John Cohn: professional mad scientist and dedicated maker
John Cohn’s accomplishments through his four-decade career at IBM are important. Impressive. Serious. Cohn, an IBM Fellow based at the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab in Cambridge, Mass., has a portfolio of more than 100 patents.
It would be easy for Cohn to take himself very seriously, to bow under the weight of all that responsibility. But then he wouldn’t have time to do things like spend two months living and inventing in an abandoned steel mill during the first season of “The Colony,” a Discovery Channel show in which cast members used their ingenuity to survive in an environment that simulated life after the collapse of civilization.
Watch “Innovation through play!” (02:59)
Throughout his career, Cohn has carved out time to play, to pursue projects and ideas simply because they interest him. Taking that time to play, he explained, has always been critical to keeping the creative spark alive. But after Cohn’s 14-year-old son died in a traffic accident in 2006, immersing himself in those kinds of projects became a lifeline.
“I had been working in chip design for 30 years, but after Sam’s death, dealing with that unimaginable tragedy, it was hard to get interested in work. I had to reset. I got really focused on projects with other people, particularly with kids.
“I found that my love of making things, creating things — and getting others to love making things — was part of my healing process,” he said. “I’ve always been very hands-on, but getting involved in all these projects got me excited about working again.”
In 2009, his friend Ben Cohen, co-founder of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, enlisted his help to create the Timecycle, which Cohn describes as “a giant carousel thing for carrying hippies across the desert” for the Burning Man Festival.
‘I love making things, figuring things out and working with my hands. But what I really love is getting other people excited about making things.’
A couple of years later Mike Gordon, bass player for Phish, brought him on board to make a 30-foot keyboard that the audience could play at concerts, and a pink elephant that blows pink smoke. “He gave that to Barbara Eden,” said Cohn. ‘Mike’s daughter was really into the old TV show ‘I Dream of Jeannie,’ and the band was playing in Los Angeles, where Barbara lives. So he phoned her up and gave her the elephant and now they’re pretty good friends.”
Not only did projects like those help him manage his grief, they moved him toward the maker movement. They also moved him toward a new career as IBM’s chief scientist in the Internet of Things division, the role he held before coming to the MIT-IBM Watson Lab.
A place to play
“One of the things I’m most proud of is helping to create Generator, a makerspace in Burlington (Vermont) where artists and technical people come together to make stuff,” said Cohn. “We had a small group called Vermont Makers — a couple of artists, a couple of techies — and we thought it would be great if we had a place where we would could pool our tools and our equipment, and maybe share the cost of some equipment that would be too much for any of us to buy on our own. We got together with some of our local business folks and started looking around at other towns that had these makerspaces.
“There’s a famous one in Massachusetts called the Artists’ Asylum. They helped us get started by generously sharing their experience in what tools to buy, how to handle governance, how to build community, how to deal with fundraising. And now we do that for other new makerspaces. It’s kind of a pay-it-forward thing.”
The first facility the group called home had a poignant personal connection for Cohn. Known as Memorial Auditorium, it was where his family had held a memorial service for Sam. “It was kind of weird that we were able to rent that building. We set up shop there and stayed until the building was condemned.”
The group is housed now in a facility on the campus of Champlain College. “We have 420 members, and an interesting mix of board members who are artists, technical people, accountants, lawyers — all types of people like me, just nerds who love making stuff,” he explained. “We’ve got people making drones, people making flutes, a full metal shop, a full wood shop, laser cutters, electronics.
“I love making things, figuring things out and working with my hands. But what I really love is getting other people excited about making things.
“I’m very grateful to IBM. My work — everyone’s work — puts us under so much pressure. You get so busy you forget to take time to play. Getting involved in the makers movement fuels my playful spirit. IBM has given me time to do that, and doing that helps me to come back and radiate at work.
“You need to allow some space for lateral thinking, some time for learning new stuff, trying things, failing and trying again.
“Companies that sponsor their employees to participate in makers’ spaces get energized employees in return, people who keep that creative passion alive.”