Hackerspace Charlotte: A Tinkerer’s Paradise and Haven for Intellectual Curiosity
In NoDa, the most dangerous question you can ask is, "What's that?" It's also the most fun
Max Wallace strode on stage at Queens University next to two three-dimensional printers, past the giant plush brain that hung from the rafters. He stopped in front of a projection screen. Wallace, the blond-haired, fast-talking founding president of Hackerspace Charlotte, was one of thirteen presenters at TEDxCharlotte in October, a conference where speakers talk to a select audience about technology, entertainment, and design.
“I don’t know anything about platypus venom, but I could in just a matter of seconds,” he said, instantly bringing up the platypus venom Wikipedia page on a projection screen. It used to be that information was limited to libraries and lecture halls. Now, the internet has set that knowledge free. A vast amount of information has been indexed, categorized, and uploaded, he said. You can now know something in no time and at no cost.
But is it possible to do or make something in the same way? If you wanted to learn how to program a microcontroller, a tiny processor found in everything from microwaves to cellphones, you used to have to take six weeks in night school at a community college. The tuition would be nearly $1,200.
Or you could go to a Hackerspace. Think of them as work sheds on steroids; places full of tools, spare parts, and, in Wallace’s words, “a bunch of smart guys working in small rooms on machines you’ve never heard of.”
It took ten minutes to work up to the big finish. The lights went out. On the left side of the stage, a metal contraption whirred to life. It had helicopter skids and six metal arms with model-airplane propellers at the tops. The hexicopter rose, buzzing like a swarm of bees, gingerly wobbling above the stage, its green and white lights glowing in the darkness. The Department of Defense spent tens of millions of dollars to make something like this, Wallace said. This one was put together by hand for about $400.
The crowd broke into applause.
Hackerspace Charlotte, in more than once sense, is a dump. So much of what we see in Charlotte is meticulously developed, square-angled and shiny. It’s jarring to see people so happy in a place that’s so messy. Hackerspace sits in an old cotton mill next to the train tracks off Thirty-sixth Street in NoDa. It’s within earshot of the thumping music and meandering crowds that tend to stick to North Davidson Street and its bars and galleries. Cars and trucks pull up to the weeds out front. Out back there is a speedboat and a backhoe. No reason.
Inside, behind a heavy metal door, there is stuff piled on top of stuff. Along one wall, more than a dozen computers are humming, each one running a different operating system, from Windows to Ubuntu. There’s a tiny jet engine in pieces on a shelf. There’s an old VCR. There’s a dissected ham radio. A cupcake baked with iron powder as an ingredient has been stuck to the metal ceiling for months. It’s not rotting. It’s rusting.
In the middle, on couches and at tables, are hackers.
Tonight is Hacker Friday, timed to coincide with NoDa’s monthly gallery crawl. It’s an open house of sorts where Hackerspace’s denizens show up to show off their stuff. Wallace is strolling around, talking to guests. Somebody plays an old arcade machine. It’s loaded up with thousands of games. Out back, a few guys take a look at some creepy animatronic bears and pigs someone brought in from a Chuck E. Cheese. At the center table is Hardik Patel, the guy who flew the hexicopter at TEDx. He talks about an app he’s developing that will take a picture of your gas meter and give you an accurate reading. A few other guys are tinkering with locks and drinking Miller Lite. They tried brewing their own beer once. The bottles exploded.
As always, the most dangerous question at Hackerspace is: what’s that? Pierre Abbat, a short man with braided red hair and a beard, fidgets with a breadboard topped with computer chips and wires hooked to his computer. Three LEDs flash rhythmically. What’s that? For the next fifteen minutes, Pierre explains his creation in painstaking detail, before saying, almost ashamedly, that it is not quite working the way it should. At the end, he realizes he hasn’t said what his creation actually is: a thermostat.
Abbat punches up a schematic on his laptop. What’s that? It’s the blueprint for a 100-by-100-foot QR code. Hackerspace members laid it out on a nearby rooftop in October. The QR code, when scanned by a smartphone, takes you to a website for the project. It’s waiting for Guinness to certify it as the largest in the world, visible someday from Google Earth and passing planes. Why did Hackerspace create it? In the words of one member: it beats watching TV.
A hacker, quite simply, creates hacks. It’s not just about computers. An iPhone that works on any wireless network is a hack. An improvement to an apple pie recipe is a hack. There’s a hack in every episode of MacGuyver. University of California computer science professor Brian Harvey calls hackers aesthetes who obsess over perfection. A hacker’s practical joke, for example, has to be flawless. “If you decide to turn someone’s dorm room upside down, it’s not enough to epoxy the furniture to the ceiling,” he wrote.
“You must also epoxy the pieces of paper to the desk.”
Hacking anything can be maddeningly complex. There is a staggering amount of intricacy in the everyday stuff that surrounds us. The average car contains about 30,000 individual parts, from the crankshaft down to the screws. Your toaster is a maze of electromagnets and nichrome wire, circuitry and springs. Working out the way a whistle works might lead you down a road full of complex math, air vortices, and resonant materials.
At Hackerspace Charlotte, members volunteer their time to teach others about machinery and circuitry and how to dissect stuff and put it back together. At the moment, people there seem to be obsessed with 3-D printers, which resemble Erector-set creations with small motors and wires that control nozzles. They squirt tiny streams of molten plastic, which harden into a variety of shapes. The 3-D printers in the shop always seem to be dutifully cranking out parts for other 3-D printers. They apparently like to reproduce.
