Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

I'm a tool freak

If there ever is going to be a tool-freaks anonymous I’ll probably be a founding member.

This started when I was very young, at the ripe old age of three I came in to the possession of a screwdriver (and a garbage found typewriter, which I both got from my dad for my 3rd birthday).

Pretty soon other tools followed, pliers, a small hammer and a universal wrench. By the time I turned five there wasn’t much that I couldn’t demolish!

That’s when I discovered electricity, and for a while I was totally absorbed by lamps, wires and switches, as well as a supply of batteries to power them. Wired connections were put in place with tape, and later, solder (a soldering iron, new tool!). When I was 10 electricity gave way to electronics after spending a month in Arnhem with my grandmother, where they had a second-hand bookstore around the corner that had all kinds of interesting stuff about electronics components. I built a little crystal set from a schematic in the book, and my toolbox grew accordingly, this time with more complicated stuff like a little meter.

My step-dad had a tool catalog laying around and for many years that was my favorite book in the house, I could look at all those tools, learn their names and maybe even use a few of them.

From analogue electronics to digital stuff when I was 15, then back to analogue building transmitters for pirate stations in Amsterdam, and in parallel to that computers. This time the tools were software, languages to learn (first BASIC, then assembler, then pascal (yuck), then C (yay!) and a variety less well known but no less interesting languages (such as forth)). Then I discovered algorithms, and they became tools as well, and I started to make my own, a text editor, an assembler and a whole pile of utility programs. Instead of just being a tool user I became a tool maker.

For many years this situation persisted until one day I did some work for a company that produced specialty machines. They wanted to produce a line of CNC mills and lathes and I wrote the software that powered the tools (they’re still in business today, 21 years later and they still use a derivative of the software I wrote back then). Because of the workplace I picked up a lots of knowledge about tools, most of them for the metal working trade. I learned how to weld, how to operate most of the heavy industrial tools.

My idea about programming for other people is that you first have to learn their job inside out, then you can write the software for them. Rinus de R. one of the people there spent a lot of time with me teaching me how to use the machinery and in return the software got better.

When we bought a run down (but nice) old house in IJmuiden, The Netherlands I figured we could do the renovation ourselves, and together with the help of a bunch of friends we restored the house to a really nice state. All that knowledge about tools really paid off!

In Canada, we built a house ourselves, powered by solar panels and a windmill of our own design and manufacture. The CNC milling rig/plasma cutter that was used to make the mill was homebrewn as well.

After helping out a farmer in the neighbourhood by fixing his baler that had broken down in the middle of the haying season someone jokingly said that if a helicopter were to break down on the island we’d be able to fix it.

Moving back to the Netherlands in ‘07 we had an allowance of one metric tonne that we could take back with us, my portion of it was just tools, the ones light enough to bring back. The mill, the lathes and all the other gear got sold.

Even today, the tools are definitely not on par with the workshop we had in Canada, there isn’t a day that I don’t miss the way you could go from idea to finished piece in a couple of hours.

But who knows, maybe one day :)

Tools are the things that allow us to make stuff and other tools, it is toolmaking that sets us apart from most other creatures and that allows us (together with those very handy opposable thumbs) to progress as fast as we do. Whether the tools are physical tools or virtual ones doesn’t matter that much, time invested in learning how to use tools, their names and time spent on improving them is time spent well.

Whether it’s a compiler or a lathe, a simple screwdriver or some complicated stack of software, if you keep them (and your knowledge about them) in good shape they’re the most rewarding inanimate objects that I know of.