What my father taught me: Jim Newton
The former university robotics teacher and founder of TechShop on learning to make things.
My earliest memories are of my dad and me in his home workshop in Burlingame, California. Dad built a glass fibre Meyers Manxstyle dune buggy there when I was 8 years old. He drove a 1960 VW bug into the carport and turned it into an entirely different, yellow machine. That’s when I learned I could make anything I set my mind to make.
Even now the smell of steel being welded and glass fibre being sanded takes me back to that time. I was very young when he began letting me use his tools to make goofy little inventions. He even taught me to gas-weld. He told me simply to form a small puddle of steel, then move over a little and form another one. He said that the weld should look like a stack of coins that had tipped over.
When we moved to San Jose in 1972, Dad and I built an electric minibike. The engine was missing from the frame we scrounged, so we retrofitted it with a starter motor and a battery from a junked car. The bike had insane torque but not much range, since the battery was old. The bike would go around the block maybe four times before running out of power.
I’m not sure where Dad learned all the stuff he taught me, but he knew a lot. He showed me how to make an arc lamp with carbon rods from D batteries and an electric train’s transformer, and how to use a pencil with an eraser in a drill to create swirl effects on metal. After he taught me soldering, we made a siren circuit with a speaker in a Prince Albert tobacco tin. I took it to school and got in trouble for having a siren, not for having a tobacco container.
My dad passed away in 1998, so he never saw TechShop, where I’m certain he would have loved to hang out. Today, I think of him every time I make something.