Recently I went to a makerspace. Sometimes referred to as a "hackerspace," this is one of those uber-geek environments where a bunch of like-minded geniuses and tech heads come together to work on ... well ... everything. Everything and anything. Name a project, anything that takes ingenuity and innovation and a bit of sweat and blood, and you will probably find it in a makerspace.
The makerspace in question is TX/RX Labs, right here in Houston, Texas. Right in the heart of Houston, actually, residing in an empty garage space on the Eastern edge of downtown, close to Minute Maid Park. The members of TX/RX count among them NASA engineers, system administrators, artists, and general tinkerers and hobbyists. The group has tools and resources that include 3D printers, CNC routers, oscilloscopes, soldering stations, power tools, and scads of reclaimed and repurposed parts.
For an urban scavenger and dumpster diver such as me, the place is paradise.
I first decided to check it out several months ago, but for whatever reason I never got the opportunity (or never made the time). Instead, I kicked around trying to figure out a way to rent my own workshop, and maybe even start my own makerspace. It seemed to me that the $80-per-month membership fee was a little excessive. What, exactly, would I get for my eighty bucks?
Well, for starters, space. It should have occurred to me from the start that the "space" in maker/hackerspace actually means exactly what you would think. These places provide room to boom. They are a location for you to use for your creative hijinks.
But it's much more than that. A makerspace is also a chance for like minds to come together under the same freak flag, and deal in the only currency worth the same no matter where you are in the world — knowledge. Where else are you going to get a chance to learn programming and engineering skills from a NASA engineer? Where else will you meet actual, honest-to-God hackers who aren't trying to steal your identity? Where can you learn how to use a computer-controlled router? Community college?
Makerspaces are picking up a long-held tradition and carrying it forward. For as long as there have been hairless monkeys on this planet, there have been tribes of folks who have, as their primary purpose, the goal of working together to build something bigger, better, and badder. The Renaissance saw guys like Leonardo and Michelangelo creating studios full of disciples and students, and using them to help pursue art, science, and even a bit of mysticism.
Later, guys like Edison came along and built “laboratories” where their teams could have access to the best tools and materials, and a chance to invent widely and wildly. Edison’s lab was reputed to have stocked a sample of every known material of the time, which came in handy when he was trying to find the best way to create a light bulb filament or a conductor for his alkaline battery or a material for making phonographic cylinders.
In more modern terms, makerspaces harken back to those groups of garage hackers, who happily cobbled together the first personal computers out of bits of wood and solder. Our current technological age comes from them, building on the work of guys called “Cap’n Crunch,” or (maybe you’ve heard of them) Stephen Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.
I have always been fascinated by these guys. The idea of being able to take a bunch of spare parts and junk and turn them into something useful and innovative and new … that has always made my heart pound. It’s like being in love. It’s like having sex for the first time. Invention — pure invention — is better than booze or drugs for giving guys like me a rush.
TX/RX Labs had that feel of being at once a part of history and a lead into the future. When I first arrived, I was wary of what seemed to be a “bad neighborhood.” The streets are lit, but deep shadows are everywhere, and the building itself doesn’t exactly scream “safe and secure.” It’s industrial and run down. Graffiti and trash are everywhere.
When I first peeked into the garage bay door, peeled up to reveal a vintage pickup backed up to a concrete loading dock, I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place. I checked my phone, surfed to the website (www.txrxlabs.org), and made sure I had the address right. This was the place. I’m not sure what I had been expecting.
A guy was tinkering with something on a makeshift workbench at the top of the loading platform. I called out, “Hey, is this TX/RX?”
“Yeah,” he said, and then met me at the top of the stairs, shaking my hand, and taking me on a guided tour.
Now, as far as I can determine there is nothing illicit or illegal going on in this place. But because I’m doing a bit of unauthorized reporting on the goings-on, and because I’m not at all certain these guys want their names splayed all over the interwebz, I’m going to assign some pseudonyms for the folks I met. If anyone reading this was there the evening I dropped by, feel free to introduce yourself in the comments. I’ll give credit where credit is due, when credit isn’t doing a number on anyone.
That said, we’ll call our new friend “Jim.”
