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

5/22/09Follow @wroush

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reduce the cost of student robotics projects. While it’s designed to encourage hands-on experimentation in the same way as Lego’s Mindstorms platform or Bug Labs‘ plug-and-play hardware modules, Arduino is set apart by its open source philosophy. Anyone can buy an Arduino board (the basic microcontroller costs $35) and start hacking it—or download and adapt the reference designs for their own purposes.

The Arduino Diecimila microcontroller“Arduino is the Pagemaker of our day,” Garniss says, referring to the desktop publishing software that launched a self-publishing revolution in the 1980s. “All of a sudden you could print your own books on your desktop. You could say what you wanted through your design. It’s all about having power and control over your craft. We’re now seeing that with hardware, and that was what was interesting to me about Arduino.” For their $275 registration fee—most of which Garniss plows right back into the hackerspace—participants in the Willoughby & Baltic Arduino bootcamp receive a complete Arduino hardware kit worth $100.

Garniss says it’s important to Willoughby & Baltic’s freewheeling character that it has evolved apart from any of the Boston area’s big technology institutions, which might be tempted to transform it into some kind of training organization or adult-ed course. “Keeping the group away from any particular college or entity, especially in Boston, is very important, so that it belongs to everybody instead of just to one small community,” she says. “In fact, when Dorkbot Boston was starting up, there was a lot of conversation about whether we should even do it, because we were so close to MIT, and MIT tends to suck everything up into it. But the surprising thing was how many people came from MIT to join Dorkbot—it gave them an alternative to something that was exclusively MIT-based.”

But at the same time, Garniss believes that the hackerspace phenomenon holds some important lessons for established institutions. The fact that so many Willoughby & Baltic members have day jobs at tech firms but still need other outlets for their hacker urges is, she says, a sign that creativity is undervalued inside many companies.

The original Willoughby & Baltic studio in Davis Square“It’s a real missed opportunity for a lot of corporations, who could be starting their own hackerspaces for people to support the creative side of what they do,” says Garniss. “If IBM repurposed some space to be a community hackerspace and opened it up to some segment of the population, not only would they be able to provide their employees with a creative outlet, but they might get some ownership over what was created in that space, and they might find new people with skills they need, and see how they interact before hiring them. It would be a really good bridge to the community.”

On the other hand, “Maker Faires” and the spread of hackerspaces can also be seen as just the latest twist on a long American tradition of social organizing among hobbyists. And as Richard Koolish, a Willoughby & Baltic member who happened to be doing some soldering on an Arduino board when I visited the hackerspace, pointed out, work is work—it isn’t always supposed to engage your full imagination. “It’s good if you’re interested in what you’re doing at work, but that’s not your whole life,” Koolish says. “It’s not [your employer's] problem to solve all of your problems. Model railroaders, astronomy clubs, RC airplane builders—these guys are always going to find their own organizations.” Nowadays, thanks to the open-source hardware movement, they just have a few new toys to play with.

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

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