CLANG. CLANG. CLANG.
Somewhere in the darkness, a wounded prisoner strikes his hammer to a heavy iron plate––a gleam of defiance in his eyes.
CLANG. CLANG. CLANG.
Isolated. Condemned. Forgotten.
Beaten and bloodied, he vows not to go gently into oblivion, but with a resounding bang. A finale worthy of his name, his legacy.
This scene may sound familiar to you. And it should.
It was here, in this grim, desolate cave, that the Iron Man was born. And after unleashing some cathartic payback in an armored suit forged from discarded missile parts, the world couldn’t help but fall in love with Tony Stark.
Tony Stark in a cave. With a box of scraps. (Photo credit: Marvel)
Since 2008, Iron Man has become a cultural phenomenon. And even that is putting it mildly. In a span of ten years, Iron Man has grown from a B-lister cartoon hero to arguably one of the most recognizable pop culture icons of all time.
Today, Iron Man is revered for the same qualities that distinguishes would-be engineers, innovators, and tinkerers who also possess an insatiable curiosity with technology. Websites like Hackaday and Hackster are celebrated for their communities of tech hobbyists, and similar sites are removing barriers for avid students to initiate creative projects of their own.
Every day the world of technology is becoming more accessible, more open source. And yes, while the internet can be a...mercurial...landscape to navigate, there are plenty of legitimate oases out there brimming with DIY resources and invaluable guidance.
Bottom line? It’s 2019: you don’t need to be a billionaire-playboy-genius-philanthropist to build cool stuff. All you need to bring to the table is curiosity and passion.
And a little spare time never hurts.
CURIOSITY KILLS CATS, NOT HUMANS. MOSTLY.
Okay, maybe the Iron Man analogy is a bit misleading. Even if you’re a trust fund kid with time and money to spare, the basic principles of robotics and post-9/11 airspace restrictions will likely prevent you from zipping around the stratosphere in a weaponized suit of armor.
Trust me, smarter people than us have done the math.
What those of us without doctorate degrees can emulate from the iconic Avenger, however, is the spirit to innovate––or, in simpler terms, to build cool shit.
It all begins with curiosity...curiosity that inevitably grows to become an idea. Nothing grandiose; truth is, the majority of DIY tech projects aren’t earth-shattering. Take a look around and you’ll see that nobody is trying to solve world hunger on their first go-around––most just want to build cool stuff because...well, it’s cool.
And hey, sometimes you might even make a little money off it.
The Hunter Cat portable skimmer detector is an example of a paper napkin idea developed into a bankable product, a process that platforms like Surcle specialize in. And it began by addressing an issue that most of us have encountered at one time or another.
The media continues to saturate us with increasing incidents of credit card data theft, so much so that when it actually does occur, it feels more like a mild annoyance than a devastating breach of privacy. Consequently, most credit card companies have become so adept at flagging discrepancies that for the majority of people, disabling skimmed cards and resolving fraudulent charges can be done in under five minutes.
Inside of a week, you’re delivered a new credit card and you’re back on Amazon binge shopping for all that stuff you don’t really need. Yay consumerism.
But for Salvador Mendoza, a freelance security researcher and co-founder of the Women in Tech Fund, society’s acquiescence of the matter just wasn’t good enough. No surprise there––not being satisfied with “status quo” is pretty much the tinkerer M.O.
While skimmer detectors are used today by law enforcement and available through niche online markets, they aren’t exactly constructed with user experience in mind (yeesh). Mendoza sought to rectify this by designing a sleek, portable skimmer detector that would function with the accuracy and reliability of its more, erm, pragmatic counterparts.
His idea eventually caught the interest of Electronic Cats, a Mexico-based manufacturer that partnered with Mendoza in developing his concept into a fully realized hardware product.
Meow’t bad. Meow’t bad at all. (Photo credit: Electronic Cats)
PASSION IS THE SECRET INGREDIENT. NOT MONEY.
In a perfect world, money should never be a barrier to building cool stuff. If you want to torment your robophobic coworker (you know who are) with a self-navigating, cyborg dog that follows her around the office, by all means, you should be able to. This is America, after all.
Unfortunately, for most of us, financial capital ultimately determines our range of mad scientist endeavors. Sure, you may be obsessed with Rick and Morty and possess the skill to code a robot to pass butter, but could you afford to build one?
Well, one passionate fan did. Three years ago. With a 3D printer and a list of materials you can scrap together for less than $80 on Amazon, minus some soldering tools.
It may not be identical to Rick Sanchez’s invention, but it’s a surefire means to avoid using those flabby noodles we call arms to pass the butter on pancake day. Also, as a bonus, it won’t suffer a crippling existential crisis. Probably.
