Ultimately for me: the sun-baked clay pot.
I had a slew of inspiring objects. On skimming through this thread, I’d say a few are well covered: erector sets, Lincoln logs, trikes, a pet, a fence, a bush, discarded checkbook registers and pilfered pens, spiro gira sets. I figured mud objects would feature at the top, but ‘advanced search’ of the forum suggests, to my surprise, mud objects remain unnamed.
When I was in kindergarten, my family (Mom and 6 kids; I was number 2, the instigator) lived in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. We were a few minutes’ bike ride from a wonderful wall of ever-wet clay. That cliff must have been 30 feet tall and a few hundred feet long, all available for the taking. All we had to do was clear away a thin layer to get the prime stuff.
Of course we were the first to invent coil pots. The 3 eldest of us excavated and made them together, over hundreds of constructions. I’m not sure how our best secrets got out, but now coil pots are all over WikiHow videos and the like. Those tutorials follow the exact technique that we developed through long series of trial and error. Ours were sun-dried, of course, set on a warm slab of backyard concrete.
I’ve not thought of the experience since, but certainly now realize how elated I was at the time that you could make what you want, and didn’t have to rely on finding (and being able to mow enough lawns at 25¢ each to afford) absolutely everything in a store. That notion was quite freeing. Our supply was endless. Failure was without cost.
It seems likely to have been my first experience of setting criteria for quality and working to achieve it through trial and error. We made lids almost as a rule. They were the most challenging, though more pots were victims of fatal cracks than lids that dried and no longer matched their mates. I can still smell them, wet and dried. One smell held a moist and delicate promise, the other a dusty finality.
Now that I have read the essay, on reflection I’d say this mud pot experience with my siblings undoubtedly made my preferred software development models feel obvious (the affective knowledge acquisition Papert mentions). It has likely informed how I structure projects. The parallels are fun to recognize. In both cases, the raw materials are available for the taking. The costs are time and expectations (or effort and quality, to use product/production-oriented vocabulary). The challenge is to have a team agree on objectives, then prototype, identify techniques and materials that bear reuse, and make incremental improvements–not to mention shipping then fixing.
One final thought: mud predates the computer as “the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes.” What would be the internet of mud (IoM)?