Self-Reliance 2008

Like your Leatherman? Love your iPhone? Still to come: the ultimate open-source ultragadget

A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson “Self-Reliance,” 1841

The Emersonian strain in American thought makes the individual the microcosm of society. Full of hackerly vim, our sturdy lad is all things to everyone, a tinkering geek as agile as a falling cat. But where will he keep all his hardware?

Even the most polymathic, dexterous, open-ended individual is, after all, just one guy. He might retreat to Walden Pond for the simple life alone with a hoe, but if he dwells among mankind, he’ll need a veritable Gutenberg Galaxy of tools.

Much like an Emerson essay, which rambles alarmingly over the page, transcendentally banging on topics from Vishnu to whaling harpoons, he’ll need a portable, personal device that can plausibly tackle every contingency. And, thanks to rambling West Coast zealot Tim Leatherman, he can obtain one: yes, the legendary Leatherman Multi-Tool, inspired in part by Tim’s bruising contacts with two profoundly un-American societies, Vietnam and Communist Eastern Europe.

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.