Limor Fried was the sort of third-grader who took apart VCRs for fun. Gradually, she discovered that a hobby could become a degree–a bachelor’s and then a master’s in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. Finally, she discovered it could become a business. During her student years, Fried would post photographs and detailed instructions of her latest experiments in hardware hacking. First, she built an audience, and then a company, Adafruit Industries.
Through Adafruit, Fried (hacker handle: ladyada, after Ada Lovelace, the 19th century proto-programmer) sells DIY kits out of New York. Her best seller, something she calls the “Minty Boost,” is a backup battery pack for your iPod (or any USB device), nestled into a cute little Altoids can. It’s a good starter kit for someone making their first foray into hardware hacking–only a minimum amount of soldering necessary.
Another of ladyada’s fruits is a cell phone jammer. In 2004, while still an MIT student, Fried tried to get work done in cafes–but couldn’t hear herself think, so ubiquitous were the cell phone conversations around her. So she brainstormed, and put together a device that disabled all cell phone signals around her. (When a Samsung rep later met Fried, he quipped: “Could you make one that just disables Nokia phones?”) As it turns out, the manufacture, sale, or even use of such a device is illegal in the U.S.–but writing about it is fine, and if someone theoretically wanted to learn how one could theoretically make such a thing, that information is also up on Fried’s site.
Her company and site have made Fried something of a DIY goddess; she’s on the advisory board for Make Magazine, often speaking at its Maker Faire events.
Fried’s approach is sometimes called “open-source hardware”–similar to open-source software, but instead of the source code being open and malleable, the source materials are. Is there something anti-corporate in the way that she likes to encourage the hacking of consumer products?
“Absolutely not, I’m totally a staunch capitalist,” she says. She just thinks hardware hacking is good business. Adafruit has become something of a business incubator itself, inspiring others to start similar businesses. “They see how Adafruit is run, and say, ‘I’m gonna go off and start a company that makes 3-D printed robots!'” Fried says.
But there’s more to it than business. “I think of Adafruit as a cause, not just a company,” she says. “There’s a company that sustains me, but that’s not enough to drive what I do. What we’re trying to do is make electrical engineering exciting, cool, and fun.” —David Zax