Garage inventors – legend or reality?

Garage inventors – legend or reality?

4 May 2018
Engineer history innovation
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1938 – Palo Alto, in California. William Hewlett and David Packard, two visionary engineers, set up a workshop in a simple garage backing onto David Packard’s house to work in peace and quiet on their creations. One year later, on 1 January 1939, they officially launched their electronics company, called Hewlett-Packard, which is more commonly known today as HP. In 1987, this famous garage was designated as a “California Historic Landmark” and since then it has been considered as the official birthplace of Silicon Valley.

Other well-known companies and their inventions have also come into being in a garage, including Mattel, Apple, Google, Amazon and Harley-Davidson, all of which are rumoured to have been created out of a happy tangled mess. According to Gérard Piouffre, author of Les grandes inventions (First éditions, 2013), this enduring legend clearly illustrates the fact that innovation needs an environment that inspires creation. “The lone inventor who makes a fortune by creating a new and original machine in their garage is a legend that still makes us dream. In reality, though, inventors aren’t in it for the money but because they are confronted with an irritating problem they can’t get around. They will shut themselves away so they can calmly reflect on how to bring their discoveries to life without anyone telling them it’s impossible”.

A place that inspires innovation

A garage, basement or attic is first and foremost a kind of cocoon where engineers can let their ideas and imaginations run free. “Until the middle of the 19th century, the main inventions were the fruit of people working alone, often at home, as the garage only came into existence with the invention of the motor car in 1891” says Gérard Piouffre. “Since then, inventors have tended to work together in groups, and companies devote a portion – and often a large portion – of their budgets to research. But the genius DIY inventors are still out there and their discoveries can lead to commercial success, as shown by the many entries presented each year for the Lépine innovation contest that takes place at the Foire de Paris Retail Fair”. Take Alexandre Defromont – a 34-year old fireman who won the Président de la République prize at the 2017 Lépine contest for creating a system that geolocates emergency services’ call-out sites and gives medical data on the person they are going to help. “I spent a year on my own at the back of my garage designing a prototype” said this self-taught inventor to the press when receiving his award.

From garage inventor to billionaire

If there is one domain where garages have played a starring role it is computer technology. Out of the current Big Four tech companies (“GAFA”), three began in a garage: Google in 1998, Apple in 1976 and Amazon in 1994. Facebook is the only exception as Mark Zuckerberg designed his social network in his student room at Harvard in 2004. Another company that took its first steps in a basic garage or shed is Microsoft. “The American Bill Gates is often quoted as an example. He began his programming career at the age of 13 and continued at Harvard, where he went in 1973. Two years later he devoted himself entirely to Microsoft, a start-up he created with his friend Paul Allen in the family garage. In March 1986, Microsoft carried out an IPO on Nasdaq and rapidly became one of the market’s top stocks. Today, Bill Gates is a billionaire”, summarises Gérard Piouffre, who believes that computer technology is particularly suited to garage inventions for purely practical reasons: “There’s no need for a huge space to develop computer software or a new app for a smartphone”. This philosophy of low-cost innovation – at least during the design concept phase – has proved extremely attractive to start-uppers and other techmakers.

A new approach to innovation

Techmakers have often created their inventions thanks to intuitive DIY. Faced with a problem, they draw on their know-how and the tools available to them to devise a viable solution. This has led to a new vision of invention whereby people can create, irrespective of their background or resources. While it’s true that techmakers and start-uppers now work in hyper-perfectioned laboratories, aren’t these famous Fab Labs just upgraded versions of Mum and Dad’s garage? Equipped with the latest technology such as 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC milling machines and 3D scanners, there are now over 1,000 Fab Labs that have sprung up across the world. The tools that have become available to DIY engineers have opened up a host of opportunities and hackathons are regularly organised to spur intensive and collaborative innovation. “Designing and launching a new type of space rocket requires major resources that not everyone has, but civilian drones for example, owe a lot to aero modellers. Their success has been made possible thanks to smartphones which are fitted with gyroscopes and sensors”, explains Gérard Piouffre. “Today, anyone can intuitively fly these machines and they illustrate the fact that small teams or even people working on their own can still design inventions that can change the way we live”.

