The City that Hacks
A guide to Baltimore’s emerging maker culture
Published: August 14, 2013
The 3-foot-tall robot looks like a Roomba vacuum cleaner with a cardboard tower on it, a small electronic tablet for a head. The face is a video of me, watching the thing roll up, then reverse back toward the work table, where Gerald Knight sits in front of a laptop with the same video playing on it.
“Normally, robots like that are like $10,000,” Knight, a middle-aged African-American guy in a ball cap and glasses, says. “This is $350. The tablet is from Walmart.”
We’re at the Baltimore Hackerspace on a Wednesday night. The location, on Landay Avenue, between the Player’s strip club and a business that seems to involve moving a lot of empty pallets around on forklifts, is not indicative of the nation’s glorious and soon-to-be resurgent high-tech manufacturing future. The building itself is like a tall garage, with a big overhead door in front that looks out on cracked pavement, and a semi truck parked on wood blocks.
But looks deceive. All around us, cool things are happening.
There are guys playing with a big speaker filled with corn starch mixed with water. There are guys working on computer code, and guys—key guys, actually: Paul King and David Powell, two of the founders of this hackerspace—messing with an amplifier kit. There is a guy putting the finishing touches on a scratch-built model helicopter with eight rotors.
This is Knight’s second trip to the Baltimore Hackerspace. He says the men here were central to getting his robot built. Ten weeks ago he started the project. It is perhaps indicative of the progress he made working by himself that, two weeks ago, he brought a pile of parts to Landay Avenue. “The guys have been wonderful,” Knight says. “Paul said, ‘Let’s crack this thing open,’ and boy, did he. We certainly voided the warranty.”
Baltimore is awash in DIY spaces where tinkerers can gather and share ideas and tools, sip beer, and void warranties. Called “makerspaces,” the concept started in Germany in the mid-1990s, when a group called the Chaos Computer Club founded an open-membership space in Berlin called c-base. MIT expanded on the concept in 2001, snagging a National Science Foundation grant for its Fab Lab, which then spread to 34 countries. Baltimore has seen an explosion of new spaces in the past few years. Besides the Hackerspace, founded in 2009 and now on the far east side, there is The Node in the Station North Arts District, and last month The Baltimore Foundery [sic] opened on the 200 block of South Central Avenue. All offer tools for metalworking, wood, computers, and robotics, but each has a slightly different focus.
And they’re not the only choices. For two-and-a-half years the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville has offered an MIT-affiliated Fab Lab with similar amenities and then some. Security-minded programmers founded the Unallocated Space out near BWI airport, and in late 2012 Dr. Tom Burkett founded BUGSS, the Baltimore Under Ground Science Space, at 101 N. Haven St. That bio-tech-focused group teaches how to build genes and make new organisms.
There is even a roving kid-centered makerspace bringing instruction to middle and grade school kids and their parents throughout Maryland, D.C., and Northern Virginia. “There is a big confluence of high-tech people in Baltimore,” says Matt Barinholtz, founder of FutureMakers.
“Baltimore has got the progressive families that want to see their young people have genuine experiences.”
“Part of it is there’s a resurgence in the whole notion of making,” says Jason Hardebeck, the landlord and co-founder of The Foundery—so named because it aims to develop business founders, in part, by literally shaping and casting molten metal. “My little brother—he’s 40—asked me what a makerspace is. I said it’s what the hipsters call workshops.”
But unlike grandpa’s workshop, makerspaces are explicitly collaborative. The open collective model allows—almost forces—collaboration among people who might not otherwise have met, and the tool-sharing promotes multidisciplinary competence.
The hope is that everyone will join.
“If you are an individual who likes to experiment with things, try new ideas out, you don’t have to be a techie,” says Knight. “Just to get your hands on something, this is the place to come.”
City Paper visited several makerspaces to compare and contrast, and talk to members and founders about their goals.