Members have fixed up old laptops and sent them to Haiti. They designed the QR code themselves. Members meet on Tuesdays to think of other ideas they want to tackle as a group. “I’m actually scheming up one right now,” says Wallace, “but there’s some paperwork to work out with the FAA before telling you more.”
The thing everybody at Hackerspace loves to talk about is a teaching tool called Feltronics. Drawings of circuits are full of lines, circles, and squiggles. Actual components look much different. Feltronics combines both on pieces of felt. You can stick them together to make working circuits on your refrigerator. It was created at Hackerspace Charlotte, which submitted the final product to the Great Global Hackerspace Challenge. It won.
What’s happening at Hackerspace is a return to tinkering. More people have less money. We’re fixing more things ourselves. As a result, we’re learning more about the stuff around us. Technology is getting cheaper. All of it is fueling the DIY movement.
Since the first American Hackerspace popped up in 2007, some 300 Hackerspaces have opened or are being planned in the United States. Their inhabitants tend to be college educated, in their late twenties and, overwhelmingly, men (several members of Hackerspace Charlotte are women). Most participants contribute without expecting anything in return. Almost all get together at Hackerspaces to meet other hackers. Wallace has a theory: in an era of YouTube how-to videos, hands-on and in-person still work best. “It’s incredibly satisfying to say, ‘Hey, I’m stuck,’ and to have someone help.”
In September 2010, Hackerspace Charlotte held its first meeting in the back of a Panera Bread on South Boulevard. The organizers expected a dozen people to show up. They got fifty. “I stood up to run the meeting,” says Wallace. “That’s how I became president.” A month later, they formed a nonprofit and found their current home in NoDa. It’s free to get in the door, but repeat visitors are politely asked to become members for $40 a month. The money pays for power, rent, and insurance.
Big things have been known to start in small spaces. Hewlett-Packard was formed in a garage. So was Apple. “We can’t pretend that people tinkering around with these things never turn out to be anything,” says Jim Van Fleet, a computer programmer and a founding member of Hackerspace Charlotte. There is no expectation here, no final destination. “Is this going to be mainstream?” he asks. “Probably not. And it doesn’t have to be.” What it has to be, he says, is an unpretentious place to learn and play. “The QR code in particular is totally playful. It all comes back to
exploring your intellectual curiosity.”
On a recent fall evening, members and guests at Hackerspace gathered to watch a hexicopter, made at the NoDa gathering spot, take flight.
Amid the chatter of Hacker Friday, Robert Wendell seems unusually focused. He’s hunched over a CNC machine, a bulky computer-controlled milling contraption that can be programmed to cut things to specific dimensions—to carve your name into a block of wood, for example. Wendell is using it to make a disc with three slits, curved like airplane wings. Pieces of wood will fit in the slits to catch breezes. What’s that? A vertical axis wind turbine. Conventional windmills, the ones you see on mountaintops, need a lot of wind to start turning. This one spins easily and smoothly with just a puff of air. You could hook it up to your house, connect it to some solar panels, and produce a modest amount of electricity for your home, he says. It looks stunningly simple.
No no no, Wendell says. He delves into a complex story about a number called the golden mean, how it was used to create the pyramids at Giza, how he’s using it here, how he went through a dozen designs, how each curve is precisely calculated, how this prototype works better than ones with two and four blades, and how he, honestly, doesn’t know as much about airflow as he’d like.
Wendell, sixty-seven, wears a flannel shirt and jeans, glasses, gray hair, and a frown. He’s a retired choral conductor who’s always enjoyed science. He found Hackerspace Charlotte a few months ago. He knew what his design should look like, but had no idea how to build it. A Google search and a phone call led him here, where a guy named Ben showed him how to work the CNC machine. Now he’s here a couple times a week. He’s interrupted often. People want to see what he’s doing. They want to talk.
Wendell came to Hackerspace to find answers to his questions. But that’s not why he comes back. “There’s a great deal of intellectual companionship that’s hard to come by in the general population,” he says.
Hackerspace Charlotte now has forty-five paid members, and more who drop in casually. The growth has been phenomenal for such a grass-roots group, and that’s an issue. Hackerspace needs more square footage and shelf space for the mountains of electronics and machine-making machines that are starting to pile up. Members are looking for a new space, but it’s tough for a self-funded nonprofit to find a big place at a low price. Wallace says a NoDa or South End location is a key to the growth. So are classes that a lot of people can use. There’s already a learn-to-solder night. That’s a start.
One day, Wallace says, he can see Hackerspace Charlotte with 200 members. But what if it doesn’t get there? There is no corporate funding, no calculated return on investment. What’s going on here is simply a do-acracy, he says. We’re social animals first, and techies second. Wallace is a computer programmer by trade. He’s doing this, he says, for the laughs.
The evening is winding down and the beer is running out when Hardik Patel grabs the remote control for the hexicopter. He walks outside. Nearly everybody follows him. He pushes some buttons and pulls back on a lever. The hexicopter buzzes. The lights glow. It gently hovers fifteen feet up in the night sky. People stand up, slack jawed, watching it float. After a few minutes, it lands. Everybody gathers round. They want to know how it works. They point at individual parts. They ask questions. They all have the same thing on their minds.