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 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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