Sue Williams has always thought out of the box. Literally.
As a girl in County Cavan, Ireland, Williams would often receive dolls as gifts. “I’d cut their hair, throw them aside and make something out of the box,” she said. “Like a car or a house or something mechanical. The boxes were always more interesting.”
After outgrowing the dolls, Williams began to tinker with electronic devices throughout the family house.
“I was fascinated with radios and record players,” she said. “They were always missing parts because I took them for other projects.”
That lifelong love of building her own creations led Williams to college in Dublin, where she studied arts and education, and crafted intricate children’s books that told stories with movable 3-D puppet characters.
While in Dublin, Williams met an artist from Red Hook, Brooklyn named Chico MacMurtrie, who was in town to help underprivileged youth create a large piece of art that told the story of their rapidly changing neighborhood. At MacMurtrie’s request, Williams joined the effort to construct a large, mechanical mural with moving robots, crashing buildings and pyrotechnic special effects.
MacMurtrie enjoyed working with Williams; so he invited her to come to Brooklyn to manage the creation of an intricate car sculpture called Totem-Mobile, which included a robotic Citroen DS that split apart to reveal different design elements, while rising up 60 feet.
After Totem-Mobile was completed and shipped off to the Paris Motor Show, Williams decided to join forces with Mick Kelly, a fellow Ireland native who had also worked on the project. They wished to combine their backgrounds in education and design to create a company that would help children learn basic mechanical construction. Makers Toolbox was born.
In addition to working part-time at Atair Aerospace, a Brooklyn Navy Yard-based company that specializes in precision-guided parachute and airdrop technology, Williams, and Kelly, began to assemble simple mechanical toy kits for sale.
Their first creation was Scribbler, a “drawing robot” made from a cardboard box, a simple motor and wiring system, and four felt-tip pens for legs. Next came Proptractor, a wooden or cardboard “aeronautical vehicle” powered by two battery-driven propellers. The toys are made with recyclable materials and are easy enough for young children to assemble.
“We call it ‘cereal box technology,’” Williams said. “All the kits that we design have to have simple materials that young people can find anywhere. If they break a toy, they can cut a shape out of a cereal box and make the toy work again.”
Williams and Kelly got their first taste of success at last year’s Maker Faire, a popular New York City gathering of inventors and DIYers of all ages.
“The toy kits were a huge hit,” she said. “We sold out. Stores asked us if they could stock the kits. And we started to do more school fairs and holiday fairs.”
Today, the kits can be purchased at several area locations, including the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, Norman and Jules and Story. They can also be purchased through the company website www.makerstoolbox.com, or through online stores such as www.etsy.com and www.uncommongoods.com.
“The reaction from kids is exciting,” Williams said. “They come towards the table and they see the things moving. They see they’re made out of cardboard, so they can understand the material. They can see inside, see everything. That helps. They hang on the edge of the table and they scream and play with them.”
The budding success of company, along with community fundraising and volunteer efforts, allowed Williams and Kelly to recently open Red Hook Makerspace, a place that teaches underprivileged children how to make simple mechanical toys and devices.
Does she mind when kids customize the toys, like she used to do as a child?
“Absolutely not!” she said. “To paraphrase Picasso, the deeper you get into art, and creating and designing, the more you try to revert back to childlike imagination.”
Anselm Doering is the CEO of EcoLogic Solutions, a Brooklyn Navy Yard-based manufacturer of green cleaning chemicals and technologies for commercial users. He can be reached at email@example.com
Franz Wisner is a freelance writer living in Fort Greene. He can be reached at www.storydrivenink.com.