America’s self-invented tinkerers are back at it in their metaphorical garages—fiddling with everything from solar-powered cars to space elevators. In Bunch of Amateurs, Jack Hitt visits a number of different garages and has written a fascinating book that looks at America’s current batch of amateurs and their pursuits. From a tattooed young woman in the Bay Area trying to splice a fish’s glow-in-the-dark gene into common yogurt (all done in her kitchen using salad spinners)
to a space fanatic on the brink of developing the next generation of telescopes from his mobile home, Hitt not only tells the stories of people in the grip of a passion but argues that America’s history is bound up in a cycle of amateur surges.
Beginning with Ben Franklin’s kite and leading all the way to the current TV hit American Idol, Hitt argues that the nation’s
love of self-invented obsessives has always driven the country to rediscover the true heart of the American dream. Amateur pursuits are typically lamented as a world that just passed until a Sergey Brin or Mark Zuckerberg steps out of his garage (or dorm room) with the rare but crucial success story. In Bunch of Amateurs, Hitt argues that America is now poised to pioneer at another frontier that will lead, one more time, to the newest version of the American dream.
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In a forested bottomland of southeastern Connecticut,amid stony outcroppings and strewn granite boulders, lies an unusual cluster ofnine beehive-like stone shelters. As far back as anybody can remember,including the Pequot Indians, the area has had a funny name: Gungywamp. When Ifirst heard about the place, I called around and found David Barron, then thepresident of the Gungywamp Society. He invited me to join him on a walk in thewoods with some fresh recruits, mostly married couples in their fifties. Hetold me that the Gungywampers believed that the odd stone huts are Celticdwellings, an abandoned camp left by Irish monks who visited America fifteenhundred years ago.
After parkingour cars on the side of a remote road, a dozen of us slipped into the woods.Barron, a tall man with sprouts of white hair exploding out from under a Greekfisherman’s cap, marched with vigor, bubbling with enthusiasm. As a guide, hecut a familiar figure. He possessed a partiality for crippling puns. Whensomeone had to peel off early from the group, he shouted to them, “Shalom onthe range!” He smoked so much his white mustache was tainted yellow. He had asalty way of sprinkling his comments with innuendo that amused the wives, yetaffected a Victorian coyness about cursing. When I found some trash—beer cansand cigarette butts—obviously left at one shelter by some teenagers, he let flythe foulest term possible: “Sheitzen!”
Then Barron ledus to a large rock. He wanted to know if we noticed anything. There were somelichens on it, not much else; we stared intently. Barron explained that therock had faded carvings on it and that one of them was a Chi-Rho, a symbol thatsuperimposes the letter X over the stem of a capital P and served as an earlyemblem of Christianity. We all squinted.
“This particularstyle of Chi-Rho was common among Irish monks during the fifth to seventhcenturies a.d.,” Barron told us excitedly, linking the symbol to a time when acertain Brendan the Navigator of Ireland, according to legend, sailed west insearch of the Promised Land of Saints. “Do you see it?” We all leaned over,carefully scanning every blotchy divot. An uneasy silence, broken only by thecracking of twigs beneath our boots, seized the forest.
Slightly annoyedat our befuddled postures, Barron turned an exasperated, upturned palm towardsome mild indentations. He sneeringly referenced skeptics at Harvard and Yalewho had looked at this evidence and were unimpressed. “Haaaavard,” he said withthick snark. Right away you got the sense that there were two kinds of esotericknowledge at odds here. The elite evidence-based world
of “Yaaaaa-uuuull” and this other kind ofknowledge—Barronic knowledge—that meant you had to see things differently.Barron took a piece of chalk from his pocket and traced over some worn dimplesand there it was. A white Chi-Rho leapt off the speckled gray of the boulderlike a 3-D trick. Many in the crowd ooo’d and aaah’d. It was an emotionalmoment to stand in this quiet hardwood bottomland and suddenly feel itinstantly transform into a place of antiquity. A new idea had us in its grip,this notion that Irish mariners once stood right here fifteen hundred yearsago. Then again, a few of us eyeballed another nearby chiseling, smoothed downby weather in much the same way, and we wondered what runic name it went by: JCIII.
When you come across a guy like David Barron, you think,Haven’t I met him before? The eccentric demeanor, the cocksure certainty forhis ideas, that panting cascade of arcane information about things likeChi-Rhos. He’s the guy with enough self-accumulated knowledge about localarchaeology and medieval orthography and lithic architecture to cobble togethera theory about this place. He’s a type, right? Individuals like Barron can bemen or women, old or young, but chances are their gusto for their singularobsession is captivating (or irritating, depending on your mood that day). Andone other thing—I’m speaking from personal experience now—part of this packagetypically involves an unusual hat.
We all knowthese people. They are recurring American characters. These people areamateurs.