Passion also incited Instructables member Mportatoes to create a special night light for his daughter that also paid homage to his love for the Legend of Zelda franchise. Because why settle for a glorified toy lamp when you can craft an LED rupee display in a single weekend?
What began as a simple gesture of endearment resulted in the internet’s most charming way to scare away any Stalfos hiding in closets. Link would be proud.
If this Hyrulian display of fatherly love doesn’t melt your heart, there is something terribly wrong with you. (Photo credit: Mportatoes)
Since then, Mportatoes has gone on to instruct additional builds for other Zelda-related paraphernalia, including a blinged out version of the aforementioned rupee night light and a wonderfully eerie replica of Majora’s Mask.
Not too shabby for a hobbyist with a 3D printer and a little imagination.
Peek into any innovation community, especially within DIY hardware forums, and you’ll find that the majority of notable tinkerers have more than a few quirks in common. There’s an almost insatiable need to inspect, deconstruct, and comprehend practically everything that’s handed to them; tinkerers question everything, and their greatest talent is seeing potential in the mundane.
This is especially evident when they showcase their abilities through fandom.
PLOT TWIST: COSPLAY JUST BECAME COOL
So here’s the thing, I’d explain what cosplay is, but since you made it this far...let’s be real, you already know. Why pretend?
For Seattle-based mechanical engineer Diego Valdes, cosplay is more than just fanfare, it’s a bonafide artform. Inspired by the Metal Gear Solid video game series, Valdes designed a functioning cyborg helmet––complete with sensor-triggered face plates and lights.
Any guesses on who his inspiration was?
“For me, Iron Man is my favourite of the superheroes. As a fellow engineer that makes him an easy choice,” Valdes explains in an interview. His attention to detail in every aspect of replicating the ninja armor worn by antihero Gray Fox has garnered unanimous praise from convention fans and gamers alike.
“Since making this helmet everytime I go to conventions I get recognized. This particular helmet took seven months to complete – the longest I have ever spent on a piece.”
Valdes exemplifies how even everyday hobbyists can rival big budget Hollywood costume production using a 3D printer and some good old-fashioned perseverance.
From the celebrity sphere, Adam Savage of MythBusters fame also threw his hat into the superhero ring, with equally astonishing results.
Savage, a personal fan of cosplay, collaborated with the Colorado School of Mines Advanced Manufacturing Program to create a bullet-proof replica of Stark’s Mark II armor, a feat all the more impressive when it was shown to also be capable of (mild) flight, thanks to contributions from Richard Browning, CEO of Gravity Industries.
Jarvis not included. (Photo credit: Discovery Networks)
While this real-world version of Iron Man is still a far cry from the borderline-magical Mark 85 seen in Avengers: Endgame, it’s a clear testament to the tenacity of engineers and builders inspired by their inner geekdom.
WHY DO WE TINKER? BECAUSE WE CAN.
There’s a growing cynicism about following your passion these days.
For every inspirational success story, there’s a thousand internet trolls eager to proliferate their own disillusionment. Social media has become a coin toss menagerie of starry-eyed dreamers and armchair nay-sayers.
And yeah, truth is, not everyone is going to strike it rich doing the one thing they absolutely love.
Odds are, your passion isn’t going to afford you a beachfront home in Malibu; your hobby won’t pay down the first installment for a private jet. But that doesn’t mean you should stop.
Salvador Mendoza didn’t design the Hunter Cat for a lucrative payday; Yvo de Haas didn’t program a talking turret to sell to the military; and Diego Valdes didn’t spend seven months turning himself into a cyborg ninja for a profit.
These people––and the hundreds more that didn’t make this article’s final draft––labored for countless hours designing, building, and perfecting things that they loved, not for money, but simply because they wanted to. Because they could.
And that is the beating heart of all tinkerers. That is what differentiates the mediocre from the Tony Starks of the world––not a suit of armor.
Money may not be a constraint for a fictional billionaire, but for college students, every dollar matters: I know all too well those late night taco runs won’t fund themselves. In the spirit of innovation, Surcle is offering free use of its network and platform to currently enrolled college students who want to design and showcase projects of their own, big and small.
To get started, simply register through our student portal. Once your student status been verified and approved, you’ll be able to showcase your projects on Surcle’s website, either to share or seek help from our community members!
Whether you’re looking to inspire or be inspired, we’ve got you covered.
Good luck, future Starks.
CLANG. CLANG. CLANG.
(*Feature Image Photo Credit: Diego Valdes)
Hayley is Surcle's Community Manager and Engagement Specialist; she maintains Surcle's expansive network of talented engineers for crowdsourcing challenges and projects.