If you’ve had the opportunity to attend the annual Bay Area Maker Faire, you’ve likely encountered Russell the Electric Giraffe. Modeled after a small Tamiya walking toy scaled up to the height of an actual giraffe, Russell was created by [Lindsay Lawlor] in 2005 originally as an “art car” providing a better vantage point from which to enjoy the Burning Man arts festival. In the intervening five years, the Electric Giraffe has enjoyed face time in dozens of parades, trade shows, magazines and television appearances.
Scattered about [Lawlor’s] living room floor at the moment are the giraffe’s dismantled steel skull and several massive Torxis servos (the red boxes in the photo above) — Russell is being upgraded. One of [Lawlor’s] goals in returning to Maker Faire each year is that he not simply present the same exhibit time and time again; the robot is continually evolving. Initially it was little more than a framework and drivetrain, and had to be steered by bodily shoving the entire 1,700 pound beast. Improvements to the steering and power train followed, along with a “skin” of hundreds of addressable LEDs, cosmetic improvements such as a new paint job, and technological upgrades like interactivity, radio control and speech. His goal this year is to bring expressive animatronic movement to the giraffe’s head and jaw, hence the servos, push rods and custom-machined bits currently strewn through his living space-cum-laboratory.
[Lawlor], 46, is a lifelong “maker,” with a gamut of talents from electronics to optics to mechanical engineering. Aside from creating this giant walking machine, he restores motorcycles, installs high-rise fire safety systems and has built his own laser light show projectors. And perhaps surprisingly, he’s managed all this without a degree or other formal education, just an intense curiosity and unstoppable drive. We posed to him one of the most common questions we receive at Ask HackADay, as to how one can get started in electronics and building the sorts of creative projects regularly featured on Hack a Day:
Don’t be afraid of failure, it’s a crucial part of the learning process. Get your hands dirty and start building projects that interest you — build a model airplane, restore a motorcycle. By tearing it apart and putting it back together, you learn to see what makes it tick. Someone who’s brave enough or sometimes lucky enough to acquire the means to build something, they end up with a vast amount of practical knowledge about what they’re interested in. Textbooks alone can’t provide that.
Seek a lot of advice from people who’ve worked on this stuff before. Respect them by following through…don’t just talk about your grand plans. Go to Burning Man or Maker Faire or hang out with artistic people. This will bring crazy ideas to the forefront. The amount of influence you receive from showing up at a place like that is incredible. It’s unstoppable, a really powerful force.