Marcin Jakubowski didn’t study fusion physics to become a farmer. But the Polish-American scientist grew more disillusioned with academia the longer he worked toward his doctorate. Researchers withheld data to compete for grants, he says, instead of collaborating to solve big problems. “The further I went in my Ph.D. program, the less value I felt I was contributing to society,” he says. Seeking a fresh start, Jakubowski bought 30 acres of Missouri farmland and a tractor. Life in relative seclusion proved uneventful until, one day in 2008, his tractor broke down for the second and last time, spurring him to start an open-source industrial revolution.
To Jakubowski, the tractor seemed designed to fail. Why should he sink more money into fixing it or buy a replacement? He wanted a simple and useful machine, and one he could repair and upgrade on the fly. “It boiled down to lower cost in the long run,” he says.
Jakubowski built the first LifeTrac, as he calls his DIY tractor, in three months for $6,000—about $30,000 less than a comparable mass-produced model. Seeing room for improvement, he built a second prototype in just six days. He posted his progress on the tractor and other machines to an online wiki, which attracted followers, who suggested their own design tweaks. Some even visited in person to help with builds—and Open Source Ecology took off.
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