NPR

DIY 'Hackers' Tinker Everyday Things Into Treasure

Most people think of a hacker as someone who breaks into computer networks, but many in the do-it-yourself movement have adopted the term for themselves. DIY hackers take everyday items and hack, or modify, them to serve new purposes. In the last few years, work spaces dedicated to their craft have been sprouting up all over North America.

In Chicago, members of the Pumping Station: One hacker space have turned a bicycle and trailer into a glow-in-the-dark ice cream maker. Outside San Francisco, members of the Noisebridge hacker space sent an amateur weather balloon 70,000 feet into the sky. And at the All Hands Active hacker space in Ann Arbor, Mich., a woman with a neuroscience degree turned an empty propane tank into a musical instrument.

In more than 70 hacker spaces in the U.S. and Canada, do-it-yourselfers are drilling, gluing, soldering and welding just about anything you can imagine. Some spaces consist of little more than a large room where they share tools and expertise, while others are equipped with expensive, computer-controlled power tools. While the focus at some hacker spaces is primarily on electronics, at others, sawdust flies and sewing machines whir as members build hybrid objects of a less technological variety. The spaces also offer learning opportunities through classes on anything from brewing beer to picking locks, and demonstrations of new contraptions.

On a recent weeknight at the Brooklyn hacker space NYC Resistor, a visitor from Brazil gave a talk about how to build a pinball machine. The hackers at NYC Resistor have some experience with recreational machinery; they once turned an old slot machine into a robot that mixes alcoholic drinks, from Bloody Marys to Dirty Chihuahuas.

"Imagine kittens with jet packs flying around in a room," says NYC Resistor co-founder Bre Pettis. "NYC Resistor is a force of chaos in the world."

All that energy and creativity is made possible by a well-equipped and stable place to work, which is essentially what these hacker spaces are. They wouldn't survive without some financial support, so most have monthly dues between $50 and $100. A handful of the spaces are commercial enterprises, but most are democratically run nonprofits.

"It's a combination of community, as well as opportunities for people to express themselves through making things and learning more and more about what they're enthusiastic about and really love," says Mitch Altman, co-founder of the San Francisco hacker space Noisebridge. "Each space is unique and over time all of the spaces ... get more diverse."

The diversity of the hacker space is particularly visible at Philadelphia's Hive 76 where, on a recent weeknight, one member made business cards by etching beef jerky with a laser cutter while another played his iPod through a small suitcase that had been transformed into a boombox. Jack Zylkin, a 26-year-old electrical engineer, mashed new technology with old by making a computer keyboard out of an old manual typewriter.

Before he started wiring up old typewriters, Zylkin was making wooden puzzles at home. He used his bedroom as a silk screen studio and his kitchen as a wood shop.

"Before I came here to Hive 76, I had a drill press right next to my sink," Zylkin says. "I'd be drilling a hole in something with the drill press, and all the wood shavings I'd just brushed into the sink trap."

Hacker spaces are making it possible — and in some cases profitable — for tinkerers like Zylkin to pursue their creative impulses and to make things that, until now, have gone unimagined.

"[Hive 76] gave me a place to put all my tools and meet other crazy people who were also at risk of burning their houses down," his says. "This place rescued me."

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Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Our occasional series on the do-it-yourself movement has touched on everything from solar backpacks to bamboo bikes. Coming up, we'll add music to that list and talk with a do-it-yourself rocker.

But now, the first of two stories on DIY hackers. As Jon Kalish reports, they're not the kind who break into computer networks. The DIY hackers modify everyday items to serve new purposes and workspaces to serve hackers.

JON KALISH: In a farm field 60 miles east of its home base in San Francisco, seven members of the Noisebridge hackerspace launch an amateur weather balloon that rises 70,000 feet in the atmosphere.

Unidentified Man: All right. Three, two, one.

(Soundbite of cheering)

KALISH: In Chicago, members of the Pumping Station One hackerspace modify a bicycle and trailer to make glow-in-the-dark ice cream.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KALISH: And in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the All Hands Active hackerspace, a young woman with a degree in neuroscience but no job at the moment uses a grinder on an empty propane tank she's turning into a drum.

(Soundbite of grinder)

KALISH: In hackerspaces all over North America, do-it-yourselfers are drilling, gluing, soldering and welding just about anything you can imagine. There are now more than 70 hackerspaces in the U.S. and Canada, with dozens more planned or in the process of being formed.

Many cities have more than one. Often, hackerspaces consist of nothing more than a large room where DIYers share tools and expertise. But others are equipped with expensive computer-controlled power tools. While the focus at some hackerspaces is primarily on electronics, at others, sawdust flies and sewing machines whir.

And there's a lot of learning going on at hackerspaces, be it a beer-brewing workshop, a lock-picking seminar or a demo of an egg-bot, which draws pictures on eggs.

(Soundbite of people talking)

KALISH: At the Brooklyn hackerspace NYC Resistor, a visitor from Brazil recently gave a talk about building a pinball machine. The hackers at NYC Resistor have some experience of their own with recreational machinery. They took an old slot machine...

(Soundbite of slot machine)

KALISH: ...and turned it into a robot that mixes alcoholic drinks, from Bloody Marys to Dirty Chihuahuas.

(Soundbite of mixing)

KALISH: Bre Pettis is co-founder of NYC Resistor.

Mr. BRE PETTIS (Co-Founder, NYC Resistor): NYC Resistor is a force of chaos in the world. Imagine kittens with jetpacks flying around in a room.

KALISH: All of this energy and creativity is made possible by a well-equipped and stable place to work, which is what these hackerspaces are. They wouldn't survive without some financial support, so most have monthly dues between 50 and $100. A handful are commercial enterprises but most are nonprofit and are run democratically.

Mitch Altman is co-founder of the San Francisco hackerspace Noisebridge.

Mr. MITCH ALTMAN (Co-Founder, Noisebridge): It's a combination of community, as well as opportunities for people to express themselves through making things and learning more and more about what they're enthusiastic about and really love. Each space is unique and over time all of the spaces do get more diverse.

KALISH: Such diversity is evident at the Philadelphia hackerspace Hive 76.

(Soundbite of etching)

KALISH: On a recent weeknight, one member was making business cards by etching beef jerky with a laser cutter; another member played his iPod through a small suitcase that had been transformed into a boombox, and a 26-year-old electrical engineer named Jack Zylkin mashed new technology with old by making a computer keyboard out of an old manual typewriter.

Mr. JACK ZYLKIN (Hive 76): So, I'm writing you an email right now.

(Soundbite of typing)

Mr. ZYLKIN: And it's pretty much just the same as writing a regular email.

(Soundbite of typing and carriage return)

KALISH: Before he started wiring up old manual typewriters, Zylkin made wooden puzzles at home. He used his bedroom as a silkscreen studio. His kitchen did double duty as a woodshop.

Mr. ZYLKIN: Before I came here to Hive 76, I had a drill press right next to my sink so that I'd be drilling a hole in something with the drill press and then all the wood shavings I just, like, brushed into the sink trap. And then this place, like, rescued me. It just gave me a place to put all my tools and meet other crazy people who were also at risk of burning their houses down.

KALISH: There are lots of driven people like Jack Zylkin tinkering all over the country. Hackerspaces are making it possible - and in some cases profitable -for them to pursue their creative impulses and to make things no one has even imagined.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

HANSEN: Our series continues next week with a story about innovators who have used DIY hackerspaces to start unusual small businesses, like converting manual typewriters into computer keyboards and creating business cards out of beef jerky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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