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Focus On: Toy Hacker John Waltham

Gareth Halfacree

We recently attended the Halifax Mini Maker Faire 2015, and took freelance journalist Gareth Halfacree along for the ride. This series of Focus On features is designed to offer a sampling of who you can expect to see at a Maker Faire event, why they're there and what it is that drives them.

At first glance, John Waltham's table in Eureka's theatre seems out of place. Situated across the room from Leeds and York Hackspaces and their high-tech, LED-bedecked creations, John's spread could be confused for a bring-and-buy sale of second-hand children's toys. There's at least a partial truth to this: John describes himself as the "Toy Hacker," and takes a great pleasure in giving new life to discarded, damaged or simply outdated toys.

"I take different sorts of toys and then try and do things with them," an enthusiastic John explains of his hobby, gesturing to the electrically enhanced creations in front of him. "So, if you take a toy that has been used and then children have got bored with it, can you do something else with it? The idea is perhaps to mechanise it or take it apart or just to put other bits and pieces on it, or join different ones together, to try and get them to do different things and to have an extended life, as it were."

Inspired by Victorian automata, John's creations are as unique as their creator. From a coat of arms which waves gaily and plays a jaunty tune at the click of a repurposed TV remote control to a toy insect which attempts in vain to keep hold of a wooden bee when a button, marked "free the bee," is pushed, no two are alike, each born of flashes of inspiration upon seeing discarded toys and low-cost electrical and electronic components.

"When I was very young we had toy boats and things like that, and I wanted to try and control the boats using radio controls," John recalls when asked how he got started in the hobby of toy hacking, "and then I realised that the easiest way to do it was to get a broken toy and then use the bits from that onto the one I was trying to develop. Then it just sort of swelled from there!

"When I was young I went to Scarborough, I don't know if people know that there's an island there in Peasholme Park and on the island were little automaton things in boxes," John adds. "I just loved going around and pressing the little buttons on the boxes and seeing things that did something in response to when I pressed the button, and that's more or less what I'm doing now."

For John, attending the Maker Faire is about inspiring the next generation. "I like seeing people enjoying the things that I enjoy as well, so you get people coming along and something happens and they see something working and therefore they're quite amused by it. That pleases me, to see it, and I just hope that they'll go away and like I did as a kid see things and think 'oh, I'd like to have a go at that,' and hopefully they'll build things and carry on making things."

John is a regular attendee at local maker-themed events, and can typically be found by following the buzz of motors and squeals of delight from attendees discovering the joy of modern automata.

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