I say Americancharacters not because the rest of the world doesn’t have amateurs. Of course,every place has them and they are everywhere. At its most fundamental, anamateur is simply someone operating outside professional assumptions. The wordderives ultimately from the Latin but comes into English via the French wordamateur, meaning “lover” and, specifically, passionate love. Or obsessive love.This powerful emotion usually indicates someone’s embrace of a notion(invention, theory, way of life) as a compulsive passion for the thing—not themoney, fame, or career that could come of it. But there are differences.
In Europe and onother continents, the word hints at class warfare. Credentialism in the OldWorld suggests the elevation of those occupying a certain station. Amateurs maybe taken seriously but, almost by the power of the word, are kept in theirplace: isolated outside some preexisting professional class, some long-standingnobility.
In America,amateurs don’t stay in their place or keep to themselves. So once the wordcrossed the Atlantic Ocean—whether by St. Brendan or a more traditional way—itcame to mean all kinds of, often, conflicting things. “Amateur” can signifysomeone who is nearly a professional or completely a fool. The word alsoencompasses
a sense of being pretentious (mere amateur) orincompetent (the meaning one first hears in this book’s title). In fact, lookit up in Roget’s Thesaurus and it’s a wasp nest of contradictions—falling underfive rubrics of meaning: dabbler, dilettante, bungler, virtuoso, and greenhorn.In America, we’re a little touchy about this word, and for good reason.
Historically,our amateur ancestors grew out of the Ben Franklin tradition of tinkering athome. In the mid-nineteenth century, the homebrew style had to contend with asocietal drive to professionalize, a movement that accelerated with the arrivalof the Industrial Revolution. That was an era when, for example, the AmericanMedical Association (formed in 1847) sought to distinguish legitimate doctorsfrom snake-oil salesmen, itinerant abortionists, and other makeshift charlatanspeddling miracle tonics. Many disciplines organized professional guilds likethe AMA or created university departments to grant credentials to the seriouspractitioners of a craft over the self-schooled.
But theoutsiders never really went away. American professionals have had to grow upright alongside their striving, awkward, amateur cousins in the same way thatthe first attempts at gentry in the Old South had to contend with theirtoothless cousins named Fishbait or Elrod, sleeping in the bushes outside themansion. The embarrassment of our amateur origins, in every estate of Americanendeavor, is always lurking just around the corner.
In Europeanpopular culture, amateurism is practically feared. It’s Europe that gave us the“mad scientist”—an amateur straying into the realm of forbidden knowledge—whosemodels are Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll. In America, we soften that image frommad to absentminded. We admire that kind of risk-taker. Our amateur scientistsmight resemble the character in Back to the Future played by Christopher Lloyd(whose hair has a passing resemblance to Barron’s). The mad scientists ofEurope spawned monsters. Our absentminded professors created flubber, an absurdconfection whose most unusual property is that it enables our dopey hero toattract a girl.
So we thinkamateurs are hopeless dreamers, made practically adorable by their obsessivelove for some one true thing, and each and every one of them charged with thepotential of being a genius and making a crucial discovery. There’s somethingquintessentially American in that version of the character, isn’t there? Thelovable Poindexter who just might possibly stumble upon the next big thing.
While the wordmay be complicated and full of contradictions, the American amateurs thatconstantly pop up throughout our history are, basically, one of two kinds ofcharacters. They are either outsiders mustering at some fortress of expertisehoping to scale the walls, or pioneers improvising in a frontier where noprofessionals exist. If every country forms its national character at thetrauma of birth, then we are forever rebelling against the king or lighting outfor the territories.
On a late afternoon, Barron and I hung out for a while atthe Gungywamp structures. They are charming shelters—about the size of a goodtool shed built with flat stones stacked closer together as they get to thetop, which is formed by a large, flat capstone. The entire construction, exceptthe opening, is often covered in dirt, which in turn is overgrown with grasses.Being inside feels extremely ancient. Barron wanted to show me the mainbuilding. He believed it to be an oratory, a one-room chapel, examples of whichare still standing in Ireland. These edifices began going up in Ireland aftera.d. 400, when the Christian church opened for business there. In thisparticular hut, there was a “vent hole” whose orientation, it was accidentallydiscovered in 1987, admitted light only twice a year—on the equinox.
Barron gave me asharp look, flaring his eyes and nostrils. His hat seemed to pop up a bit andmeant to signal that the proof was fairly conclusive, right? That I was aconvert, right? I flashed a neutral smile. Earlier that day, I had spoken toConnecticut’s state archaeologist, Nick Bellantoni. He let me know right awayhe was quite tired of this crowd and couldn’t they see already that the stonebuildings were just colonial root cellars or pigsties?
