Rockets, Radio and RNA: The Role of Hobbyists in Driving Innovation

Rockets, Radio and RNA: The Role of Hobbyists in Driving Innovation

Diane DiEuliis and Peter A. Emanuel


Today’s emerging biotechnology is simultaneously the most exciting and concerning evolution of biology in the modern era. Novel gene editing tools, combined with rapidly advancing informatics, are enabling synthetic biology, biological manufacturing, and precision medicine – and creating sensationalist headlines about genetic super-weapons and genetically altered animals and plants. The pace of scientific advances and the proliferation of tools to enable biotechnology have generated both excitement and concern[i][ii]. They also raise important questions of the ethical use of such powerful life-controlling technologies, as well as their safety and security[iii]. As these technologies advance, they have become more readily accessible to those who want to practice biology outside of the traditional laboratory. The last decade has seen the creation of “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) biology communities and laboratories, where biological experimentation can be done by hobbyists and non-scientists, generating concerns as to the ethics, safety, and security of such communities.  Many have suggested these communities warrant new safety and security regulations, but they also have touted their positive attributes. DIY communities are not new, in fact, hobbyists have long been part of global culture, and are frequently praised as contributing to innovation and invention, as well as to the education of future scientists and engineers. Today there are hundreds of DIY communities which are aided by a world-wide internet where ‘how-to’ information is readily posted and shared. However because of societal perceptions and global norms about these powerful life-controlling technologies, the DIY Bio community has attracted high levels of concern not afforded to other DIY efforts. Recently the German Consumer Protection Bureau issued a statement that any amateur scientist doing genetic engineering outside of an officially licensed laboratory could face up to 3 years in prison or a €50,000 fine. [iv][v] Through a comparison of the DIY Bio community with other historical DIY movements in amateur rocketry, ham radio, and amateur photography, governments may be able to craft ways to constructively engage these communities.  Examination of the evolution of these technical hobbies leaders can shed light on how these efforts contributed to innovation and how society and organizations viewed these efforts as they matured. Given that biotechnology is a strategic technology in the 21st century, driving a billion dollar global market, this comparison is intended to provide direction on potential government involvement with the DIY Bio community, and how it might benefit national strategies for biotechnology writ large.

Contributions of Amateur Efforts: Rocketry Takes Off

On October 4, 1957, the world was stunned by the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik I, by the former Soviet Union.  This event is often described as a ‘technological surprise’ and a pivotal point of the Space Race during the Cold War, but in reality both the US and the Soviet Union had intensive rocket development programs, and not surprisingly, robust amateur communities.

Several pioneer scientists were innovating rocketry in the early 1900s. A Russian schoolteacher named Tsiolkovsky proposed that space could be explored by rocket, and suggested rockets could achieve the range needed by using liquid propellants[vi]. In the US, a scientist named Goddard was experimenting with that same idea[vii] and on March 16, 1926 he achieved the first successful flight with a liquid-propelled rocket. Although the rocket flew for only two and a half seconds, climbed 12.5 meters, and landed 56 meters away in a cabbage patch, it was historical.  Around the same time, a German scientist named Oberth published a book describing exciting rocket travel into outer space[viii]. These inspiring ideas and experiments inspired the many local rocket societies that began to spring up around the world.

In June of 1957, Scientific American published an article entitled The Amateur Scientist, which featured building diagrams and information for a variety of rockets[ix].  Taking advantage of resurging interest after amateur rocketry was shut down during WWII, the text of the article was interspersed with space and rocket-themed recruiting ads from Sandia, IBM, Radio Corporation of America, and Systems Laboratory Corporation. There was recognition at the time that DIY amateurs might well be the next generation of defense engineers and scientists. Not only was it thought that amateurs could be a hotbed for recruiting future scientists, but they might also make important discoveries that could advance the field. Anotoli Blagonravov was an amateur rocket enthusiast prior to steering the Russian space program to many achievements, not the least of which was Sputnik I. The excitement around the launch of Sputnik, the competitive and patriotic challenge of the space race, and the adventure suggested by space travel inspired young people all over the world to want to launch rockets - perhaps most poignantly portrayed in the 1999 movie, “October Sky”, by Homer Hickam.

