial Revolution

You wouldn't know it, but within a short walk of each other in
Dearborn, Michigan are two destinations that are important to
documenting the span of the American industrial era. I managed to
visit them both on my trip to see what Ford is doing in June.

My first stop was the Henry Ford Museum, which I last visited many
years ago. Ford was an unbelievable collector of Americana. At his
museum is housed an impressive array of objects including Bucky
Fuller's Dymaxion house, Thomas Edison's original laboratories and
home, Edgar Allen Poe's writing desk, a machine that made thousands of
glass casings a hour for lightbulbs built by Corning in the 1970s, the
original bicycle shop and home of the Wright brothers where they built
their first airplanes, the Logan County courthouse where Abe Lincoln
once trod and so much more.

Edison's laboratories and the Wright bike shop are notable in how all
the equipment that needed moving parts ran off a common drive train
that was mounted on the ceiling and attached via long belt loops. This
was before electricity – something that Edison had a part in – and
when just a small collection of tools could produce just about
anything made out of metal or wood. (No plastics back then.) There is
a sparse but determined sense of purpose around these early machine
shops that I found very appealing.

Leave the museum, take a short walk down the block, and you are
transported to the modern era at the TechShop. This is a machine shop
for everyman, but unlike the Edison labs it is crammed full of gear
and tools of all shapes and sizes. I had heard about these places –
three of which are in the Bay Area – and this was my first chance to
see one. Basically, you sign up and pay a monthly fee of $100 and
start taking classes in how to use the gear. And the gear is
impressive: there are laser-cutters, metal working equipment, sand
blasters, plastic molders and shapers, computer-driven things that I
couldn't even begin to describe. Anyone, once trained, can use
anything in the shop. There is even a three-D printer that was built
out of spare parts (from a design first run in Make magazine several
years ago) that was producing some small models.

I heard from Mark Hatch, the CEO of the TechShops, talk about some of
his members who came, invented, and now are making lots of dough with
their creations. Patrick Buckley was just some random person who came
in to the TechShop to take three of their classes. "Ninety days later,
his company had hit one million dollars in sales, producing
bamboo-based iPad covers."

Items of all shapes and sizes are being worked on, and the place is
just huge. We got to see a high-pressure water jet cutter that can
precisely cut through six inches of sold steel do its thing. Hatch has
said elsewhere: "The welding class is really cool. You arrive, put the
glasses on, put this big huge leather jacket and leather gloves on,
and pretty soon, you've got a flame as bright as the center of the sun
right in front of you. You're dealing with fire and gas and steel."

Ironically, Jim McKelvey built the first prototypes of his Square
payment device at one of the California TechShops. He got the idea
when he was trying to find a better way to sell all of the hand-blown
art glass he created in his St. Louis factory. So we have gone from a
machine that transformed the glass industry to one that has
transformed the payments industry.

TechShop represents another beachhead for American manufacturing, as
John Markoff reported last week in the Times. Companies are shifting
their production back to America for a variety of reasons, and he
notes a new Google hardware product that is designed and made in

It was quite a trip: from where the original light bulb went off to
where lots of virtual lights are going off in the minds of modern
inventors.  You can see how the industrial era progressed when skilled
machinists were rare and specialized machines were invented for large
mass production to the modern era where skills are easily acquired for
small-scale entrepreneurs to make their dreams turn into cash. A true
study in contrasts to how we can still make things in America.

You can see some of the photos from the museum and TechShop, along
with links to some of the items mentioned and also comment on this
post here:

There is also some commentary I wrote last week about my Ford visit here:

More information about the WebInformant mailing list