Baltimore inventors find camaraderie at hackerspaces
By By Jill Zarend-Kubatko For The Baltimore Sun
Oct 14, 2013 | 9:56 AM
Remember those kids from elementary school who were perpetually building thingamajigs with Legos or erector sets? They grew up to be tinkerers and inventors.
Unfortunately, some of them discovered it's not exactly practical to keep a small car in the living room, a robot in the kitchen or a bandsaw in the bedroom. So many of them have turned to hackerspaces — like mega basement workshops but with camaraderie and tons of high-tech equipment.
Baltimore Hackerspace, a nonprofit in the industrial part of East Baltimore, allows its members an unconventional way of learning, sharing and inventing. They work on projects either individually or as a group and use the creativity of their fellow entrepreneurs when they hit a roadblock. The organization also offers classes in basic electronics and cryptography, and occasionally has guest speakers.
"We have a very diverse group which includes mechanical engineers, software engineers, programmers, retired police officers, a former magazine publisher, students and others," says one of Hackerspace's six founders, David Powell.
The group originally met in Harford County but quickly outgrew the garage they were using. Today, between 25 and 30 men drop in weekly or daily to work on their creations.
And they are all men; there are no female members.
"There used to be," says longtime member Miles Pekala. But because the old location didn't have a bathroom (the guys just went out back), the women stopped coming. "I don't know why they won't come out," he said. "We have a bathroom now."
Pekala was recently at Hackerspace testing out his battery-powered kart that looks like a cross between a riding mower and a silver Tonka truck. It hasn't reached the speed he'd like and he's making tweaks on it with his fellow inventors.
These shops — originally known as makerspaces — are popping up all over the Baltimore area, including Baltimore Node, BUGSS, and Unallocated. Makerspaces started in the mid-1990s, when an organization called Chaos Computer Club founded an open-membership group in Berlin, Germany. Today they're all over the world.
Anyone with a desire to build something can join Baltimore Hackerspace and choose from various memberships: $27 for a student, which simply gets someone in the door, to $127, which gives the person 24/7 access to the space, a T-shirt and the knowledge that they are "really awesome." All proceeds go to pay for the space, electricity, a security system, air conditioning and heat.
With a 24-hour security camera and a lot of trust, these entrepreneurs are allies; there is no competition, just collaborators willing to help each other.
Every Wednesday evening the group holds an "open hack" where outsiders can step into a world of computers, plasma cutters, sprockets, drills, saws, a laser cutter and a 3D printer — any tool needed to create what is ruminating in their minds.
At a recent open hack, several men stopped in to check out the activity in the garage and speak with the busy inventors. Brian Kelly of Baltimore was looking for a place to work on a prototype he has in mind. He had already built his own 3-D printer.
"I am good at building, but weak at software," explains Kelly. "I've been looking for a place or to meet someone to help me."
During the tour, Brice Farrell was working on his small battery-powered motor bike. Attached on each side are two DeWalt batteries from drills. Across the room, Mark Barsaw was constructing a stove-top popcorn maker with a screen-covered hole in the lid that will allow air to escape but prevent kernels from flying out.
A few feet away, Jason Perkins, a former magazine publisher, discussed his recent invention that exceeded his expectations.
Perkins joined Baltimore Hackerspace in May, wanting to learn more about Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining and needed a home for a project he had designed.
"A month after I joined I had completed the first prototype for my modern hi-fi audio system," Perkins says.
Perkins co-founded Tubecore, which now produces a powerful compact tube-driven Bluetooth speaker that's Wi-Fi enabled and can stream music and sound from high definition movies. It combines new technologies with a more old-fashioned sound.
He put his prototype on Kickstarter.com, a website dedicated to raising money from everyday people that funds entrepreneurs and their inventions. The reception was remarkable.
Asking for $20,000 in startup funds, as of last week, he had raised nearly $137,000 from more than 300 backers. Perkins sold 110 units in eight days at a price range between $375 and $400 and he's been written up in various tech magazines.
Others from the group have been mentioned in the media, including Terry Kilby, who was featured in National Geographic. His multi-blade helicopter took photographs that ran in the magazine. By wearing goggles that he invented, he is able to see exactly what the camera is seeing from above.
Members come from Southern Maryland to Carroll County. Mark Reed, who drives to Baltimore Hackerspace from Westminster each week to work on his own audio-video project, says he doesn't mind the drive, because "everyone here is super helpful. It is such a cooperative group."