Consider ham radio as a second example. In Kristen Haring’s book, Ham Radio’s Technical Culture, she describes how ham radio culture rippled through hobbyists' lives. Technology companies actively recruited ham radio enthusiasts and electronics manufacturers catered to the ham radio DIY community. She discusses ham radio's positive impact to the military and civil defense efforts during World War II and the Cold War. By considering ham radio in the context of other technical hobbies such as model building and photography, she shows that tinkerers influenced societal attitudes toward technology beyond hobby communities, enriching the general technical culture by posing a vital counterpoint.[x] Amateur radio operators also helped advance the state of the art of crystal control of radio transmitters providing a commercial market that launched the crystal industry in the 1920s and into the 1930s. The industrial needs for radios skyrocketed when World War 2 began and because of hobbyists a small manufacturing base already existed. This industry originally formed to serve amateur radio operators. Many of those in the industry were amateur radio operators. Amateur radio helped to pave the way to make crystal control of radio transmitters a common and well tested practice.[xi]

DIY: Not Always Smooth Sailing

A case can be made for the positive contributions to innovation that these DIY movements made to rockets and radio but the attitudes about DIY communities always smooth sailing?  Kristen Haring gives us a good example that DIY communities can ruffle some feathers with amateur photography:

“Hobby applications of technology that fell outside of mainstream of technical culture gave rise to explicit debates about the proper role and place of technologies. At the turn of the twentieth century, the press depicted hobby photographers as strange characters who possessed dangerous equipment. Photography magazines joined general publications in calling early amateur photographers ‘‘camera fiends’’ and using similar language that associated hobbyists and their cameras with violent and treacherous misdeeds. The sharp division of public opinion over the portable camera— a drama whose episodes included the proposal of a federal law [in the United States] to limit exhibition of photographs, the arrest of a photographer for selling manipulated images, and a court injunction against a magazine for printing an actor’s photo without his permission—contributed to the development of legislation to protect privacy.” [xii]

Like amateur photography, the DIY communities at the heart of ham radio and model rocketry each faced skepticism and concerns in their early days. Both hobbies were restricted during World War 2 and control over airwave frequencies is still strictly enforced around the world. Much like the DIY Bio community is seeing today, technology focused DIY communities must evolve along with perceptions of society and an understanding of not only how the underlying technology can be used, but how it should and should not be used.

Constructive Engagement Works

So what is a constructive way to engage a DIY movement? Turning back to model rocketry in the United States the Army constructively engaged the DIY community rather than trying to regulate it.  In 1960, the Rocket Manual for Amateurs was written by Bertrand R. Brinley, who led the first US Army’s Amateur Program[xiii].  The primary arguments against amateur rocketry were safety, not security - i.e. accidentally killing people or damaging property. His book is based on organization, safety, and the scientific method (in that order). Brinley notes, “Safety must be served first, and advancement of science and knowledge comes second”.

The US Army also published the Guide to Amateur Rocketry in paperback[xiv], a guide for anyone interested in making their own experimental rockets with common materials and chemicals. It provided detailed information and data for solid propellants made from ordinary zinc dust mixed with sulfur (the so-called "micrograin" formulas). The Guide was issued with the blessings of the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Field Artillery Center. In the preface, General Brown writes, "The United States Army desires to extend the maximum degree of assistance to, and to cooperate fully with, these budding scientists in their experimentations. To further assist our young scientists, the United States Army Field Artillery School has prepared this booklet."

Today, rocketry is led by two large national organizations, the Tripoli Rocketry Association (TRA), and National Association of Rocketry (NAR), which help to advise and organize dozens of small local teams and clubs. NAR’s motto is “Be Safe, Have Fun, Pay Forward”, and offers scholarships, educator awards, grants and national launches.  They also provide high power rocketry certification at several levels, and have safety standards which are accepted by the National Fire Protection Association, and manufacturers and public safety officials nationwide.  These organizations also provide safety codes for model and high power rockets.  (State and federal law require all rocket motors to be independently tested before they may be sold in the United States. The NAR Standards and Testing Committee performs this quality assurance for every individual rocket motor type and classification available to general consumers at its East Coast testing facilities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) 

Direct support and engagement with DIY communities can also stimulate hands-on learning in science and technology for students all over the US and the world. In 2002, NAR held the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC)[xv], to celebrate the Centennial of Flight. It was so popular, it has been held annually ever since.  In 2007, Defense Secretary Gates addressed the crowd on a field in Virginia, stating, “As Secretary of Defense, I’m in charge of some of the most high-tech hardware anywhere in the world.  One of the most advanced projects is a system to shoot down missiles that might be fired at our country. Basically, it’s like trying to hit a bullet with another bullet. It’s not easy.  And if any of you had a breakthrough on propulsion or ballistics during this competition, I hope you’ll let me know.”  On describing the story of Homer Hickam and his “Rocket Boys” of October Sky, Gates added these inspirational words to the rocketeers, “I tell you this story because it’s about becoming part of something larger than yourself…There has never been a better time to learn about physics, the mechanics of flight, and space exploration.”[xvi]

Constructive engagement also worked to creates codes of behavior in the ham radio community. Kristen Haring describes publications that taught behavioral expectations to new hobbyists right along with technical lessons:

The ABC’s of Ham Radio welcomed readers to ‘‘the ranks of the grandest hobby in the world—the great international fraternity of radio hams!’’ then indicated in the very next sentence that ‘‘To really belong, you’re going to have to go along with the standard operating procedures universally accepted by radio amateurs.’’ ….The best known list of good hobbyist conduct was the ‘‘Amateur’s Code’’ distributed by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). ‘‘The amateur’’ portrayed there is ‘‘gentlemanly,’’ ‘‘loyal,’’ ‘‘progressive,’’ ‘‘friendly,’’ ‘‘balanced,’’ and ‘‘patriotic.’’ The League has printed these six traits prominently in the front of its annual Radio Amateur’s Handbook since the 1920s.[xvii]

Can Engagement with DIY Bio Prevent Bio(t)error?

