At one point about 100 years ago, there were hundreds of automobile companies in the Detroit area, born from the hands of tinkerers. That
hands-on ability has long been pointed to as the source of what made Detroit a 20th-century industrial powerhouse.
New groups of tinkerers are paying homage to that tradition, coming together in what they call hackerspaces or makerspaces, where members share resources, skills and equipment to make anything they can manage to build, be it a piece of art or a mechanical oddity. These relaxed groups don’t much care what its participants are working on, as long as it’s creative and hands-on.
“Hackerspaces care about things, so they’re wonderful to work with. They’re collaborative, they share open-source values. When things fail, you want them there for you,” said Sherry Huss, the director of Maker Faire and “maker in chief” for O’Reilly Media Inc. in Sebastopol, Calif., which organizes the events.
While the groups are not a Detroit phenomenon, it’s fitting that a few have arisen here, organizers and participants say — not just because of the automotive past, but also the availability of space and people, allowing for ideas to take form with speed.
“In New York, you either have to have a lot of money or get a lot of influence to make things move,” said Jeff Sturges, lead organizer of a group, OmniCorpDetroit LLC. Originally from Massachusetts, he attended Cranbrook Academy of Art and was attracted to the relative lack of pretense in Detroit.
“You’ll find out pretty quick here if someone’s full of s—. I hate wasting time.” OmniCorp has metal fabricators, custom bicycle crafters, engineers, artists, teachers, network administrators and music producers working within its Eastern Market walls. Though registered as a business, it’s really more of a clubhouse. Members pay $95 a month in dues to share lease and utility costs.
The space is easy to miss. Tucked behind the sheds on Russell Street, the old sign on the building suggests the building houses a produce distributor. Stickers bearing the OmniCorp logo on the black steel doors are the only official indicator of its presence. The logo looks like some sort of Masonic secret society emblem.
“That was on purpose,” said Sturges, who prompted the organization to form in early 2010, though he and other members emphasize there is no one person who sits atop the organization.
But once in a while, a tinkerer’s legs can be spotted poking out from underneath a car outside. Or vehicles can be seen gathering outside for one of the Thursday “open hack nights,” where the doors are open to nonmembers to explore and share ideas.
Inside the doors one day in spring was a grimy, cluttered room with a large, unorthodox bicycle frame and the smell of welding in the air. Adjoining rooms lead to other projects and storage for parts and equipment.
Upstairs is where the main clubhouse is. There, an expansive wood-floored loft is filled with workstations covering a range of activities. One station has soldering equipment to modify electronics. A drum set sits at the far wall, behind a booth housing electronic music gear. Next to that is a jewelry crafter’s desk.
There are about 25 members in OCD. There’s no hierarchy of membership, but anyone interested in joining must be approved by existing members. It’s close-knit.
“It’s kind of like roommates. You want to meet someone before you let them in your house,” said Brandon Richards, a founding member who spends his days working as a mechanical engineer at Harman International Industries Inc.‘s Farmington Hills office.
Members share space, materials and expertise, giving them the structure to explore talents used in their day jobs without the pressure of the workplace.
“At a gym, you might go and get a release, but you’re not using the skills you use at work,” Sturges said.
They aren’t looking to make money and so aren’t pushing to add more members. The added money would just cause fights, Richards said.
“Then again, if I made money I wouldn’t be bummed,” Richards said.
But they do talk about how this easygoing, indirect approach could cause them to stumble into a product with sales potential.
“They’re sort of unintentional incubators,” Sturges said of hackerspaces. “If you cluster creative people, eventually you can make money.” Falling costs for fabrication equipment and technology are accelerating the practical creativity among hackerspaces everywhere, said Huss at O’Reilly Media “The next wave of products probably is going to come from these groups,” she said.
Sturges recognizes that potential in his community education work. Before OmniCorpDetroit, he participated in New York hackerspace NYC Resistor, one of the more widely noted groups. But he moved back to Detroit for the specific purpose of organizing a group called Mt. Elliott Makerspace, an east Detroit neighborhood hackerspace that teaches hands-on skills to city youth and recruits retired engineers as teachers. The Kresge Foundation funded it with a $200,000 grant in March 2010.
Some of those youths were learning to solder at OCD at one open hack night in May when about 20 people showed up. Members of a bicycling club called the East Side Riders. Guys sitting in a circle, each with a laptop. An urban farmer.