Jim was a slightly balding guy, probably in his mid-thirties. He was an amicable fella, perfectly willing to tote me around and introduce me to folks, and to show off the toys the group has collected. When I met him, he was retooling a security system rescued from a local fast food franchise that was on the remodel.
Jim is a kind of low-key guy. He didn’t get overly excited about anything, but I could tell he was proud of the place and what they were doing here. “It’s just a place for a bunch of people to come together and do something really cool,” he said. “Everyone has their little projects, and people help out when they’re needed.”
He showed me some of their equipment, which included a Mendel — a 3D printer that uses plastic filament to print an object one layer at a time. They also have a Makerbot, which does the same work, and a couple of CNC routers, which create computer-generated objects using wood. In effect, the group has its own micro-manufacturing setup, where they can design and build almost anything. Well … maybe “almost” is putting it a bit mildly.
I have read about and dreamed about and drooled about all of this technology for a couple of years now. But this was the first time I’d gotten a chance to see it live, and see it in action. And it did not disappoint. As I watched, one of the groups members fired up the Mendel and began printing parts for (amazingly) another Mendel. Eventually, the group will be able to assemble a second unit, built primarily from parts that the first unit has created.
This is the dream. If you’ve ever read Cory Doctorow’s “Makers,” you have a pretty good idea of what this place was like.
In fact, this was Geek Heaven. A Geek Mecca. This was the home I had been searching for my whole life. I have spent countless hours trolling flea markets and dumpsters and curbsides, rescuing odds and ends, cobbling together something useable and useful with what I find. I have built professional production studios from reclaimed technology. I have helped invent wonders and toys. But I’ve always more or less been on my own. I have a good friend who likes to do this sort of thing with me, but it’s always been just me and him. Now, though, I found the tip of a community iceberg. And I loved it.
True, I wasn’t there 20 full minutes before someone started waxing nostalgic about their first Dungeons & Dragons character. And there were jokes a-plenty about bygone technologies, BBC television shows, and comic books. It made the whole thing feel wonderfully comfortable and innocent. It put me at ease. Suddenly, I couldn’t care less about the ghetto-like exterior of the place. Inside I was as safe as houses.
And lest you think this is nothing but a bunch of geek masturbation and gluttonous consumption of technology, think again. These guys go beyond the stereotypes and actually contribute something to the world. One of their big, recent initiatives was a fundraiser for a Kenyan hospital.
I was more than just an observer that evening, of course. At various points, I actually lent a hand in a couple of projects. My initial fear that I would arrive to find that everyone knew far more than me about everything was quickly dissipated. I found that, yes, there were guys who were sharper when it came to programming and chemistry and other wonderful sciency stuff. But, somehow, I could hold my own. And when it came to thinking creatively and innovating something new from a bunch of old parts, I discovered that I was more than prepared. I’ve been doing this for some time, after all. I’m used to thinking in terms of “how can I build this when I all I have is that and that?” So it wasn’t long before I was rolling up my sleeves and helping to build server racks or assemble bits of various projects.
I was home.
This all works into my big master plan for 2011. See, I’m not big on “New Year’s Resolutions.” I think that resolving to do something is fine, but having an objective is better. I can resolve to lose weight, for example, but it’s better to have the objective of “develop a fit and healthy lifestyle.” The goal is there, but the path to reach it remains flexible and measureable.
So this year, my objective is to be a Maker. In fact, I’m dubbing 2011 “The Year of the Maker.” This year is all about building and creating and innovating. This year is about producing something new, something that makes the world a better place.
TX/RX Labs, unwittingly, will play a role in that. But it doesn’t end there. I have this plan to start my own group, with the purpose of creating for the sheer joy and thrill of creating. And I’ll document all of this here. Lucky you!
If you are interested in joining a makerspace (hackerspace), try typing “hackerspace” and the name of your city into Google. You’ll find something right away, I promise.
If you are interested in joining TX/RX Labs, I have it on good authority that they are more than happy to have new members. Visit them online at www.txrxlabs.org, and check them out on their Open House nights, Fridays after 7 p.m. Come ready to work. It’s more fun that way.