The Baltimore Hackerspace is a big warehouse bay in a warehouse district full of guys chewing cigars and driving pallets around on 18-wheelers. Just inside the main door is a concrete floor area with tables and people working on projects. The rules—including Ohm’s Law—are hung on the walls. Picture the garage of a mad scientist who is married to a performance artist. There is an air-conditioned inner sanctum crowded with another communal table and shelves and computers. Mark Haygood is there, chatting with Powell and King, the latter of whom wrote the computer code that controls Haygood’s robot, HEX (“Robocop,” City Folk, May 1).
Powell shows off an amplifier kit he and King are marketing on Ubld.it, the company they just launched. It’s a kit of parts the size of a very big sandwich, with some diodes, a vacuum tube, and instructions. It puts out 8 monophonic watts and it sounds pretty good hooked up to a homemade speaker.
“Our mission is to build a whole bunch of different kits here with good instructions so people can learn and get into the hobby,” Powell says. “We tell you not only, ‘solder this here,’ but also what it does.”
Out in the main space, Knight, a network administrator for Philips Healthcare, explains why he’s building a robot. “We have a telemedicine unit,” he says, and a few months ago his boss asked him to look into getting a rolling robot, head high to a seated person, so medical specialists could potentially examine and interview many patients remotely. That’s how Knight knows they cost $10,000.
The company could have bought one, but Knight thought it would cause more than budget problems.
“They were expensive,” Knight says, “but they [also] won’t work with our system.”
As a network administrator, Knight needs machinery that will integrate with the computer systems he already has, and none of the stuff on the market could do that, he says. And so here he is, building his own, having a ball.
“I just want to show the concept,” he says.
A few feet away, near the big door, Tom Minnick has an octo-rotor gyrocopter he made in 12 hours on Saturday. The arms are wood dowels from Home Depot. The engines, batteries, the controllers—all this is off the shelf. “This is by far the most stable multi-rotor I’ve tested,” he says as he puts the 3-foot-wide beast through its paces over the parking lot outside.
“Baltimore,” says Brian Dolge, watching Minnick’s flying machine swoop and dive, “has an amazing hacker community.”
More of it can be found in and around Station North.
The Node’s open house is Thursday, and Maze Lee is relaxing with his girlfriend and a couple of others in the back room of the cluttered rowhouse at 403 E. Oliver St.
“We just really added the woodworking space,” Lee says. He’s a big white guy who looks to be in his late 20s. Voluble and patient with newbies, he also has a deep well of tech knowledge allowing him to hold his own with anyone. “I was the VP last term,” he says, showing the router, the drillpresses, and the frame and engine of a motorized bike project he’s been working on. “I guess I’m fairly active in the space.”
With 2,300 square feet laid out in a narrow brick cavern, The Node shares the block with the recently opened Station North Tool Library. The front room will be a “clean” space for delicate computer-type work, Lee says, the back a wood and metal shop, and the middle for other stuff. That’s where there is the old LED display—a sort of mini jumbotron—that the group made last year. It’s leaning against a wall behind a pile of electronic detritus Lee says is there for spare parts.
Founded in 2009 and moved three times since then, the group is still working on getting the place all fitted out. There is a new shelving unit for members’ projects and a bunch of new soldering irons still in boxes.
The Node has 30-35 members paying $50-a-month dues, Lee says, though “some never come, or almost never. They just like the idea of keeping the space going.”
In the middle room is a MakerBot three-dimensional printer—the two-spool kind that can print in two colors. The directions are out next to it with a few small plastic things people have made. Next to that is a sewing box. People do textiles here, Lee says.
David Parker, a wiry white guy with a shaved head walks over from next door, where he has a studio. He’s an artist who works in metal, he says, and he’s helping people here get the hang of welding. Lee holds up his bike frame, pointing to a deep V joint he could not reach with the angle grinder. Parker has the tool for that and can show him the technique, he says, to get the welds smooth.
A newbie who gives his name as Nathaniel walks in with a young boy at his elbow, Jared. He asks what “online collaborative tool” is used here. Lee tells him.
