A Curious Spark

A physicist in an a creative world

Eight years ago I set up a one-man business in my hometown of Sheffield. I’m a physicist by training and my business focuses on getting across the message that science is cool. More than that, it can lead to a really good career.

I work as a volunteer for the Institute of Physics (IOP), but I also create projects to enthuse and motivate the home scientist. Working with the IOP, I get to hang out with some of the best scientists in the country. Inevitably, after a few beers, the conversation turns to the question: “What got you into Physics in the first place?” The answers might surprise you. No one ever says it was a passion for mathematics or complicated theories. Most say something like making model aircraft, building an electric guitar, making a synthesizer or constructing a telescope.

My answer was the Apollo moon landings. I was 16 years old and the events of 1969 really grabbed me. I felt that this was a once in a lifetime event that needed recording – so I did it.

In 1969 there was no YouTube and no video recorders, so I hacked the family TV set and linked it to a reel-to-reel tape recorder for sound. My first recorded images were taken with a Zenith stills camera pointed at the TV and I spent hours in the darkroom processing prints. I later filmed the TV with an 8mm cine camera loaded with high-speed film. The archive that I created is now on display at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. My creativity led to a degree in Physics and a lifelong passion for photography.

I’m always looking for activities that can create this same level of enthusiasm. Five years ago, I was curious about two relatively new technologies. One was the Raspberry Pi computer, a small £30 circuit board which plugs into a TV and gives the opportunity to learn coding in a similar way to the Sinclair ZX computers of the 1980s, but far more powerfully and at much lower cost. The other was 3D printing, a technology that’s been around awhile but had just reached a price point where it was feasible to own your own.

What excited me was the accessibility of these gadgets that makers were already using at home. I got to thinking how I could combine these technologies into a project for hobbyists and hopefully create that same spark that I had found myself years ago.  I came up with the PiKon, a 3D printed telescope with a Raspberry Pi computer to collect the images.

The big break came when I won funding from the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Mind in 2014. I was awarded a grant to build a PiKon prototype and deliver a talk. Both went down a treat.

Thinking that was the end of the project, I celebrated with a pizza across the street from the Spiegeltent. 30 minutes later, my phone started buzzing with texts from a friend telling me to check the BBC News website. There was the PiKon project on BBC Yorkshire and, over the next 24 hours, the Metro and Mail Online, “the world’s first 3D printed telescope”.

The project website went mad, jumping from a few hits to 1,500 per day. At this point I realised that there was the potential to crowdfund kits to help people build their own telescope. The project raised £6,000 on Indiegogo and now there’s an online shop where builders can buy kits and bits.

Five years on there are over 300 PiKon builds all over the world. A community of makers, amateur astronomers and citizen scientists have produced some stunning images and designed their own add-ons. And it’s all down to internet platforms, creativity and – most importantly – curiosity.

Mark Wrigley

The 3DPrint.com Interview

Interview with Mark Wrigley of Elektric-Works

Mark Wrigley

Inspired by the Apollo moon landings, Mark Wrigley embarked on a career in physics in the early 1970s. Initially specialising in optics and infra-red pyrometery his social skills soon took his career into program management, sales, marketing and product management. He is a great communicator and can transcend boundaries with his ability to explain technically complex issues to a wide audience. Operating at the forefront of disruptive technological change, he participated in the explosive growth of the mobile digital communication industry. In 2011 he set up his own company; Elektric-Works which explores the way disruptive technology and making can empower individuals and startups.

Give us some background and how it has influenced your career.

Firstly, I like social mobility. When I was a child my grandfather was a coal miner. He had the ethos of education being the gateway to a better life. It led me to working in physics. With 3D printing I want to show people that technology is a great thing. I find disruption amazing as well. When I was doing my physics degree, digital was not heard of at the time. Throughout my career I have seen stuff that changes the game completely. It is amazing to see how these technological advances make changes to the industry.

What benefits do you see in terms of being creative in the artistic sense and tech sense?

When people say art it is a form of communication. It may be that you are communicating emotions. Art is a sophisticated way of communicating. If you leave some of us physicists to only communicate it may become too boring. I always gravitate to ultra realism.

Mark Making

Talk about some of your outreach work you do?

I started doing it 7 years ago. I do stuff with the Institute of Physics. We generally are at science fairs with various experiences. We try to make things oriented toward teenagers. We want to make engaging experiences. This is how we are able to incorporate maker events. People sit down and build projects and it is engaging. This gives people a tangible thought process on this type of work. We have an ethos of addressing people that are disadvantaged. About 3 years ago I became the chair of the Yorkshire branch. I was a trustee before this time.

What are your thoughts on the Maker Movement?

It is interesting. The term maker gets used for a lot of things. I came across it 4 years ago. To me I think of laser cutting, 3D printing, raspberry pi’s, and various things. There are two ways it has developed. Anyone who can make something thought of themselves as a maker. This refers to any type of artform. I have mixed feelings as it brings people in to a technical maker movement ideal as well. The word is getting diluted. I have to say that some maker events are just something to do with your kids. I think that dilutes things. I would rather be in a place where makers inspire people.

Pikon Device made by Mark

How important is passion to the work you do?

I was 25 years and I read the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book talks a lot about gumption. It even talks about a gumption trap. It is important to be filled with quality. This stayed with me a lot. I see it a lot in society that people are not excited about things. I feel privileged as I have done my grind doing the 9-5pm work to be financially stable. There is a fear factor people have and it stops them from pushing for their dreams.

