Making Things to Make Things With

This article was written for Issue #01 of Post-Work magazine; “a collection of thoughts, images and ideas on life during a global pandemic”. It was published in May 2020.

It is the morning of April 14th 1932 when my grandfather, Ernest Walton, compresses himself
into an overturned tea chest lined with lead in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge
University. Protruding vertically above him stands a thick glass tube salvaged from a petrol
pump, its connection to the tea chest made airtight with the help of some sealing wax.

From top to bottom of this improvised apparatus hums a potential difference of 700,000 volts,
almost 2,917 times what comes from a socket in your house. This enormous voltage is used to
accelerate protons down the length of the tube before smashing them into a sheet of lithium at
its base, centimetres from Ernest’s watchful gaze. It is here, through a protective shield, that he
observes what are called “scintillations” – something he later described as looking like
“twinkling stars” — alpha particles dancing outwards from the collision.

This was the first time that the atom was split.

It was the first time that Einstein’s theory of relativity (e=mc2) was verified experimentally. It was
the dawn of a new era in nuclear physics and laid the foundations for later particle accelerators
(CERN). It was a breakthrough which earned Ernest the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951. It was
an experiment completed using salvaged components, and an experiment completed with little
access to resources, money or people.

Recent events have brought with them much time to think, and as isolation progresses I find
myself continually circling around the idea of resourcefulness. As we collectively push onwards
or simply do our best to exist, surely it is a resourceful approach which will maintain both our
personal health and professional equilibrium?

And so, inspired by Ernest but steadfast in the knowledge that no Nobel prize will come my way
any time soon I try to put this belief into practice every day. As I write there are fragments of
ongoing projects everywhere, pieces of carved balsa wood fight for space with silicone moulds
on a desk hastily wrestled into place in our spare room. Wedged between this and the wall to
my left is a 3D printer, patiently laying down layers of the next prototype while steadily
increasing my electricity bill. Cardboard boxes occupy most of the floor space, brimming with
sheets of rubber, wood, glue, card and remnants of previous projects. If you imagine what it
would be like to try and compress a product design workshop and studio into a single
bedroom, this would be it.

I am doing what I can to keep client projects, personal projects and design teaching vibrant &
creative – I am doing everything I can to be resourceful. In truth I have always been drawn to
resourceful designers, to those who consistently bring ideas and processes from unexpected
sources to their work. In my isolated practice I have learned that everything is now one step
further away than before. To make something new I now have to design and build the tool first,
salvage a raw material from something redundant, to be resourceful — making things to make
things with.

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