Across from thevent hole was another small opening at the ground level that Barron wanted toshow me. In Ireland, Barron continued, such doorways were common in thesechambers. They led to hidden rooms where Celtic farmers might wait for thepassing of an invading horde of Vikings. The dark hole was not more than a footand a half square.
“A secretpassageway,” Barron said. So I crawled in.
When Ioriginally hung out with Barron, I loved all this. Stories about crackpotamateurs like the Gungywampers are a journalistic chestnut. First and foremost,they require a slightly oddball protagonist who can supply lots of characterdetail (some editor is always urging the writer to “make it zany”—that word ispractically jargon in the modern magazine business). And in order to reallybring it—the zany—you not only need a Gungywamp zealot who curses in weirdGerman like Barron, but you also need his foil, an official expert bristlingwith skepticism. So I was good to go, article-wise. I had the two keycharacters in the crackpot subgenre.
I was thinkingabout all this when I crawled out the other end of the secret tunnel. I was in anotherconical room also shaped into a rounded pyramid. It was just tall enough for meto set my six-foot self into a crouching stand.
I sat down onthe dirt floor in the secret chamber and illuminated the drywall masonry withmy flashlight. Even though this story was coming easily, some of the detailsweren’t dovetailing. Sitting in this little room, and touching these oldstones, I began to ask myself: Why would any colonial build nine verylabor-intensive root cellars so close together? A collection of outbuildingslike this doesn’t occur anywhere else in the United States, and how manystorehouses for potatoes and squash do you need in the eighteenth century? Whowould ever build a solar-oriented root cellar? Why would any farmer create acrawl space in a pigsty that led to a hidden chamber? So instead of rushing tomy computer to write the usual crackpot
story, a new question popped into my mind: What if DavidBarron were right?
The first thing one usually hears about the era of theself-taught theorist and the garage inventor is it’s supposed to be dead. TheGolden Age of American Amateurism is over. You can read all about it incountless books with tombstone titles, such as Thomas P. Hughes’s classicAmerican Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm1870–1970, or any of a shelf full of books with titles beginning The Endof?.?.?.?More broadly, the entire American experiment seems to be shuttingdown, if you read Naomi Wolf’s book, The End of America: Letter of Warning to aYoung Patriot.
I’m not sure I’dwrite America’s obit just yet, for the same reason that I wouldn’t write theclosing chapter of amateurism either. Every generation likes to think that itstime has grown too complex and sophisticated for any real homebrew breakthroughs.But then, each generation also discovers that what they thought were veryexpensive, highly unobtainable technologies suddenly turn into the nextgeneration’s play toys.
A few years ago,the technology for looking through surface materials—like those full-bodyscanners at airports—was incredibly complicated and expensive. Already,amateurs online have hacked the technology and created cheap DIY versionsinvolving little more than certain cameras, a combination of filters, andspecific wavelengths of light. This homemade method for peering beneathpeople’s clothes is about to do for those old “X-ray specs” ads in comic bookswhat the cell phone did for Star Trek’s “communicator badge.” Make it real, andcheap. Like it or not, nude imagery is about to undergo the same change-up thatpersonal information on Facebook did only a few years ago. And on we go.
Like so manytrends in this country, amateurism is no different. It’s not a moment thatends, but a cycle that’s always coming around.
Businessscholars have attempted to deconstruct how such amateurs succeed and one notedtheory, published in the Harvard Business Review, argues that outsiders are notburdened with the “curse of knowledge.” It turns out that ignorance is blissand, in many cases, a more productive perch to start from. Not knowing anythingabout something is often precisely what’s needed to see something new. And thenthe cycle starts over.
That’s why, inthe 1970s, IBM’s top executive could say that the world would only need a fewcomputers, because that’s how they saw it. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak werenot cursed with such presumptions and so famously went into Jobs’s Cupertinogarage and roughed out an early desktop computer from parts sold in the localelectronics store or improvised with skills picked up at the now-famousHomebrew Computer Club.
Amateurismmysteriously summons America back, like some Great Gatsby imperative, to thatvery mythological garage to begin once again the work of thinking about thingsfar away from expert prejudices. It’s not a coincidence that Hewlett-Packardrecently restored the original garage in 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto,California, where Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett first formed their company in1939 (and then provided Disney with some of the sound equipment used in makingFantasia). That quintessential location is the temple of American amateuringenuity, and after stepping out to report the stories in this book, I foundthat plenty of folks still hie to this sacred space (literally) every weekend,hoping to make the big breakthrough.