By examining historical DIY communities in model rocketry, amateur ham radio, and photography it becomes clear that the evolution of technical DIY communities share common themes; they are initially greeted with some justified concerns, and potentially societal apprehension, followed by an organic development of self-governance (in many cases on a national level).  These examples show that constructive engagement by governments can be in everyone’s best interests - by growing a community of potential scientists and engineers for professional job recruitment, as well as building potential to harness new discoveries that could greatly benefit society. Supportive engagement through STEM education programs[xviii] or prize competitions (some of which may focus on safety or security) generate a community of interest which fosters awareness. The eventual establishment of codes of conduct then works to alleviate concerns about safety and security.

The burgeoning community in DIY Bio is likely quite representative of those same themes. The global market for biologically derived products is surging with the projected market expected to grow to $700.7 billion by 2018.[xix]  As tools for manipulating the genome become more available it is not surprising that the DIY Bio community is enlisting new participants each year[xx]. Another indicator of the rising popularity of biologically focused DIY communities can be found with the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation[xxi]. iGEM is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to education and competition and their primary event is the annual, worldwide, synthetic biology event held each year which is aimed at undergraduate university students, as well as high school and graduate students. Multidisciplinary teams from around the world work to build genetically engineered systems that strive to create a positive contribution to their communities and the world.  iGEM teams have expanded from 5 teams in 2004 to 280 teams in 2015 drawn from over more than 30 countries.

Although each of these DIY communities are young they both have organically formed their own regulatory structures akin to model rocketry and ham radio. The DIY Bio community has self-established its own code of ethics[xxii] and has also instituted a forum to reach out to a biological safety expert[xxiii], which gives the community access to answers on how to operate safely. The iGEM Foundation has also established safety policies[xxiv] maintains a safety committee for the annual competition [xxv][xxvi] and requires each team to have a tiered level of safety review.

As DIY Bio undergoes the maturation of self-governance systems, local and regional governments should avoid calls to overlay new governmental regulations on this community.  Because DIY communities are global in scope, the targeted regulation of a single country is unlikely to be effective and may serve to inhibit that region’s development of a grass roots biotechnology community.  Worldwide efforts can be effective when it is recognized that a “Whole of Society” approach is effective and inclusive of all benefits and concerns.  Recognizing that the established organizational structures are an accepted voice of the community, efforts should be made to support safety and security outreach systems. While discussion about genetically manipulated superweapons works to grab headlines it may be bio-error rather than the bio-terror that could be the concern of the future.  Strong codes of conduct and clearly articulated safety practices can most effectively prevent the mistaken environmental release of an altered living organism through proper engineering controls and good lab practice. If society is truly entering the age of biology then these DIY communities are an inevitable outcome and, if properly channeled, will create the innovators and business leaders of the future.

End Notes

[i] Jonathan B. Tucker and Raymond A. Zilinskas, "The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology," The New Atlantis, Number 12, Spring 2006, pp. 25-45.

[ii] Bennett G, Gilman N, Stavrianakis A, Rabinow P. From synthetic biology to biohacking : are we prepared? Nat Biotechnol. 2009;27:1109–1111.

[iii] Callaway E. Glowing plants spark debate. Nature. 2013;498:15–16.





[viii] Hermann Oberth, Rockets to Outer Space, 1923.

[ix] The Amateur Scientist. Scientific American, June 1957.

[x] Kristen Haring Ham Radio’s Technical Culture February 2008 | ISBN: 9780262582766

[xi] Brown, Patrick., The Influence of Amateur Radio on the Development of the Commercial Market for Quartz Piezoelectric Resonators in the United States. Proceedings of the 1996 IEEE International Frequency Control Symposium (pp. 58 - 65)

[xii] Kristen Haring Ham Radio’s Technical Culture February 2008 | ISBN: 9780262582766 page 36

[xiii] Bertrand R. Brinley, Rocket Manual for Amateurs, 1960.

[xiv] Guide to Amateur Rocketry in paperback (Oklahoma U.S. Army Field Artillery School Ft Sill, Editor).



[xvii] Kristen Haring Ham Radio’s Technical Culture February 2008 | ISBN: 9780262582766 page 38-39











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