At the end of April, some friends and I from York Hackspace, appeared for the second time at the UK Maker Faire, in Newcastle’s Centre for Life. We exhibited some toys and games we built using microcontroller electronics, for no reward other than the joy of being told it was awesome (It really was!)
Until recently, it was relatively rare to find people involved in programmable electronics hardware – perhaps because it was widely felt that such magic was best left to the wizards! While many like ‘gadgets’, it sometimes feels beyond the reach of most people to actually design and build their own. But it’s really not.
At face value, the people like us who are to be found in Hackspaces (of which the UK Hackspace Foundation counts 44 UK groups registered with them – but there are no doubt countless more unaffiliated groups), are people whose hobby looks from the outside to be essentially DIY electronics.
But really it’s much more about learning to make interesting things. For our group this is certainly skewed towards electronics controlled by programmable microcontrollers, but really there’s a whole world of maker skills to explore, from blacksmithing to crochet, from building quadcopters to homemade banjos, as well as new digital fabrication technologies such as 3D printers and computer controlled laser cutters and milling machines.
What unites all these disparate skills is that we are trying to make, invent, mashup, repurpose, program, design and build interesting unique gizmos for no better reason than wanting to learn how to take back the ability to make things for ourselves. We want to make a fridge magnet that’s connected to Twitter, or build a robot that draws portraits, or make a food dispenser that recognises which of your cats should have the medicine-laced cat food, or a face-recognising magic mirror on the wall – and just because we can!
But having made something, we also want to show and tell, to share and enjoy. That’s where moves from a hobby into a movement: the maker movement.
The Internet has democratised technology know-how. Now you can easily find a huge wealth of open information in the form of “how-to’s”, forums, Q&A sites and blogs about interesting projects, backed up by the rise of Open Source software like Linux. Now there’s Open Source hardware too – 3D printers and laser cutters make it possible to download digital CAD design files to recreate physical objects.
Makers freely share what they know with no barriers, no DRM, no patents, NDAs, fees or registration. We learn to solder, design 3D objects we can print in plastic, to program in C or Python for the ubiquitous low-cost Arduino and Raspberry Pi tiny computer boards, to design circuit boards, to interface with digital logic chips, read button states or temperature sensors, turn LEDs on and off. We use these skills to make stuff like our SpaceHack game and then we pass on what we’ve learned – every aspect is published as Open Source (both the software code we wrote and the hardware design files we created). So if you wanted to make your own, it’s all there.
Hackspaces might be seen as a cross between an art studio and a workshop. Communal spaces with machine tools and equipment, but there’s also more sociable desktop areas for laptops. I like to see it as a cross between a community shed and a Batcave – but it’s not a boy’s club – we’re an inclusive bunch and Hackspaces are places for anyone to make things, to learn things, to share ideas, to meet and hang out with others with similar interests. They’re a focal point for a community of creative makers: you can start as a simple weekly club meeting, and when there’s enough people around to share the rent on a property, a hackspace is born.
Once you have a whole group of people meeting and sharing their knowledge and ideas in one place, other ideas spin off. For instance, outreach: I joined the government’s STEM Ambassador programme for volunteering to help encourage and promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects in schools. I did this because I met others in the maker movement at Maker Faire events who were doing it and it seemed to align with my interests.
CodeClubs volunteer to teach programming in after-school clubs, our Hackspace has even taught beginner Python to a group of retirees who contacted us out of an interest in Raspberry Pi computers! In the bigger cities, this story is magnified many times over – here in Leeds for example there is an excellent Hackspace owned and run by its members. In fact there Is a Hackspace in every city where BJSS has an office – Hackspace Manchester & Madlab, Bristol Hackspace, Derby Makers, London Hackspace, NYCResistor and Club Cyberia.
At a regional and national level, there are many events we participate in, the principal ones being the Maker Faires of which the Newcastle show has been the flagship UK event. Maker Faires describe themselves as ‘The greatest show and tell on earth’, and all the Hackspaces want to go to showcase what’s been made.
My York group exhibited at around a dozen such events over the last year, our next will be at Halifax Mini Maker Faire at the end of the month Halifax’s Eureka Museum. Leeds Hackspace will be there too. We go to these events in the hope of inspiring curious minds of all ages, to show that in an age where games consoles and tablets actively discourage learning to program, that actually there are no limits to what you can learn to make.
If you’re curious about how stuff works, if you can program at any level and would like to extend that capability out beyond the screen into affecting the physical world, if there’s something you wish existed but isn’t available to buy from Amazon, or even if you’d like to help future generations avoid being enslaved into just paying tribute to the tech companies for the privilege of being locked into their product ranges, go investigate your local Hackspace. It’s likely to be a cavern of wonders and magic that will have you spellbound the minute you step inside.
Bob is a Developer based in the Leeds Project Centre.