Moon Photo Taken by Mark

What are some things that you want all makers to know?

It is important to embrace disruption. Whatever is new can be used in a bad way, but it also can be used in beneficial manners. Because I am a physicist, I work on learning life and the universe. It is important to understand existence. There is an ethos that embodies exploration.

How did your science career fuel your sense of exploration?

I think it went the other way. When I got into physics I had large questions about consciousness. When I got into my career I got more into the application of my degree into specific things. This is what allowed me to appreciate disruption. I got into instrumentation at the time PCM and Digital became a thing. In the back of my mind, I am always impressed and in awe of scientific discoveries being made. I have started with large goals and then I have come down to certain specifics. If I look at my career in reverse, there is no way I could have predicted certain things like mobile communication. I just have a curiosity. I think the human species has multiplied due to this curiosity. This applies to science and new technology.

Systems “GO” for new contract


nsmm-gradient-1It’s systems “GO” at Elektric-Works today with a contract from the National Science and Media Museum to deliver content for their summer exhibition, “Hello Universe”. The 50 year old content of the Apollo moon landings was recorded by Elektric-Works founder in 1969 from television with a film camera, 8mm movie camera and reel-to-reel tape recorder. The content will also be digitised for sharing on social media platforms and a dedicated web site: www.1201alarm.org

Thanks to Public Service Broadcasting for the t-shirt!

But what’s the use of it?


We live in exciting times. As a physicist returning to his roots, I am in awe of the progress made in the detection of gravitational waves. Not only is this empirical verification of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, it is also opening a new field of astronomy with the potential to look further back into the history of the univesre than ever before.
When I can, I attend public talks on the subject, often delivered by physicists who have dedicated much of their careers working collaboratively to do what Einstein predicted as impossible 100 years ago. So I’m always disappointed when at questions time, someone asks, what use is it? By this, they usually are looking for short term spin off technology (of which there many) and at worse the short term “fiscal benefit” of the research.

I find myself biting my lip as the speaker explains some of the short term spin offs and recall the rumoured exchange between Micheal Faraday and Gladstone (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) in the 1850s. Upon demonstrating the links between electricity and magnetism, Gladstone asked, “but what’s the use of it?”. Faraday’s response, variously reported, was “I know not, but one day Sir, you may tax it”. Faraday’s discoveries of course lead to the development of domestic electricity industry, and we still suffer the same lack of vision in our political classes today.

It’s debatable that the human race has been so successful in surviving and adapting to changes in the environment because of our quality of “curiosity”. The instinct to seek knowledge for knowledge sake has opened opportunities for us to survive and prosper.

But I’ll continue to bite my lip on these occasions even though I am tempted to ask “what use were sub-prime mortgages” or “The Royal Bank of Scotland”. At least blue sky research doesn’t actively destroy the economy.

Digital Disruption and Techno Archeology

So I had a think, and I’ve got what I do down to two job titles; “Digital Disruptor” and “Techno Archeologist”
A Digital Disruptor because I was part of the industry that delivered digital phones to the market place. Participated in adding data to phones and later, with my own company, showed how digital disruption was a form of technical evolution to be embraced by all.
A Techno Archeologist because I’m fascinated by what we did digitally years ago with so little. Moore’s law is the observation that the number of transistors in integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years. But what we’ve chosen to do with those transistors is usually to make more sophisticated interface displays, faster communications and occasionally watch cat videos. ‘Back in the day’, astronauts flew to the moon with the most basic computers and I wrote programs for 64 kilobyte computers like the Commodore 64. That’s kilobyte, not meg or gig!
So, now I have it. Two job titles to meet that “what do you do?” question at social events. All I need now are some really good parties to got to. Invitations welcome!!


Maker Profile

My Mini Maker Space

I set up my own company eight years ago. After a career with big, leading edge technology companies, I wanted to explore disruptive technology on a small scale. In fact, one man company, small scale. Initially I focused on sustainability, but things evolved and I discovered opportunities in digital manufacture. New platforms like crowd funding and easy to use, on line shops also helped.

The big break came in 2014 with an award from Sheffield University’s ‘Festival of the Mind’.  The intention was to demonstrate to the home science enthusiast just what could be done with 3D printing and Raspberry Pi computers. I soon found myself in the lime light with national press coverage of the PiKon; ‘the world’s first 3D printed telescope’ with Raspberry Pi camera.

This boost from the University’s public relations team, a lot of talks and social media, meant successful crowd funding for the PiKon . It is now an established product. Orders from the Shopify Shop are shipped by me, in person, from my studio in Sheffield.

But I don’t want to be a ‘one trick pony’. The things I have set up for PiKon are transferable to new products and services. My life long enthusiasm for photography has paid off too. Social media benefits from good images and successful 21stcentury entrepreneurs need to be fluent in photography and video.  Equally, good networks and venturing into other disciplines all increase the probability of new, unique products and services.  Like any good product I have a roadmap of ideas, embryo products and established ones.

I now operate from a studio in Sheffield, surrounded by 3D printers, audio and photography equipment.  I share a building with artists, both traditional and digital. It’s my mini maker space. Here I incubate my business ideas and I’ve decided it is time for a change of company name.  I rather like the word ‘elektric’ because it takes me back to my roots of Elektor Magazine and germanium transistors. The idea of a maker space is relatively new. Historically, in Sheffield, places where we make things are called ‘works’. So the new name is going to be ‘Elektric-Works’.