The word “hacker” often connotes a lone, bespectacled computer villain sitting in a dark room, breaking code to alter the White House’s homepage or gain access to people’s personal account information on Amazon. For the people who actually do it, however, hacking is more about taking something that was made for one purpose and integrating it into your own creation to do something else. “It doesn’t matter if it is computers or electronics or software, or social aspects or science or physics or anything. [Hackers] will take something and go, ‘Well this was made to be something in the garden, and I’m going to turn it into a fusion reactor,’” says Deven Fore, founder of Provo’s hackerspace called The Transistor. The Transistor, along with the eponymous group and hackerspace, known as Make: SLC, is part of the Make movement—a community of people around the globe who see something cool and think, “Hey, I could make that!” The vanguard of this movement is Make Magazine, a national, printed and online publication started in 2006 that showcases various reader-submitted DIY projects—“Making Bar Soap,” “Simple Night-Vision Goggles” and “30lb Fighting Robot” are some of the current how-to guides on makezine.com. We know how industrious and organized the sons and daughters of Deseret can be, so it was only a matter of time before the Make movement spread to Utah.
In 2009, Make: SLC founder Michael Beck moved from the Bay Area to Salt Lake City. He had seen the hackerspaces on the West Coast, including Make: SF, and thought that Salt Lake could use a Make group of its own. He rounded up some like-minded people and put together HackSLC, a hackerspace (or hacking venue) in Salt Lake that housed Make: SLC. The group worked out of that location for three months, but due to expensive rent and lack of membership contributions, they moved the operation to Provo to start The Transistor. About nine months later, “Richard Thompson came along and said, ‘Hey, let’s start Make: SLC again in my warehouse,’” says Tim Anderson, a founding member of both Make: SLC and The Transistor. In addition to The Transistor, Anderson set up shop at the new Make: SLC space in downtown Salt Lake City, which was reformed by way of The Transistor hackerspace.
Since August of 2010, Thompson and Anderson have shared the Make: SLC headquarters—housed in a State Street warehouse right next to The Bayou—with Dan Mitchell, James Howard, Devin Hales and a handful of others, with Fore and Beck moving between the two spaces as well. Half of the building is filled with power tools, soldering irons, circuitry parts, laptops connected to automated 3D printers, and electronic equipment in various states of assembly. The other half of the building is dedicated to Thompson’s computer graphics museum-in-progress—stacks and rows of computer equipment from Commodore 64s to refrigerator-sized rendering servers used for flight simulators. When I visited Make: SLC, on their public night, I found a dozen guys milling around, programming software, burning things, debugging robots and shooting the shit about their individual projects. It was like high school shop class for adults—but without a teacher to stop the really good experiments. “We’re a loose affiliation of peers, rather than [having] somebody that’s in charge,” says Thompson. Gathering and sharing knowledge, tools and equipment under one roof is the primary purpose of the hackerspace. Because people from every background and skill level are welcome at Make: SLC, chances are somebody there can help you with your project, whatever it may be. “I have an electrical engineering degree, but I have a career in software, so I needed to be around people who have done electronics in a practical way to be able to learn from them,” says Thompson.
Howard, Anderson and Hales are some of those people who have practical experience with electronics—together, they have designed and built RA (pronounced “rah”), a circuit board used to control 3D printers, and are using Kickstarter to fund it, which runs through Aug. 12. A 3D printer uses a computer-controlled plotter within a cube-shaped frame to build objects from the table up, by melting and layering thin strands of PLA plastic. They can be used to make sculptures, mechanical parts of all kinds, and even pieces to build other 3D printers. Commercial versions of these machines can cost upwards of $100,000, but because of open-source software, free online blueprints and innovative products like the RA board, the average hacker can build one for a few hundred bucks. Mitchell, an artist who teaches ceramics at Rowland Hall and advises the school’s Make club, has integrated 3D printing into his curriculum. He had his students build one from the ground up and use it to make detailed sculptures. This project, he says, wouldn’t have been possible without help from his fellow Make: SLC members. Though most of the projects taking place within Make: SLC involve computers and circuits, the members welcome all types of makers, from mechanical to crafty. “It’s mostly electronics because that’s mostly what people [here] are interested in,” says Hales. Howard chimes in, saying, “But if someone wanted to come here to sew, we’d be fine with that.”