Steam Punks

Jeffrey Winters | Mechanical Engineering | June 1, 2012

How many of your possessions could you make yourself? A couple of amateur engineers  are working to design and build a set of tools that would enable the self-reliant to make everything they need.

Marcin Jakubowski and his colleagues like to call themselves farmers, but the tract of land they live on is too weedy and ramshackle to really count as a farm. They grow some of their own food, to be sure, but the one-time soybean field now operates at a mere fraction of its former productivity. “Basically, we need a full-time agricultural person here,” Jakubowski said. “But it’s not a priority. Growing potatoes isn’t going to put us on the map.”

Fortunately for Jakubowski, most people who look at what he’s up to grade the farming business on a curve. Instead, they look at the ingenious devices that he and his colleague, William Cleaver, have built, largely on their own, over the past two years.

Take, for instance, the LifeTrac II. The machine looks primitive, made of unpainted, boxy steel tubing and big, bald tires. Black hydraulic lines snake around connecting the small motor to the wheels and to a couple of sets of pistons attached to mechanical arms. In pictures where it sits in a weedy field, it looks like a junk heap. And yet, when it’s up and running, the junk heap springs to life. Its wheels, connected by homemade tank treads, grind through the uneven terrain and the hydraulic pistons move a pair of rudimentary loader arms. The tractor was used to scoop up soil and dump it into a block-pressing machine that Jakubowski and Cleaver constructed last year...