Before laptops, before cellphones, and before computers, hackers hacked machines. For most of the last century, the machine of choice was the car. Car repair, like chess, took a day to learn and a lifetime to master and the tricks we use today – 3D printing, tag-team programming, agile design – were born in the garages of the 1950s and 1960s. John Muir’s book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, was the car hackers bible and the first hackerspaces were DIY garages. Car repair was about people helping people, just as early UNIX machines were about sharing and the Internet was about cross-border cooperation. Tom Magliozzi, who died today at age 77, was one of those early hackers. His show, Car Talk, was the definitive record of those early hardware hacking attitudes.
Tom (above, right) and Ray should be familiar to anyone who grew up in a household with a counter-cultural bent. Heard around the world – the callers rang in from Alaska, England, and Afghanistan – the show featured car advice and much more. The brothers joked constantly, Tom’s infectious laugh ramping up the car speakers or hi-fi until that’s all you heard. They focused on older cars as newer vehicles were harder to diagnose without computers and sensors. Instead you could hear about timing belts and the best old Volvos and how to make sure your Honda Accord didn’t make that thwap thwap thwap sound when you drove it faster than 40 miles per hour.
Graduates of MIT, Tom and Ray were roundly educated but sounded like a pair of screwballs. Tom started one of the first DIY repair shops, the Hackers Heaven, and the delightfully-named Good News Garage. Although he never let on, you could tell he and his brother were true techies although they were in love with cast steel and oil rather than bits and bytes. The show’s value wasn’t in the car advice — the Internet gives us that with far more accuracy than the brothers could — but in the personalities.
The brothers, and Tom in particular, reminded us that building and fixing isn’t scary and that repair, in fact, was the way forward. We aren’t supposed to be scared of getting our hands dirty because that’s how progress is made and that’s how you have fun. Tom taught a generation of hackers that there is nothing frightening about taking things apart.
The show has been in re-runs for the past two years while Tom battled the Alzheimer’s that eventually killed him. His was a generous and beautiful mind and we could all learn a thing or two from him when we explain this brave new world to people new to its wonders.