“I woke up Saturday understanding Ohm’s Law,” Nathaniel says, adding that he has a current project “running Arduino code.” (Ohm’s Law, V= I/R, is where I is the current through the conductor in ampheres, V is the voltage, and R is the resistance of the conductor, given in units of ohms; Arduino is an open-source circuit board running a Java-based coding language that can be programmed to control machines of all kinds.) There follows a conversation about what The Node has to offer Nathaniel and Jared, who is interested in learning software hacks. There is a discussion about dues, whether The Node gets volume discounts on materials (it doesn’t but can help members save by combining shipping). Nathaniel is plainly comparison shopping. Later he’ll say that the Fab Lab is no longer a good bargain for him.
“Used to be like $100 for unlimited visits,” he says. “Now it’s $25 for five visits.”
Indeed, Fab Lab Baltimore changed its pricing policy as of July 8, according to a notice on its website. “It comes down to $4-$5 per visit—that could be the entire day if you want,” says Kelly Zona, manager of Fab Lab Baltimore.
Two-and-a-half years old on the campus of CCBC in Catonsville, Fab Lab Baltimore is an affiliate of the MIT program—complete with a direct link to them. It is considerably more ambitious than The Node, even though it’s got only about 1,250 square feet of working space.
Fab Lab Baltimore also has a paid staff and the university behind it. There are professional CNC machines—computerized cutting, engraving systems—that allow the kind of projects an inventor might have when she is seeking to develop a manufacturing business.
“I think most of our users have been very supportive,” Zona says of the fee structure. “We have 400 registered users.”
Baltimore’s newest makerspace endeavors to grow bigger than The Node or Hackerspace or the Fab Lab. “I think we’re actually underserved and have been,” says The Foundery’s Hardebeck. “There are some higher profiles in other places, like the Artisan’s Asylum in Boston.”
Indeed, Hardebeck and his co-founders, Andrew Stroup and Corey Fleischer, consulted with Artisan’s Asylum founder Gui Cavalcanti before setting out to grow The Foundery into something comparable.
Running an industrial-scale makerspace is not much different from running an industrial business. Expenses include rent, staff and accountants, contractors and taxes, workers’ compensation and insurance. Also required: a business license.
There is the mundane stuff like building maintenance—not insignificant in an old industrial space—and utilities. Then maintaining the tools and machines. More gas for the welders; belts, blades, wire. It all adds up quickly. In a how-to article for would-be makerspace founders in the June issue of Make magazine—that’s the bible for the maker movement—Cavalcanti says his 40,000-square-foot Artisan’s Asylum costs about $80,000 per month to operate.
Hardebeck, who spent $385,000 last year on two adjacent industrial buildings at 201 and 207 S. Central Ave., seems comfortable with that scale in an underserved market. He says he’s heard of discussions about bringing a TechShop—the movement’s only for-profit franchise, with about six locations so far—to Baltimore. He’s not thrilled with the for-profit model, he says, but in general, more is needed—for the good of the country.
“How we got here is a combination of things, but the end result is if we as a nation are going to be successful, if we are going to compete in the global market, we have to be able to lead in innovation,” Hardebeck says. “China, other countries might have more engineers. But they don’t have the creativity in their DNA. They don’t have this diverse view of the world.”
Andrew Stroup unlocks the padlocked door of 207 S. Central at about 10 minutes to 6 p.m. and walks into the swept area, where four welding stations and a bunch of shop tables await people with projects. It’s a Tuesday night, an open night at The Foundery. Stroup would be alone tonight if not for a reporter and photographer from City Paper.
Stroup says the space has five members so far, “not bad for the first month.”
The idea is to present classes, he says. People will take the classes and then return with projects. The first welding class filled up in 48 hours, he says, at $65 a pop for an introductory three hours. There have been several since. The one tomorrow is filled as well. (I tried to sign up but was foiled by the website’s Meetup client, which never sent the confirmatory email nor responded to requests for tech assistance.)
