Open Source

The Arduino microcontroller is an open source project in its hardware and software which makes it a malleable tool. The open source nature of the Arduino microcontroller allows people to easily view and modify schematics, code, and examples. The boards have been copied to create different versions that have different functionality such as wireless functionality or motor control. Boards created by the Arduino community which have been influential in art and design according to the interviewees are: The LilyPad, LilyPad Xbee, the StandAlone Arduino, and the Book Radio microcontroller which influenced the Arduino Mini. Many more were created with the motivations of art and design such as the Rainbowdunio[1] from Seeed Studios with the slogan "Electronic can be art", LumiNet[2], created for an organic illumination network on clothing, or Sanguino[3], created for 3D printing. The open source movement is empowering for users to create their own versions of the Arduino microcontroller.

The benefit of open source is that many people are simultaneous developing the Arduino microcontroller independent of the company that makes it. The future of the Arduino will be full of shared knowledge. If the company that makes Arduino ceased to exist, the microcontroller itself would live on because the Arduino community could continue to build upon and benefit from the source and documentation that fabricates the Arduino. When using proprietary microcontrollers, if the manufacturers go out of business or stop producing a chip it becomes difficult to find documentation, which makes preservation a nightmare. Similar to paints and varnishes which were undocumented, closed source chips and computer programs would need to be reverse engineered. Holistically, the difference between the artist-created tools and materials in the Renaissance and the Arduino is the aspect of open source. The open source initiative makes the tool a stronger candidate to survive with knowledge spread across many individuals, unlike the coveted paint recipes of the Renaissance kept under lock and key by the master of the studio.[4] Elkins exemplifies how a closed source mindset hurt historical artistic methods and preservation. "Painters have gone to their deathbeds without telling their secrets, and when certain ways of painting went out of fashion, the methods tended to be forgotten along with them."[5] Elkins calls attention to specific movements which sabotaged themselves:

"…painting techniques have been lost on at least three different occasions since the middle ages. The first loss was in the fifteenth century, when Jan Van Eyck's method (…) was not passed on to enough people, and was eventually entirely forgotten. Then there was the loss of the famous Venetian technique practiced by Titian, Giorgione, Veronese, and Cima: it died slowly over several generations as painters used methods that were less and less like the original techniques. Eventually, when painters in the nineteenth century wanted to paint in the Venetian manner, they found that there was no one left to teach them and no books to consult. The third loss was the academic method developed mostly in the French Academy up to the time of the French Revolution. It was an elaborate, exacting technique, which had grown out of the late Renaissance – but after the Revolution , when painters decided that the academies might not have been all that bad, it was too late."[6]

Documented open source works, such as the Arduino and Arduino-based artwork, can continue to live on after the art movement has passed.

Artists are makers; and through many periods it was popular for artists to make their own tools. Given this evidence, it is not surprising that artists and designers are creating their own versions of the Arduino microcontroller. Igoe comments that "There is great learning value in making your own version of a tool you use."[7] Arduino has created an easily understood product that is well documented making it easier to redesign the board as well as investigate its code, arrangement of components and functional capabilities. Designer Dario Buzzini[8] considers the knowledge of the Arduino to be ever-growing and ever-changing. "It's the incomplete nature of it, open source nature of it, it's not complete until a group of people get together and build or design the process. It is complete (much like a circuit is closed) when the people are connected with others that use it." Artist Edith Kollath[9] points out that "Once you learn the Arduino, it's not difficult to pick up other Arduino boards, it's mostly the shape that changes; the general principals stay the same."

These conclusions deduct that the Arduino microcontroller is based around learning and sharing knowledge of the tool used, rather than keeping it secret. The history of artists' tools cannot be ignored when studying the Arduino microcontroller. While it was not uncommon for artists to make their own tools during the Renaissance era, it was often uncommon to share them broadly across any artist who aspired to use them.[10] The plethora of artist-made versions of the Arduino references a new open source era of artist tools. As artist Josh Kopel[11] states, about artists re-creating versions of the Arduino microcontroller, "In fact, there is no one thing that is an 'Arduino'. The electronics can be (and are) produced in many different forms".


  1. Rainbowduino LED driver platform. Seeed Studio, http://www.seeedstudio.com/depot/rainbowduino- led-driver-platform-plug-and-shine-p-371.html (visited on 12/03/2009)
  2. LumiNet: An Organic illumination network. Media Computing Group, http://hci.rwth- aachen.de/luminet (visited on 11/28/2009)
  3. What Is Sanguino. Sanguino.cc, http://sanguino.cc/ (visited on 11/29/2009)
  4. James Elkins, What Painting Is. London: Routledge, 1999
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 170
  7. The A-Z of Programming Languages: Arduino's Tom Igoe. ComputerWorld, http://www.computerworld.com.au/article/321749/-z_programming_languages_arduino_tom_igoe (visited on 10/12/2009)
  8. Dario Buzzini (Designer at IDEO) in discussion with the author, September 2009.
  9. Edith Kollath (Artist using the Arduino microcontroller) in discussion with the author, May 2009.
  10. Graham Paul, Hackers & Painters. Cambridge: O'Reilly, 18
  11. Josh Kopel (Artist using the Arduino microcontroller) in discussion with the author, October 2009.