Necessity and an eye for good design led Aaron Dunlap to his first tinnovation -- a battery-powered USB charger made from an Altoids tin. Back in 2005, Dunlap was a college student with a peculiar fear of running out of power for his smartphone. "When my cell phone's battery is anywhere under 90 percent, my heart starts racing and I get on my hands and knees and look for power outlets," he wrote in a 2005 blog post [source: Dunlap]. (There's actually a term for the fear of being out of contact via mobile phone: nomophobia [source: Urban Dictionary].)
One can understand Dunlap's anxiety. He used his smartphone for everything -- including taking notes in class -- but he also disliked toting around bulky wall chargers and searching for outlets. After looking around at electronics retailers, he came to realize that there was nothing available that could provide a backup charge for his electronics devices to his satisfaction. Even more, the do-it-yourself electronics instructions he found available on the Internet concerned making battery-powered chargers for iPods, which use Apple's FireWire interface; he needed a USB charger. Eventually, Dunlap decided to go it alone.
After educating himself on the finer points of amateur electrical engineering and assembling the parts from wholesale electronics suppliers, Dunlap was ready to get started. By this time, he'd decided on an enclosure for his device. "When it came time to build it, there really wasn't any question as to what kind of enclosure to use," he says. "An Altoids tin was just obvious. Not only were they readily available, they also have an indescribable coolness" [source: Dunlap].
Dunlap created his first battery-powered USB charger using the sleek Altoids Peppermint Chewing Gum tin. It's slender and the perfect size for the 9-volt battery, electronic components and USB port arranged within it. It worked. The 9-volt battery provides a portable charge that generates 60 minutes of talk time or four hours of standby for his smartphone [source: Dunlap]. Since he'd had to buy the parts he needed wholesale, Dunlap had plenty left over after he created his charger. He decided to write out instructions and assemble the parts into kits for sale to do-it-yourself electronics enthusiasts.
What happened next is a testament to the power of the Internet and the attraction of the Altoids tin.