“It’s a great way to get a bunch of innovators together and then to teach them different skill sets,” Stroup says.
Stroup is an engineer with apparently boundless energy. He was adopted, grew up in Oklahoma, came to D.C. for work, and settled into Baltimore two years ago. He met co-founder Fleischer when they were both contestants on the Discovery TV show The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius, which pits teams of engineers against each other and the clock, building things like elevators and bridges. Then he met Hardebeck, who had for 20 years wanted to do something like this.
The three decided to do a bootstrap effort and “find out what was sustainable” in three to six months, Stroup says. Sustainable for now means he and the others do all the work on a volunteer basis. Startup costs are “all out of pocket between me and Jason and Corey.”
Outside a side door, there is an actual foundry—a tiny chimney and cap—where lessons are taken in sand-casting aluminum. “We literally built this in a couple of days,” Stroup says. Asked who taught him, he replies, “the internet.”
Stuff has come cheap and broken, or free, as in the case of this lathe and this Southbend shaper, a tool for making keyways and other fancy cuts in metal. “Someone called and said their dad passed away and these tools were in the basement, we could have them if we could move them,” Stroup says. The tools look to date from the 1960s. All metal construction.
The welding tables are homemade from pallets. “If you buy a full-blown Acorn table, it’s like $8,000,” Stroup says. The welding curtains—steel frames with red gel in them to protect bystanders from the intense UV light of the welder’s arc—were homemade on site for $20 or $30 each, he says. “Commercially these are $200 each.”
The Foundery model is crawl-walk-run, Stroup says, “so the first tools are very basic.” The next things to come will be a CNC laser-cutter and a small milling machine. The idea is to introduce new members to new tools while building membership. The welding 101 class will lead to a second class, more advanced.
Stroup says he’s happy so far with the diversity of students. Half of the first welding class was women, he says, the other half computer programmers. Makerspaces seem to naturally attract young and middle-aged white guys, so women and men of color are especially encouraged.
More is better. More is necessary, in fact, if Hardebeck is to achieve his vision of a full design lab, computers, engineering design, 3-D printing, circuit design, and more.
Eventually the operation could expand from this building, with its 2,300 square feet, to next door, which is 13,000 square feet. “One of the founders is also the landlord, so we have some flexibility there,” Stroup says. “But we need to become sustainable.”
If the makerspace model, for-profit or non, is to be sustainable, Hardebeck, King, and the others will need a pipeline of young people who have the tinkerer’s mindset. Barinholtz, a Chicago-raised woodworker-turned-maker evangelist, aims to supply those young and eager minds with his roving troupe of makers.
“There are 15 of us. Today at Carroll Community College, there are four makers teaching middleschoolers and grade schoolers how to make furniture and hack Legos with power tools,” he says over the phone in what becomes an non-stop monologue of enthusiastic boasting.
It’s hard not to be taken in.
Barinholtz recruits people—mostly, but not exclusively, artists—to teach kids the basics of making stuff. He trains them in teaching skills and sets them free. He gets schools and libraries to host the workshops, he brings in kids and parents to learn new skills together.
“We are a mobile makerspace for grade schoolers and middle schoolers,” he says. “We are a group of makers and educators looking hard at how can making be as integrated into a grade schoolers’ education as basic addition and subtraction.”
Like Hardebeck, Barinholtz thinks the country took a wrong turn 25 or 30 years ago when we stopped making stuff that people could take apart and repair or reimagine. The death of shop class, the end of child-made artifacts parents keep forever.The lack of action, of physical creation. All this was a mistake he seeks to rectify. He’s sure he’s on the right road.
“This is not a fad. Make magazine might have the trademark on it now, but 15 years from now, this is how we’re going to continue to learn and build our economy,” Barinholtz says, sliding into a description of another upcoming class. “Parents and kids welding together,” he enthuses. “We want moms and sons welding together. What could be more awesome than that?”
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