It was 7:30 on a steamy Tuesday evening, time for the weekly meeting at Hackerspace Charlotte, an open technology lab just off the western edge of Plaza Midwood.
Roughly 20 people circled a row of work tables cluttered with cobbled-together 3D printers, circuit boards, laptops, random electronic components and a smoking, bubbling plastic flask. (Dry ice.)
Mark Levine, Hackerspace’s vice president, was bringing the membership up to speed on new business. “We’re getting a new laser cutter,” he announced.
“What kind of laser cutter?” said D.I. von Briesen, , sitting near the smoking flask. He sounded cranky. He hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since before daybreak; he was fasting for Ramadan. “I mean, what are the details?”
“It’s a 50-watt laser,” Levine said.
“How’s that compare to the one that was there before?”
“It has a bigger cutting area, I believe,” said Amelia Mascioli, the treasurer and ex-president, sitting at the other end of the room. The hackerspace is primarily but not exclusively a hangout for guys. “And it has a two-year warranty.”
“So it should be better than the prior laser,” Levine said, turning back to von Briesen. “How much better remains to be seen.”
They’ve already made plans for their new laser. “We have the landlord’s permission,” chimed in secretary Jordan Carey, “to cut a hole in the back wall.”
‘We accept anybody’
They’re all geeks, of course.
But it’s important to understand what a hackerspace isn’t before you can appreciate what it is. (They’re also called hacker spaces, two words; true to their informal nature, there’s no official style for the term.)
It has nothing to do with infiltrating data systems and servers, what the uninitiated tend to assume when they hear “hacker” in the title, some kind of Assange-style skullduggery. It’s nothing like that.
“Hacker” in this context means someone who enjoys assembling gadgets, mainly electronic, out of whatever they can find – garage-workshop tinkerers with a club and communal workshop as a clubhouse. Hackerspace Charlotte has about 50 members who pay the monthly $50 dues, not counting random people who just show up.
“It runs the gamut: lawyers, mechanics, stay-at-home parents, people who work at Chuck E. Cheese,” said Quincy Acklen, the club’s president, a 37-year-old ex-Marine from California. “Really, we accept anybody.”
Hackerspace occupied a crowded rental space in NoDa from its founding in 2008 to spring 2012, when it moved into a 2,000-square-foot brown shoebox of a building on Hawthorne Lane, just across from the Barnhardt Manufacturing Co. cotton processing plant. It was a step up. This building has a bathroom. People can stay and hack for longer.
Plus, “I get to teach,” Acklen said. “I love sharing what I know.”
A Welshman and a wedding
The Hackerspace Charlotte story begins with a Welshman and a wedding.
The Welshman’s name is Redvers Davies. He works as a security engineer at Time Warner Cable. In 2008, he attended the wedding of a friend in southern California, and decided to check out Null Space Labs, a hackerspace in Los Angeles.
At the time, the hackerspace phenomenon was just beginning to catch on in the United States, in particular on the West Coast. They started popping up in Germany in the 1980s as a vehicle for like-minded tech hobbyists to socialize and exchange ideas, and they gradually spread throughout western Europe.
By 2007, a loose umbrella organization, hackerspaces.org, was up and running, and the concept had spread to large American cities where space isn’t always available for basement or garage workshops. So when Davies dropped by Null Space Labs, he understood it represented a fresh concept in the tech community.
“I fell in love with the place,” said Davies, a stocky 38-year-old with a thick reddish-brown beard. “I was surrounded by my peeps. That’s what it all boils down to.”
Davies was determined to start a hackerspace in Charlotte but wasn’t hopeful. California, sure. New York City, that figured. But Charlotte, a southern banking town?
Davies used Meetup.com to set up a gathering at the Panera Bread on Providence Road in Myers Park: Hey, anyone interested in starting a hackerspace in Charlotte, come on out. He wasn’t sure how many people would show up. Beforehand, he was hesitant to even ask the staff to set aside a table.
That morning, 60 people swamped the Panera. The staff had to cordon off an entire section of the restaurant. Hackerspace Charlotte was off and hacking.
Since then, it has drawn attention for helping WCNC-TV launch a camera into the upper atmosphere (why not?) and for creating a 100 foot-by-100-foot QR code, the world’s largest, on a NoDa rooftop in 2011. Its proudest moment: May 4, 2012, which then-Mayor Anthony Foxx declared Hackerspace Charlotte Day.
“The number one rule is, ‘Meet weekly.’ It’s still the fastest-growing HackerSpace in the world,” Davies said. “This is not a business incubator. This is all about fun.
“It’s completely blown me away. I never thought the city would support this. I was completely and utterly wrong.”
Assembling the pieces
After the meeting, the Hackerspace members turned to their assorted projects. Mark Levine, the vice president, continued to work on his 3D printer. Such printers are no longer unusual, but Levine’s is. He made some of its components with other 3D printers.
“I built this whole thing completely from skills I learned here,” he said. “And there’s nothing about it that’s very difficult. It’s just a matter of knowing what combination of pieces to put together in which configuration to get it to do what you want and make something potentially useful. Right?”
At Hackerspace, the teaching and learning flows freely. Someone has an idea, and the group gathers around and offers suggestions, and pretty soon it’s like sparks off a grinding wheel, and the inventor is inventing something he or she never imagined, or in a way he or she never envisioned.
The collaboration is the real value of a workshop setting: Everyone’s a teacher, and everyone’s a student.
“This is just a lot of people who have good ideas, and I like to make things happen,” said Amelia Mascioli, the treasurer. “I like to fix things, and this is a place where, if you don’t know how to fix something, you can come here and find someone who does.
“You can do a lot more together than you can alone – and that, I think, is the whole point of Hackerspace.”
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