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Zina Lahr

Stormy Pyeatte

This month I want to feature an off-beat (and maybe sad) story about a young woman who learned the basics of electronics — schematics, soldering, and the like — then used her knowledge to build robots and animatronics. It’s a sweet and interesting story. Here’s the part from an Outside Magazine article that captured my attention given the theme of the current issue of this magazine, Electronics:

When Zina was eight, Cindy began routinely driving her to the John McConnell Math and Science Center of Western Colorado, in Grand Junction, 100 miles north, for an extracurricular program. McConnell, a former Los Alamos National Laboratories physicist, had started the center as a second career after retiring. He taught Zina how to read electrical schematics and to solder and connect capacitors and resistors to make machines. Then Zina figured out how to make mechanical arms, legs, and wings that moved naturally. She finished high school at 16 with a graduation ceremony on her grandmother's front steps. “I've had lots of girls in programs who did very well, but she was just one of those unique ones who really took a love of this,” says McConnell. He and his wife came to Zina's graduation, which was performed by her minister.

About a year after her graduation, Zina adopted her steampunk look. Her mom thinks she was inspired by Amelia Earhart or a photo of her paternal grandfather, who was a pilot.

“She could take any bits of scrap and turn them into a sculpture or robot,” says Jim Frank, a radio engineer in Montrose who in 2011 hired Zina as an intern to help him service ridgetop repeater stations. “She had that mechanical intuition that all good engineers have.”

You can be any age (or gender) and fall in love with electronics for the rest of your life. You don’t have to become famous to succeed or be happy. As with Zina Lahr, you don’t have to live a long time. What’s important is to have exposure to building things, in this case electronics, with the encouragement to keep going and to be yourself. What’s important is the journey. Her work with cranes and stop motion, as shown in the video, is outstanding. So is her LED umbrella, and the way she turned even her clothing into an expression of what mattered to her any given day.

Zina Lahr’s story also shows how much we are each of us on our own journeys. Not all of us will live to a ripe old age. Zina didn’t. She unfortunately died in an accidental rock fall while hiking. However, she obviously had a huge impact on her family, friends, and community. It’s kind of foolish to judge our lives by how long we’re here. The gift is our presence in other people’s lives, and their presence in ours, not the actual time spent (because we have no idea how long that might be).

Hopefully, Zina Lahr’s story will inspire a few readers to build, be creative, explore, and share what we discover with people we love. If you’re a kid, a parent, or a teacher, you should be encouraged to practice a little Creative Compulsive Disorder, as Zina Lahr definitely did, and follow your muse. Being different makes you special. And be sure to tell people how much you care about them, early and often.

Below I’ve also included a link to show how to make an origami crane. Apparently Zina Lahr liked to make paper cranes absentmindedly while hanging out with her friends. Perhaps building one would be a fun non-digital project. Origami takes only a little practice and no materials aside from paper, your hands, your brain, and some time. Stuff everybody has lying around.

Learn More

The Brief Wondrous Life of Zina Lahr


The Work of Zina Nicole Lahr


Mourning Friend Creates Portrait of a Young Artist


How to Build an Origami Crane