People Doing Strange Things With Soldering Irons: A Visit to Hackerspace

5/22/09Follow @wroush

You might think that all of the engineering brainpower in cities like Boston, San Diego, and Seattle is sucked up by high-voltage startups or by giant employers in the software, server, or semiconductor businesses. But proof that there’s plenty of surplus technological creativity in these regions is popping up in odd places like Willoughby & Baltic, a “hackerspace” I visited last month in Somerville, MA.

The group’s workshop—which was located until recently above a Subway sandwich shop in Davis Square and is in the process of moving to a former machine shop in Union Square—is essentially a clubhouse for geeks who like to build stuff in their off time. The “stuff” ranges from robots and other electronic toys to jewelry and interactive art installations—and to build it, members have collected a veritable museum of castoff equipment, from lathes, mills, kilns, and forges to soldering irons and spectrophotometers.

Like more than 50 other hackerspaces in the U.S., Willoughby & Baltic is built around the philosophy that it’s more fun to share tools, equipment, and ideas than to tinker alone in the garage or the basement. That makes it a living example of the “maker” epidemic, which got underway in the San Francisco Bay area roughly five years ago. The movement draws momentum from a burgeoning open-source hardware movement born in Europe, and is infecting new cities at a formidable rate. (Seattle is home to at least three hackerspaces—Hackerbot Labs, the 911 Media Arts Center, and Saturday House— and a group called Hackerspace SD is getting organized in San Diego as well.)

Inside Willoughby & Baltic's Davis Square HackerspaceThe founder of Willoughby & Baltic, who gave me a tour of the Davis Square workshop and gallery space back in April, is Meredith Garniss. Trained as an artist at Boston’s Northeastern University, Garniss long held various software engineering positions in the desktop publishing industry. But she left her job at digital font maker Bitstream in 2001 to paint, teach, and lately, hack hardware—a pastime she believes is best pursued in groups, where people can teach one another new skills. At any given Willoughby & Baltic gathering, a jewelry maker might end up sitting next to a hydraulics expert, leading to all sorts of crazy projects. “We were thinking about calling the group The Society for Soldering Things to Other Things,” Garniss jokes. “We don’t take any of this too seriously. We just like to have fun and build stuff.”

The hackerspace is actually the third or fourth incarnation of the Willoughby & Baltic brand, which started off as fanciful name for Garniss’s electronic typeface foundry in the mid-1990s, then went dormant for a while, and was then re-applied to the Davis Square garage space that Garniss turned into an art studio after leaving Bitstream. The studio evolved into a community puppet theater; the puppets went robotic; the theater group became the Boston chapter of the international hobbyist group Dorkbot (whose tagline is “People doing strange things with electricity”); and a group of Dorkbot members eventually decided to rent the second-floor space above the neighboring Subway and turn it into a hackerspace.

The Wikipedia definition of “hackerspace,” by the way, is “a real (as opposed to virtual) place where people with common interests, usually in science, technology, or digital or electronic art, can meet, socialize and collaborate.” The emphasis in hackerspaces is definitely not on the kinds of commercializable technologies that we usually cover here at Xconomy. At a recent interactive art exhibition hosted by Microsoft’s Startup Labs in Cambridge as part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, for example, one Willoughby & Baltic member showed off a patch of artificial turf that responded to any touch with a growl or a rumble. The piece’s title: “Sod Off!” (You can read more about the Microsoft event in this Boston Globe article by D.C. Denison from May 18, and Wired‘s Dylan Tweney wrote a nice piece about hackerspaces for the magazine’s Gadget Lab blog back in March.)

As someone who long felt stifled by her various software jobs, Garniss has a theory about what attracts people to hackerspaces. “A lot of the people who come here at night or on the weekend went to work at high-tech companies thinking they were going to have a certain level of creativity, and they’ve come to feel over time that their creativity is being squashed,” she says. “But they still need a creative, collaborative environment—so they come here.”

On a typical weekend, a visitor to Willoughby & Baltic might find Garniss leading an “Arduino Bootcamp,” an introduction to the open-source Arduino electronics prototyping platform. A group of hardware hackers in Italy founded the Arduino project in 2005 as a way to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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