Richards and another member, electrical and software engineer Alex Manoulian, explained some of the items at OCD.
There’s a mind-controlled balloon popper. The headset of this large, wiry construction, they said, has three metal points that touch one ear, plus an arm that touches the forehead. By getting hyped up (or whatever mental state works), the user can make a long, sharp, metal point slowly extend until it pops the balloon.
Another project is a jar that uses baking soda and a battery to produce hydrogen and that can be hooked to a small engine.
Manoulian said the $95-a-month fee is worth it for the access to the tools, talent and space.
“I couldn’t put a drill press in my apartment,” he said.
One project he had been working involved a spinning screw powered by an electromagnet. But the screw part kept falling over. Manoulian probably would have figured out a solution, but why take the time when there’s someone around like Richards, who walked over, took one look and identified the torque dynamics at play? Similar sentiments were echoed one night at i3Detroit, another local hackerspace.
Engineering jobs often don’t have much engineering to them, members said. It’s easy to fall into a job that has more to do with filing papers or dealing with customers than building things. Or the engineering job is about building, but at such a small part of a long, segmented process that it’s unfulfilling, they said.
Hackerspaces give engineers, designers and artists a place to play.
I3Detroit (the I’s stand for “imagine, innovate and inspire”) began in 2009. The group is housed in a building on Ferndale’s industrial east side. Organized as a nonprofit, the group has about 70 members who pay either $39 a month for a basic membership or $89 for a membership that includes voting rights. All members have 24-hour access to the building.
Daytime work for i3Detroit’s members is heavy on software engineering but, like OmniCorpDetroit, includes other types of engineers, as well as artists, electricians, machinists, fabric workers, welders and carpenters.
People’s ages range from the 20s to 50s.
I3’s reputation got a national boost this summer because of its work for the Red Bull Creation challenge.
The energy drink company’s event culminated in New York on July 7-10, when the groups had 72 hours to create something. I3 was a finalist with its Squiggle Trike, a compressed air-powered tricycle that uses the side-to-side motion of a figure skater to move the wheels.
“I3 is an incredibly well-respected group,” Huss said.
I3Detroit is looking to grow and hopes to have 100 by end of summer. What i3Detroit provides its members is the space. The equipment within is provided by members for general use, and that equipment includes a CNC plasma cutter, an arc welder, drill presses and circuit testing equipment. The membership fees cover the lease and utilities.
Also scattered about is a barbecue, an old player piano with new wires sticking out of it and a box full of “noodle” flotation devices.
“I3 owns some shelves, some chairs and that’s it,” said Ross Smith, current president.
Nick Britsky, one of 10 founding members, provided about half of the machine shop; some items were purchased by members who pooled money.
“We offer a place for people to try out capital equipment,” said Smith.
The group also performs a networking function, since so many of the members are professionals.
“A lot of people have gotten jobs as a result of i3,” said Eric Merrill, a board member and vice president.
Unlike some traditional tinker groups, such as ham radio clubs, i3Detroit keeps the activities open-ended, Smith said. So while some ham radio enthusiasts might be i3 members, that is just part of the spectrum of activity.
“A nerdy polymath personality walks in and gets it immediately,” he said.
The point is not to make a single home-run product, said Smith. The point is in not knowing what might come out of what he half-jokingly refers to as a “pre-incubator” or “conception chamber.” Cherish Lallone, a member in her 20s, works as a database manager but likes animatronics and puppetry for fun. Access to the machinery at i3 has helped her with her hobby, she said.
“People in my age group aren’t familiar with any kind of machinery or manufacturing processes. Here, you can get lessons on CNC machines or drill presses,” Lallone said.
During one of the club’s membership meetings, several people displayed their latest projects. One guy was working on a racetrack for toy micro-helicopters; another showed off a decal he made of Calvin from the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip urinating on… another Calvin, making fun of the widely-seen car window stickers.
But the main piece, to be shown at this year’s Detroit Maker Faire, is the ChronoTune, an old-timey radio torn apart and reconfigured to play audio clips for whatever year a person dials it to, between 1850 and 2050.
Members are still adding sound files. Some of them are recordings they made themselves, such as a reading of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Thomas Edison’s recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is on there. For recordings in the future, they are putting in prankish items like a joke told in binary, said Nate Bezanson, one of the lead makers.
“There is no requirement to be serious,” he said.