Table of Contents
1 Gungywamping 1
2 Once more, to the Gates 25
3 The Truth about birds 48
4 A Confederacy of Dabblers 104
5 Might white of you: A Comedy of amateurs 145
6 Eyeing Heaven 201
7 The Pursuit of happines 249
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Let¿s get this out of the way: Hitt does almost nothing to suggest that American amateurism is different from anyone else¿s amateurism, though he does say it¿s part of our self-image. (The quality of his evidence includes this century-hopping comparison of fictional archetypes: ¿The mad scientists of Europe spawned monsters. Our absentminded professors [don¿t get why they¿re amateurs, but ok] created flubber ¿.¿) He includes women in his story, but only in more traditionally male amateur pursuits, though his author¿s note indicates that he did research fan fiction. His account of the amateur identifies two kinds: ¿They are either outsiders mustering at some fortress of expertise hoping to scale the walls, or pioneers improvising in a frontier where no professionals exist.¿ I think that reductiveness has a gendered component. That said, this is a readable book about the wacky and the non-wacky. Hitt covers amateurism as a path to success as well as a path to doing nothing much in particular or even being affirmatively and damagingly wrong: in his example, amateur archeaologists who end up promoting racist narratives about early ¿Caucasian¿ migrations to North America. One of these guys decided that a skull he¿d found must have looked just like Jean-Luc Picard, and sure enough the facial reconstruction ended up looking just like Patrick Stewart. He ¿suggested to the artist that he not include the `epicanthic fold¿ of the Asian eye since leaving that out would be `neutral¿¿¿an almost perfect indictment of ¿neutrality.¿I liked Hitt¿s point that we often bemoan the demise of the amateur because some field or other is getting so specialized, but ¿each generation also discovers that what they thought were very expensive, highly unobtainable technologies suddenly turn into the next generation¿s play toys.¿ Also, did you know that a kid in Michigan became the eighteenth amateur to create nuclear fusion in his backyard?Hitt is also fun to read about the payoffs from tinkering and failing. Discussing one woman who¿s trying to genetically engineer yogurt to do various things (such as glow) in her spare time, he talks about her pleasure in finding older, cheaper ways to carry out parts of the process, and about the encouragement found in small victories when you don¿t have a boss with a deadline for one big solution. ¿Amateurs are often fixing things, their own devices, so there is this constant reinforcement of feeling smart and competent.¿ Though, he points out, this can also lead to people spending their lives trying to make the one last tweak that will make the perpetual motion machine work. And Hitt emphasizes that amateurs (even the mostly male mechanical tinkerers of common tropes) actually tend to work in packs, cross-pollinating each others¿ ideas.
Some small parts of this book caught my interest, but larger parts did not. The chapters on Benjamin Franklin were quite fascinating and very informative. Other chapters were overly long. Wading through the chapter describing the search for the possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker left me wanting to knock my head against a tree. The premise of America being a nation defined by it's amateurs is intriguing but this book for the most part is not. I just had the feeling that the book was a loosely joined group of essays under the title of a Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character. This book provided for review by Amazon Vine.
In this entertaining and wide ranging book journalist Jack Hitt explores what it is to be an amateur and why it has been a quintessentially American pursuit since the time of Ben Franklin, a man Hitt sees as a sort of founding father of amateurism. The word amateur came into English from the French word meaning passionate lover, and while amateurs can be off-track or irritatingly obsessed, they sometimes see possibilities more clearly than professionals because they aren¿t so invested in the prevalent paradigm. An amateur invented the Dobsonian telescope, making backyard astronomy affordable, backyard rocketry amateurs have been hired by NASA, amateurs like the young Steve Jobs envisioned the personal computer, and it was ardent birding amateurs who spotted flaws in the evidence the Cornel Lab of Ornithology presented to prove that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was not extinct. A recent piece in the Washington Post Magazine profiled an amateur fossil collector in Maryland who has revolutionized the thinking about what sorts of dinosaurs lived in the eastern United States.According to Hitt, the cutting edge of amateurism today is the scary sounding ¿biohacking¿, or extracting DNA from one life form and inserting it in another in order to achieve sometimes whimsical results, like yogurt that can glow in the dark. It¿s apparently bored computer programmers, unexcited by tweaking existing programs like Excel, who are looking for the next frontier and driving this trend. Bunch of Amateurs has plenty of Bill Bryson-like side trips whose purpose isn¿t always obvious, at least at first, but they are all so interesting I was happy to see where they led. It was fascinating and somewhat horrifying to read about the sordid origin of the word Caucasian, and Hitt¿s descriptions of the distinctly different types of robots being created in America (functional), Japan (physically life-like) and Europe (emotionally intelligent) have embedded cultural observations I¿m still trying to parse, and sent me running to internet to see examples .
As one of the bunch of amateurs, I was disappointed in the limited number of stories featured. I was also put off by the author's rambling, digressions, ego trips and lack of consistency in treatment of the subjects. If one were to take out some of the irrelevant passages, this would be a fine essay. I may read the book again and possibly recommend it to a limited number of friends. It is no great read and could use significant editing for readibility. The author rested too long on his laurels and needs to get back to serious writing.