High Wire Act
Like a grown up Geek Scout, tonight I earned my badge in soldering. Thanks to a little help from some new friends, I am now the proud owner of two tiny LED devices which I assembled and soldered together myself with a minimum of burnt fingertips and muttered curses.
I came to Noisebridge hackerspace on Mission for the Monday night Circuit Hacking class, a drop-in free weekly workshop that promised to teach me all about making simple electronics.
Noisebridge is like an art collective for geeks, with an emphasis on the crossover between tech and art, but open to all flavors of geeky enterprise. It was founded by Mitch Altman and Jacob Appelbaum and inspired by the German hackerspace movement that has been going strong for 25 years. At a hacker camp-out in Berlin two years ago, they committed to come back and create their own hackerspace. Along with like minded folks in NYC, DC, and Philly, they started Noisebridge first as a community who met at cafes weekly, and then into a small space, and finally into the 5200 square foot area now open on on Mission Street dedicated to making stuff, and making stuff go.
Noisebridge has no paid staff, and only one rule, "Be excellent to one another."
I first heard about Noisebridge at the Maker's Faire, where they had hosted similar workshops which were so packed I couldn't get close enough to see what the fuss was about.
I arrived tonight just after dark and found the building on Mission at 18th. Not sure what to expect, and armed with nothing more than a notebook, I pressed the buzzer and walked up the yellow linoleum covered stairs to the top floor. In a huge open plan space perhaps a half dozen guys milled around, chatted, or tinkered at work tables set up around the room. I was early for the class, and just stood around awkwardly for a while, looking at stuff while soldering stations were plugged in at one large desk I assumed would be where the class would take place.
After a few minutes Owen, a tech writer who's been coming to Noisebridge for a few months now, came over and offered to give me the nickel tour. Noisebridge only moved into this new larger home in October of last year, so it is still a work in progress, with cables and cords hanging everywhere. The space takes up the entire top floor of the building, with only a few separate rooms built to accommodate classes or heavy equipment like drill presses.
Near the semi-complete kitchen, a classroom in the back was hosting a Python (programming language) class, and up front industrial shelves were stacked with computer manuals and travel books, with boxes of unshelved books waiting for space. I also spotted a couple of industrial sewing machines, a 3-D printer, lots of bins for wires and small parts, and some intriguingly mysterious machines covered in knobs.
By then, a herd had gathered by the solder table, which I took for a sign that we were getting started.
The class was led by inventor and Noisebridge co-founder Mitch Altman, a friendly guy with bright, multi-colored stripes dyed into his otherwise gray hair. To start the workshop, he introduced various pocket sized LED kits we might choose to build, including his signature TV-B-Gone, a concealed remote-controlled TV off switch he designed in 2004, which uses infrared LEDs to signal a television to shut off. He produced assorted persistence of vision (POV) toys and hand-held games that emulated Pac-Man, Tetris, or Space Invaders, and Arduino-controlled light displays from little bubble wrap or static-free bags.
The largest kit was for the Brain Machine, a pair of glasses which look (I suspect intentionally) like something advertised on the back of a comic book of yesteryear. Flashing LED lights and a soundtrack of an ambient buzz work together to form a kind of sensory deprivation that, according to Mitch, encourages meditation and colorful hallucinations. They were passed around, and when I tried them on I was almost immediately overwhelmed by the sensation.
Following Mitch's enthusiastic "four minute introduction to electronics" ("Everything is named for dead physicists"), he showed us his precise soldering technique and gave us a quick warning about the lead-based solder we would be handling. By this time I had 12 fellow classmates. Some appeared to have been before but most had the feel of newbies. With a closing declaration on the power of soldering ("if you can learn to do this, you can do anything"), we chose our projects and settled in at soldering stations to take stock.
I chose a spot at the table next to guy who I (erroneously) suspected had been there before, and who had conveniently selected the same device to make. I opened the contents of my little bag, the whole thing the size of my palm, and emptied 14 tiny parts and a small, empty circuit board onto the table.
The kit came with no printed instructions, but the circuit board was printed with clues. The whole thing was like assembling a very small fiddly puzzle with only the vaguest idea of what the finished form would be. The process of placing the tiny wire leads in place, soldering, and clipping the leads proved to be quite satisfying. If put together correctly, my kit would produce a motion-sensitive LED light that would change colors when I waved my hand over it. My neighbor and I compared notes and collaborated on which bit went where, and we made it through most of it without any direct instruction.
Although my circuit board, marred as it was with tiny burns and sharp ends of inexpertly clipped wire, was not a thing of beauty, it was hard not to be excited when I flipped the little switch and my light successfully came on.
My first kit took me an hour to complete, with a few false steps. The second I was able to complete in under 15 minutes.
By this time it was about 9pm, and there were probably about 40 people there. In the middle of the room a group had gathered around one of the tables. Noisebridge is a non-profit, supported by dues from about 100 members, but it is open 24/7 to anyone who wants to come in and learn, socialize, or tinker. When Mitch and Jacob first decided to create this place, there were only about 40 places like it in the world. In just two short years there are now more than 400.
The success of places like this is part of the DIY-everything movement that we've been seeing lately, particularly in the Bay Area, but after talking with Mitch about it after the class, I think there's more to it. To paraphrase: These new communities are just the most recent expressions of very old needs and desires. As long as people have been around, they have formed communities and relied on their support. At the same time, the making and using of tools is an essential part of being human, so there is a deeply rooted desire for both these things: community support and tool building. "It's so pent up . . . they don't even know it's a need until they come across a hackerspace."
I think he's right, and it's kind of a thrill to see a place like this thrive.
As the class wound down, Mitch stopped by to see what I'd made and make sure they worked. After a quick demonstration of blinky success, he handed me an iron-on "I learned to solder" patch depicting a spool of silver solder and an iron.
Packing up my projects to go, I caught myself thinking about ways to change them and make them bigger and better, which I think is exactly the point.
Noisebridge is open to the public every day, and you are welcome to stop by anytime. For a good introduction I would recommend the Monday night Circuit Hacking class, weekly at 7 p.m. The class is free and open to all skill levels, and the cost of kits or parts to mess with is between $10-30. They also have several other events and classes listed on their website, including Five Minutes of Fame, a series of fascinating lightning talks that always draw a crowd.