In war-ravaged Vietnam, the impoverished locals had no tools at all and, to Tim’s amazement, were fixing motorcycles with their fingers. In Eastern Europe, the state had commandeered the means of production, so the locals watched the decay of their cars, streets, lights, and toilets with an Orwellian resignation lubricated with raw booze.
Bedeviled on his travels by a balky Fiat 600 and faulty hotel plumbing, Tim tackled whatever he could. But because his humble pocketknife lacked pliers, it soon failed him. Out of this frustration came the Leatherman, an Emerson essay in stainless steel.
Twenty-five years later, more than 3million Leatherman tools are sold each year. This despite the fact that the Leatherman Multi-Tool can never do a full-scale job of repair. It’s too generalized, and it’s just too small—the ladies’ versions are downright dainty. As a working tool, it doesn’t balance right, and the folding handle is clumsy to the grip.
However, given that it unites pliers, a saw, knives, an awl, a ruler, screwdrivers, strippers, and crimpers, a Leatherman makes it mathematically impossible to stop tinkering. Leatherman tools are durable, rarely rust, and have a certain tight-mouthed, implacable Yankee quality. They’re a state of mind.
The postmillennial version of a Leatherman is the Apple iPhone. Like all digital technologies, the iPhone has yet to achieve the hard-grained, Spartan elegancies of the steely Leatherman. It makes up for this with its cannibal appetite for other tools. Leathermans will disappear—I commonly give mine away—but iPhones devour other tools, digesting them into virtualized application services: phone, camera, e-mail, Web browser, text-messaging, music and video players, whole planet-girdling sets of urban Google maps, house keys, pedometer, TV remote, seismometer, Breathalyzer, alarm clock, video games, radio, bar-code scanner … the target list grows by the day.
Yet even these analog and digital avatars of the Emersonian impulse only point to the ending of the tale. Lurking offstage (in a lab at Bath University in the U.K., to be precise) is tomorrow’s self-reliant machine, the analog/digital hybrid “Replicating Rapid Prototyper.” The “RepRap” is a skeletal framework with a nozzled printhead that moves in three dimensions. Its ultimate purpose is to manufacture most everything, through digital plans, by means of various forms of solidifying liquid goop. It can even manufacture itself, which is the point of the effort. Looking as simple as an Erector Set, it’s a personal metamachine that machines machines.
Here, the entire technological surround of Emerson vanishes into an inchoate cornucopia, an open-source ultragadget that Thoreau might tote to his pond and promptly use to build a private civilization. From the meanest knickknacks in the Yankee peddler’s pack to, yes, an entire township.
All by himself.