Quietly going about their business in this busy world, and largely ignored by wider society, there exists a group of people that, more often than not, give the world a lot more than they receive in return. These people are not politicians, or lawyers, or superheroes in the traditional sense, and nor are they defined by their professions and occupations.
They are those under appreciated few who take extreme pleasure in fiddling with things, taking them apart, putting them back together again, often just to see what happens. The tinkerers. Where we would be without them is difficult to imagine, but in an attempt to do so, let’s have a look at some of the most important tinkerers from times gone by, and the inventions and discoveries they stumbled upon that changed our lives.
Borne out of the enlightenment age that re-awakened seemingly dead principles of logic, discovery and evidence, the greatest era of tinkering center
ed around electricity, and from there, the industrial revolution. Curious souls such as Michael Faraday and Heinrich Hertz have electromagnetic phenomena named after them, while Marconi was credited with inventing radio and Watson-Watts with radar. The 19th century was the golden era of tinkering, with countless professional and amateur science enthusiasts suddenly overwhelmed with new things to discover and fiddle with. Perhaps the most famous tinkerer of all time was Benjamin Franklin.
A favorite Founding Father and all-round good bloke, Ben Franklin died with possibly the most impressive resume of all time; author, inventor, civic activist, statesman, diplomat and scientist, he was the archetypal Renaissance man. And more than anything else, he liked to tinker. Famous episodes with kites and lightning storms highlight his desire simply to understand the infinitely complex world around us. Oh, and you can also thank him for the odometer, which he used to streamline the US Postal service, bifocal glasses, and the infamous lightning rod.
At this point, you may be wondering, where is Thomas Edison on this list? He was a great inventor! Well, you’re wrong! Edison may be credited with a stupendous number of inventions, including the lightbulb, but most were not his ideas – he simply packaged them best, his real talent was working out how to sell the inventions of other people. If there’s one thing he was NOT, it was a tinkerer. No, the title of greatest tinkerer of all time belongs to one man, and one man alone.
His name was Nikola Tesla.
Tesla was years, often entire decades, ahead of his time. Famed for having the most startlingly insightful ideas and simply forgetting to write them down, he loved nothing more than being cooped up in his lab with his experiments. In addition to being every so slightly insane, living a life plagued by the nastiness of the aforementioned Thomas Edison (read more about that saga here), speaking eight languages and being able to recite entire books after a single reading, here is a brief run-down of some of Tesla’s most important inventions. Alternating current (AC). Radar (Seventeen years before Watson-Watts got the patent). Radio (“Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue” – Tesla). X-Rays. Remote control. Neon lighting. The electric motor. Wireless communications. And so on, and so on, you get the picture.
Tesla tinkered himself to oblivion, but the world owes him an enormous debt of thanks, as is also owed to every other tinkerer who ever stumbled across an interesting thingymabob or whatchamawhoosit and thought to themselves “I wonder how that works”. With the spirit of exploration and tinkering subdued in recent years by the unimaginable complexity of modern technology (who among us can really claim they know how an ipad works??), it’s vital we remember these great thinkers and tinkerers.
Maybe try to channel their spirits or let their memory inspire you when you try out the Clockwork Caper Escape Room at Perplexity Games, Cleveland!