Solder On

enRoute, September 2011
“Don’t worry,” says Daniel Hirschmann, in his lilting South African accent. “If you burn your finger with the soldering iron, it’ll immediately cauterize the wound.” Hirschmann’s partner and girlfriend, the bubbly, LA-bred Bethany Kolb, stands beside him, smiling unironically. Oddly, I find Daniel’s assertion reassuring. A self-healing wound, should I mishandle this tabletop tool, which is both utterly new to me and cranked to somewhere around 300 C, doesn’t sound all that bad. 
 
It’s a sunny early-Spring morning in London, UK, which I’ve chosen to spend sitting at a long wooden table, in a windowless room in the East-end hipster-hood of Hackney. I’ve come here, along with about 15 others, for salvation. In front of each of us is a soldering iron and a baggie of electronic doodads. With these items, we will learn how to build speakers. Daniel and Bethany, founders of the host organization, Technology Will Save Us, will teach us how. The program’s affiliation with the pop-philosopher Alain de Botton’s School of Life – which also offers courses like How to Make Love Last and How to Be Cool – makes the grandiose promise of salvation unsurprising. Still, I’m not holding my breath.
 
The daylong seminar starts with a slideshow, in which Daniel explains his mission – turning consumers into producers – as well as electricity and sound 101. (Who knew that Edison and Tesla inspired AC/DC’s name?)
 
By mid-morning, with a less-vague-than-ever grasp of electrical engineering and physics, this room, earlier full of ad execs, photographers, accountants and teachers, is now full of producers – foot soldiers in the battle against a consumer culture of easy disposability. With goggles in place, and a descriptive, photographic booklet in hand, we begin to transform our green circuit boards into beat-blasting Uber Amp 3000s. (Daniel conceived the name.) 
 
I bend my diode, a 2-inch wire with a capsule in the middle, into a U-shape, and insert the ends into holes in the circuit board. And then, I solder. Holding the small iron like a pen, I touch the hot tip to my solder – a wire of easily melted, low-alloy metal. With a drop of liquid solder on the iron’s tip, I press it to the hole where the diode meets the circuit board. The liquid surrounds the diode, gluing it into place and ensuring that a current may pass through it. Next, I insert and solder my resistors, which regulate the flow of power. Then, the LED, the capacitors, the potentiometers – volume knobs – and finally, the battery holder.
 
After about an hour, my amp is complete. What remains is simple: I plug left and right exciters into the amp. The exciter – a plastic puck with spider-like arms – vibrates rapidly according to the amp’s electronic signals. It can turn virtually any solid surface into a speaker.
 
Egg cartons, cereal boxes and Styrofoam boards are passed around, as we giddily glue exciters to objects previously destined for the trash. I pick two clean sheets of cardboard, and glue my exciters firmly into place. I plug in my iPhone, and scroll through my playlist. What song to pick for such a revolutionary moment? 
 
AC/DC. “Shake Your Foundations.” Salvation never sounded so sweet.

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