When a hackerspace forms, its founders must ask an essential question: How should it function? Is it an informal clubhouse or a rigid democracy? Is it open to all or only those who make it through an application process?
Quite often, founders settle on a space that is open to everyone. The maker movement, after all, is about empowering anyone to develop skills. Makers might have the option to pay a monthly due at a commercial space like TechShop or just show up unannounced at San Francisco’s anarchist Noisebridge.
In 2008, nine New Yorkers came together to form NYC Resistor, a Brooklyn hackerspace where they could share tools and keep work clutter out of their cramped city apartments. They decided they should take a balanced approach to openness: To join, you have to be invited by a current member. You don’t need to be an accomplished hacker; you just need to be a good person.
“The reason we do that is we want to be able to treat this space as our own home, which means the general rule is if you would hand this person your apartment keys, you should hand them the key to Resistor,” NYC Resistor co-founder Eric Skiff said. “The requirement is that you want to learn, share, and make things; that you have a passion for whatever it is your craft is and you want to spread that to the world and bring people into this whole movement.”
Members pay $75 a month and have to agree to teach six hours of classes a year (or pay a higher fee). Oh, and there’s one other rule: They can’t creep out girls.
“It’s a silly rule, but it’s an important rule because it embodies the idea of being polite and conscientious and inviting, and treating other people with respect,” Skiff said. “We want a 50/50 space.”
It’s a smart rule. Last year I spent several months at Noisebridge, where on an average day women made up less than 10 percent of the population. The community was overall incredibly supportive and helpful, but I encountered discomforting remarks more often than in any other community I’ve joined. Members there are regularly banned for their behavior toward women.
Killing that kind of culture is an obstacle every single hackerspace faces. Skiff said taking it seriously led to NYC Resistor being more open, constructive and creative.
Making for the sake of making
Like any good hackerspace, NYC Resistor’s members are not too focused on creating things with an obvious purpose. They’re more about the joy of making something and learning in the process. Skiff noted a flashing octagon of screens above our head as something created by a member.
He said it’s hard to pinpoint favorite projects, as the “smaller creative spurts” are what really stand out to him. He noted a chainmail bag a member once made for his Dungeons & Dragons dice.
“It was just like the turducken of geeky awesome,” Skiff said, laughing.
Member Chris Fenton, who also built a desktop version of the Cray supercomputer at the space, once read an article about a 100-year-old loom engineering textbook and decided he wanted to build a mechanical loom. That evolved into a punch-card reader, which then evolved into a 3D printed mechanical computer. It’s called the Turbo Entabulator.
“Like almost every project I’ve built, everyone thought it was really cool and a complete waste of time,” Fenton said.
Other members build fantastical creations for Burning Man or a Maker Faire. Some pursue inventions that they hope to commercialize. When I visited NYC Resistor in October, the latest prototype of GrowCubes, a modular aeroponic system for growing produce indoors, was sitting in the hackerspace’s back room.
NYC Resistor does have a famous alumnus: MakerBot. Two out of three of MakerBot’s founders were also founders at NYC Resistor, where they prototyped and built the first MakerBot 3D printers. The laser cutter they used is still in operation today.
“We really wouldn’t have been able to get a jump start without having the founders of MakerBot meet there,” said MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis, an NYC Resistor co-founder. “The creativity there is tangible. When you walk in, you kind of expect it won’t be weird if you see a kitten riding around on a jetpack shooting lasers.”
Inside the clubhouse
NYC Resistor is situated on an industrial-feeling block of Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Barclays Center and hipster 5th Avenue. It’s only open a few times a week, which both ensures that a leader can be in attendance and that it’s likely a good number of members will be there.
Some events, like the ever-popular Thursday Craft Night, are open to the public. But for the most part it’s just members, who carve pumpkins, help each other on projects and just generally hang out.
“I think the mission of the Resistor is really one more of supporting people, even non technical people, sort of reach into that other world where you build your own website or now you know a little bit about programming,” said member Chris Beauvois, who created GrowCubes. “Once you get to point you can build robots or hack electronics, it’s just really freeing and fun and you get really good at it. You get mixed in with a bunch of people who are like that.”
Like the hackerspace’s founders, Beauvois was drawn to the space by the ability to share equipment (in his case, he needed a lathe). NYC Resistor offers its members wood and metalworking equipment, computers, a laser cutter, soldering irons and endless knick knacks and electronics components that can be mushed together into the next great project.
While cluttered, there is somewhat of a sense of neatness at NYC Resistor. Skiff said that when they founded it, they took many lessons from organizations like the Chaos Computer Club; lessons like installing a dishwasher, because hackers have a tendency to leave their dishes in the sink. Despite there being no one way to create a hackerspace, Skiff said he feels they created a space that is exactly right for New York.
“We’ve been a model for other hackerspaces. Start teaching classes early; people will come. Start making sure that your members are coming out and teaching each other stuff and do it weekly,” Skiff said. “No slacking. Then the space will just congeal.”
With that kind of harmony, you create a space where people truly enjoy being.
“This, for many of us, has become a home away from home,” Skiff said. “This is where we hang our soldering irons and come to do our hacking projects.”