Development based on sharing and collaborative improvement has a long anthropological history.
Technologically, too, the practice is anything but new, though it wasn’t until the 1990s that interest in the phenomenon of open software first leaked into the mainstream with the recognition of Linux and the release of the Netscape browser’s source code.
Indeed, it was in the late 90s that the term “open source” first came into use, when the Open Source Initiative (OSI) was formed as an educational, advocacy and stewardship organization for collaborative development.
Of course, much of this early attention went to Open Source Software (OSS), though it’s important to note this is also when the first seeds of open source hardware were planted.
In 1997, Bruce Perens (creator of the Open Source Definition, and a co-founder of OSI, as well as a ham radio operator and enthusiast) launched the Open Hardware Certification Program to allow hardware manufacturers to self-certify their products as open. This meant making a set of promises about the availability of documentation for programming the device-driver interface of a specific hardware device. Vendors of certified equipment could then apply the program’s open hardware logo to their packaging and mention in advertising that their devices were certified. Those who bought certified equipment were assured that a change in operating system or even the demise of the manufacturer would not make it impossible to have new software written for their devices. It was the first time the principles of open source had been applied to hardware.
In 1998, a slew of others came out with their own tweaks on what Open Hardware should be, with David Freeman announcing the Open Hardware Specification Project (OHSpec), Troy Benjegerdes making public his intention of starting an entrepreneurial venture to apply the principles of open source software to the design and development of hardware, and Reinoud Lamberts launching Open Design Circuits, a website dedicated to collaboratively designing low cost and open design circuits.
A year later, Dr. Sepehr Kiani, Dr. Ryan Vallance and Dr. Samir Nayfeh joined efforts to apply the open source philosophy to machine design applications and together established the Open Design Foundation (ODF) as a non-profit corporation, and set out to develop an Open Design Definition.
Even today, though there are various forms of OSHW, the standard definition is that it “is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design.”
The Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) goes on to note that “the hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.”
Despite this initial burst of activity in the late 90s around the nascent concept of OSHW, most of the aforementioned initiatives faded out within a year or two of their inception and only by the mid-2000s would open source hardware again become a hub of activity with the emergence of several major open source hardware projects and companies, such as OpenCores, Reprap, Arduino, Intel IoT on Instructables and the Open Prothetics Project (because “Prosthetics shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.”)