Another tool that is currently facilitating garage engineering is crowdfunding. Hundreds of crowdfunding platforms have sprouted on the web, offering dozens of new projects every day. Among the most well-known of these platforms are Kickstarter, KissKissBankBank and Ulule. They are a real boon for inventors who want to commercialise or perfect their inventions but who do not necessarily have the means to go down the traditional financing route. Many inventions have emerged thanks to crowdfunding campaigns, including vegetable gardens connected up by universal remote controls, bicycles with luminous wheels, and phone-charging wallets… the list is long and the fields explored are multiple.

“A pure garage-made prototype”

Guillaume Rolland, founder of SensorWake, used several crowdfunding campaigns to finance the large-scale creation of his scent-diffusing alarm clock. His invention – which he dreamt up in his parents’ garage – is now sold across Europe. “I designed the first version when I was at high school. It was a pure garage-made prototype – an invention created out of bits and pieces” reminisces Guillaume, who has since presented his invention at the CES Innovation Awards in Las Vegas where he won a prize in the Home Appliances category in 2016. “Ever since I was little I’ve loved tinkering. I used to take over my parents’ garage, because that was the best space for my experiments”, explains this 21-year-old inventor. “I had enough room to spread out and make mess and noise without bothering anyone. I could also borrow my parents’ tools and store the components I recycled from old toys or household appliances.” It was thanks to his imagination and ability to make something out of nothing that in 2014 – when he was just 18 years old – Guillaume was chosen to take part in the Google Science Fair, an engineering programme for 13-18 year olds run by the Innovation and Research teams of the multi-million dollar firm. This was a golden opportunity that opened the doors to a highly select world of budding entrepreneurs. And yet despite his success, Guillaume still sometimes returns to his roots: “Every now and then I go and tinker in the garage – even if it’s not quite as often as before– usually at the design and experimentation stage of a project, when the idea is first forming”, he said. He adds that although the main reason for using a garage is its practical advantages, the garage legend also makes for a good story that helps to market a product. “Talking about an invention created in a hyper-perfectioned, clinically clean laboratory in Taiwan is much less romantic than imagining Mr. Ordinary working at the back of his garage inventing THE product that will revolutionise our lives.”

The stuff that dreams are made of

The garage legend is a useful way of giving an invention a back-story and a certain nobility, of placing it on the same footing as an Apple or a Google. Being able to tell a story about a project makes it easier to sell that project to the public. Jeff Baezos – the founder of Amazon – obviously understood this. Rumour has it that the creator of the world’s largest online sales site insisted on renting a house in the Californian suburbs rather than setting up in more traditional offices. Why? So he could tell everyone that his company started in a garage, in phase with the particularly American concept of the self-made man.

This romantic image, kept alive by literature, cinema and television series, continues to feed the dreams of future engineers, like those we met outside a famous Paris engineering school. “When I was a little girl, I loved comics and I imagined that when I was older I would invent all sorts of things that would be a bit mad but indispensable for daily life, like Gyro Gearloose or a more technological-style Iron Man”, laughs 19-year-old Émilie. “It might be a cliché, but it’s true …”. The image of the mad genius working on his gadgets alone in his garage is still encouraging people to take up engineering. Take 23-year-old Arthur: “I wanted to become an engineer to help people and find solutions to problems, but also to break through technological barriers and drive science forward”, he explains. “At some point in our lives, we have all dreamt of playing MacGyver in the family basement or garage and inventing a flying car, a teleporter or a time machine. Maybe it’s pure fantasy but after all, aren’t engineers basically dreamers? They dream and then they do their utmost to make their dream come true.” And it doesn’t matter whether it’s in a laboratory or a garage.

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