Mary Rose Cook's notebook

The public parts of my notebook.

My homepage.

People inventing expressive tools for their own use

I asked a question on Twitter:

Are there any books or documentaries that investigate the practice of building tools for your own use? E.g. Aphex Twin making his own instruments, Vermeer (possibly) building and using a camera obscura, Ableton Live, etc.

There were many interesting replies about people who built their own tools. By reading them, I was able to refine my question to:

Are there any people who have produced great work using tools they invented that provide a much higher level of expressiveness over a series of projects or over many years?

Invention, the tool being used by only a few people, the tool providing a higher level of expressiveness, all imply that a significant advance might be being made in the relevant field. The criterion of great work is evidence that the tool is worth investigating.

Some examples that do and don't meet the definition:


A programmer customizing Emacs to their taste. Though this may allow much greater expressiveness, it's probably not a mode of expression that is inhabited by this person alone.

A carpenter making their own saw. This making may confer a greater mastery of carpentry, or a greater emotional connection to it, but the tool is a replica of something that other woodworkers use and so nothing about the tool making changes the person's creative possibilities.


Aphex Twin makes his own instruments. The sounds he produces create a character of music that is a step forward.

Vermeer's paintings reach a new level of truth because he (maybe) used a camera obscura to capture the gradation of light on a wall, or the glow of a fur coat.

An early version of Ableton Live included Session View which enabled its creators to take a more improvisational approach to the performance of electronic music.

I'd love to read a book or watch a documentary that explores the topic of people inventing expressive tools for their own use. Accounts of the practice of individuals are sometimes cool, but usually don't get at the parts that are the most interesting to me: the state of mind the tool confers, the mental models that gives form to, and the new expressions it makes possible.