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From circuit boards to flamethrowers: Your guide to Ohio's coolest hackerspaces

Makers' Alliance
Makers' Alliance - Bob Perkoski
The hackerspace. Call it an indoor playground for the brainiacs among us, but hackers aren't your everyday brainiacs. They can't keep their hands off—well—anything, from inscrutable circuit boards to buzzing metalworking machines to giant steam kettles.

In a nutshell, hackerspaces are classic garage shops thrown headlong into the 21st century and Ohio is home to a growing number of them. Inside these funky enclaves, it's all about taking the lid off, letting the public in and lighting fires—literally.

Hang out in the Makers' Alliance hackerspace, which is housed in the Shaker LaunchHouse, and you might run into member Nathan Clark, whose claim to fame debuted at the 2012 Burning Man Festival. With Nevada's Black Rock Desert as a backdrop, Clark installed and displayed the PyroPodium, upon which players hop and dance in order to blast flames from 15 vertical propane torches. (Yes, really.)

While Clark tangles with local fire departments over how and where to get his interactive fire-art up and running in Ohio, his PyroPodium project is an example of the sorts of über out-of-the-box thinking that fuels the minds of hackers across the Buckeye State.

"They definitely are a different breed," says LaunchHouse co-founder and Director of Entrepreneurship Dar Caldwell of the Makers' Alliance members. LaunchHouse is an eclectic business incubator that's housed in a repurposed Oldsmobile dealership. The organization has opened the massive 13,000 square foot back-of-house—what used to be the service area—to Makers' Alliance and other organizations. The result is a perfect marriage, albeit a polygamous one. Other tenants include the Tesla Orchestra, fashion design incubator The Factory 2.0 and Tunnel Vision Hoops, which sells backyard and urban green houses.

Caldwell calls the conglomeration a "big primordial ooze of entrepreneurs, innovators and creators." The mix breeds cross-pollination.

"Not only have I gained a lot of knowledge through this organization," says Clark of the Makers Alliance, "here in the LaunchHouse we're only two degrees of separation from anybody in town. It's a great networking place. It's fantastic for that."

"Entrepreneurs will come in and ask the hackerspace if something is feasible," says Makers' Alliance cofounder and member Dave Walton. In addition to being the organization's master beer brewer (see previous reference to giant steam kettles), Walton converts used frying oil to run his car, takes in and rehabilitates feral Siamese cats and lends stability to the four-year old organization, which after moving from one location to another, was essentially homeless until the opportunity with LaunchHouse arose last year.

"We hooked up with Dar and LaunchHouse," says Walton, "and things have really blossomed since then. It's a nice symbiotic relationship." Makers' Alliance has a few dozen paying members (fees are $30 monthly), but the group is lax about membership. "We don't want money to keep someone from showing up here on a regular basis," he says. "We have virtually no overhead. We can afford to be generous."

Walton, who is also a professional web programmer, describes the ideology behind Makers' Alliance. "I'm of the philosophy that a hackerspace should be defined by the people who belong to it," he says. Walton believes there are some things everyone should know how to do such as starting a fire without a match, tying a knot that won't slip, and knowing your way around a machine shop. "If you don't know how to do these things," says Walton, "you're held back from innovation, from inventing, from being creative and from actually building something on your own."

He's not alone. As with so many things cutting edge, there's often a retro aspect thrumming along in the background. Hackers, whether they're tearing apart a microwave or brewing a batch of pilsner are about getting back to old-school hands-on making, creating, and building.

"We are a do-acracy," proclaims Trever Fischer of Akron's newest hackerspace, SYN/HAK.

Although the group formed in 2010 and incorporated a year ago, SYN/HAK moved into its downtown Akron space last December. Before that it was housed in Fischer's garage. SYN/HAK does not have traditional leadership. Fischer, along with Chris Egeland, goes by the title "Champion," which he describes as a general manager of the space who can "do the business stuff," such as deal with the landlord and those pesky media types.

Although SYN/HAK is just getting its sea legs in the new space, they've hosted classes on welding and juggling (yes, the court jester type) and have another scheduled on 3D printing. While there are a baker's dozen paying members (give or take), everything at SYN/HAK is free and open to the public.

"As long as there's a member here to unlock the door, they can come in and use the mill or do metal working or whatever," says Fischer, adding that drop-ins must demonstrate that they are trained to use the equipment. SYN/HAK members, however, are happy to teach and train on an as-needed basis for those who need to get up to speed.

Visitors will find an eclectic collection of equipment at SYN/HAK including carpentry tools, knitting and sewing wares, a drill press, soldering equipment and a pinball machine.

"We are an infrastructure provider for creative people," says Fischer. "That's really about as specific as you can get. We provide space, resources and tools for people to use. As Champion, it's not my job to say what projects we can and can't have." SYN/HAK does have one rule that is posted throughout the hackerspace: Be excellent to others.

"That's the very first rule," says Fischer. "If you're not excellent to somebody, then there's a problem." The solution for which is usually removal from the space.

Both SYN/HAK and Makers' Alliance intend to be part of the first Cleveland Mini Maker Faire, on April 13 at the Cleveland Public Library's downtown branch from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ingenuity Cleveland and CPL are sponsoring the free event.

"It's very exciting to have the first one in Cleveland," says LaunchHouse partner and Chief Business Development Officer Shannon Lyons of the event. "We love Ingenuity and we do quite a few events with them throughout the year. This is just another example of pulling our critical masses together."

Although the deadline for Faire submissions has passed, Lyons and LaunchHouse's Dar Caldwell see it as a new and unique opportunity for non-hackers.

"This will be the first time the sheets are pulled back on the whole hacker community on a city-wide scale," says Caldwell, "and have the general public exposed to these people and what they create."

As Cleveland and Akron makers enjoy their public debut, they join a growing Ohio network that includes more established shops such as the 25,000-square foot Columbus Idea Foundry. Now in its fourth year, the Foundry boasts 100 members that dabble in everything from jewelry making to blacksmithing. The Columbus area is also home to the Buildmore Workshop, which describes itself as being like "a health club for woodworkers, inventors, engineers, artists, crafters, builders and tinkerers." The space features an extensive array of wood and metal working tools and machines as well as a robotics lab.

Cincinnati's Hive 13 offers up events such as Junk Salvage Day and classes on the Raspberry Pi, which might look like a typo to the non-hacker. For insiders such as Dave Walton of the Makers' Alliance, however, this pi is more than easy to swallow.

"I'm working on a mushroom grow house controlled by a Raspberry Pi," he says. Before your lips purse in disbelief, a Raspberry Pi is a cutting edge computer that costs about $40 and is the size of a credit card.

Now you're speaking hacker.

Many hackers try to get spaces up and running, but not all succeed. Case in point, Toledo's Glass Act Labs tried hard for a year but unfortunately did not survive. That said, Ohio is home to two other budding hackerspaces that have promise. KOIPound is located in Cincinnati and caters to performing artists as well as the building type. At Dayton Diode, members eviscerate items such as old boom boxes, printers and dishwashers for salvageable parts.

The one thing a hackerspace must have to survive is a whole lot of heart, which is obvious enough. The other thing that doesn't hurt is a good measure of (ahem) raw material.

"It's fine if you want to just drop off some junk at the space," says SYN/HAK Champion Trever Fischer. "We're fine with that. The people at the space will do something about it. They'll either clean it up or throw it out or maybe someone will come along with a great idea and say, 'Hey! I want to take that monitor and turn it into a fish tank!"

Photos Bob Perkoski, except where noted
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