Undo-It-Yourself: Ed Sobey’s Unscrewed Shows You What’s Inside

Geek Culture

Wondering what to do with all that old technology lying around the house? Image: Kathy Ceceri

Although my one and only computer programming class involved ones and zeroes and IBM punchcards, I am fascinated by electronics. And since I’m currently working on a kids’ activity book about robotics, I’ve got the perfect excuse to finally begin to sit down and learn how some of the amazing gadgets that fill our world are put together.

However, there’s a catch: the publisher of my upcoming book, Nomad Press, is big on using inexpensive materials — recycled, whenever possible. Now, I know from the wildly popular ArtBot programs I present at libraries and museums that kids go nuts over robot projects that require them to wire up lights, motors and sensors. To me, the answer is obvious: come up with projects that reuse parts from unwanted gadgets. I’ve had a little experience extracting motors and blades from cheapo hand-held fans and xenon tubes from old disposable cameras. But I really felt like I hit the jackpot when I found Ed Sobey’s new book Unscrewed: Salvage and Reuse Motors, Gears, Switches, and More from Your Old Electronics.

Actually, my son the robot-builder found the book when I sent him to the library on a book-hunting expedition for my research, intending to keep it for his own use. I saw and nabbed it before he had the chance — and then I contacted the publisher Chicago Review Press and asked for a review copy to keep and an interview with the author.

Sobey, the former director of four museums and one children’s museum, has written close to 30 books for kids and adults. He also founded both the National Inventors Hall of Fame and National Toy Hall of Fame. Nowadays he runs a program called Kids Invent! that takes kids from idea to prototype to documentation and onto to a business plan and website. He also runs robotics camps that lets kids experience “the messiness of things not working.” With even the New York Times claiming that the secret to success is failure, Sobey’s program seems right on target. Couple that with the opportunity to build things out of materials like wood, plastic and metal – “Although the class is robotics for some kids it’s a first opportunity to make something out of anything except paper and glue” — it sounds like a fantastic experience.

Computer mouse partsComputer mouse parts

The guts of an old computer mouse will provide microswitches and wheels for a future robot. Image: Kathy Ceceri

Kids, of course, are always ready to disassemble things (especially things you’d rather keep in one piece, but that’s a subject for another post). Projects in the book include taking apart audiocassette players, bubble guns, toy electric guitars, RC cars, and two kinds of computer mouse. For each project, the author lists its coolness factor, what treasures you are likely to find inside, and tools required. Any safety or disposal issues are explained. Step by step photos show the deconstruction process, and he includes some ideas for using the parts you end up with. Although you probably won’t want to try all the projects in the book, just reading through them is an education in itself.

Unscrewed is not a kids’ book per se, but the projects are well within a kid’s grasp. And the idea of turning all those boxes of old computer hardware and appliances stashed around the house into a learning opportunity for your children is certainly tempting. Kids in the tween years particularly should be quite inspired by the projects.

“Every boy and half the girls I met in that age group love to take things apart,” Sobey told me. “This is all magical stuff. They just need help extracting the motor and finding something that fits on the motor.”

Sobey did have one word of advice for parents who want to share Unscrewed with their kids, based on his years at children’s museums: “Parents need to back off just a tad and let the kids do it. Help the kids find something that excites them and then step back and try not to run the show. You’ll always be a little disappointed that they didn’t learn everything you wanted them to learn. But you may discover that they learned a whole lot.”

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekDad and GeekMom on Patreon!