As a kid growing up on a farm in upstate New York, Far McKon learned the value of tearing things apart in order to make them work, sometimes in novel ways. “I didn’t usually get the newest thing,” he says. “Like, I’d get a busted Nintendo a few years after it came out and I would have to figure out how to fix it with whatever means I had. If I couldn’t, it was still a piece of junk. And if I could, then I had a new toy to play with.”
Now a 31-year-old Philadelphia-based software engineer, McKon brings the same mindset to Hive76—the hackerspace collective he founded in 2009 to provide a physical location for tech-geeks, budding inventors and entrepreneurs, scientists and artists to gather and make their creative visions come to life.
Hive76 is part of an enormous wave of hackerspaces that have sprouted up across the country over the past few years, harkening back to the storied network of unassuming DIY spaces in basements and garages in California’s Silicon Valley that flourished in the early ’70s. (Such as the Homebrew Computer Club, of which Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were charter members.) And despite the shadowy, malevolent-sounding nomenclature, McKon says hackerspaces like Hive76 are anything but.
“The original ‘hacker’ term came out of engineering culture, and it was basically finding a weird way to use something, finding a quick solution that nobody had thought of before, doing a cool workaround to solve a problem that everyone thought was impossible,” he says. “And then somewhere along the line it became a term for computer criminals. So we’re trying to push it back to the old-school meaning.”
A recent visit to the weekly Wednesday night open house at Hive76 headquarters—on the fifth floor of the 915 Studio Building on Spring Garden Street—reveals an appealingly cluttered loft space that’s a cross between a laboratory, a workshop, the back room of a computer store, a hoarder’s paradise and a punk-rock house. A restored Spy Hunter arcade game stands just inside the door. Skittery electronic music emanates from one corner. Boxes, containers and electronic parts, bits and pieces are stacked nearly to the ceiling. Tables and shelves are packed with the familiar (drill presses, jigsaws, oscilloscopes, laser engravers, hammers, spools of wire, soldering guns) and the peculiar, such as MakerBot 3-D printers—automated devices capable of making plastic objects designed on a computer—and curious chunks of metal, wires and circuit boards in various stages of completion.
Besides McKon, about a dozen of Hive76’s members—each of whom pay monthly dues to keep the space afloat and stocked with equipment—mill around working on projects and greeting visitors, some of whom they hope to entice to become members. At the end of one table sits Jack Zylkin, who last year came up with a way to modify old manual typewriters to turn them into especially cool computer keyboards. Macworld raved, and he’s since turned his handmade, trademarked USB Typewriter into a full-time business. Meanwhile, 28-year-old Hive76 events coordinator Sean McBeth, who’s developing a multiplayer Tetris-style computer game, shows off some other gadgets made by Hive76’ers, including homemade guitar pedals, mini-robots and “boomcases”—old leather suitcases and attaché cases rigged with speakers that you can plug your iPod into. McKon laughs about member Chris Thompson’s Meatcards—edible business cards made by etching information on beef jerky with a laser.
Group members have more serious aims, too. “It’s been this whole movement of DIY hackers that has been pushing for really cheap, high-quality, scientific-level stuff,” McBeth says. “One of my long-term projects is to find cheap ways to build parabolic reflectors to be able to make into water desalinations [salt removal] systems. I’ve got an idea of how that can be done for a few dollars, where right now it costs thousands of dollars.”
McKon says that community outreach and education is also one of Hive76’s primary goals. They’ve used the space for basic tech classes like “Making Things Blink and Buzz,” and taught Kensington kids how to build blinking odometers for their bikes. They even built a human-sized game of Operation, complete with 3-foot tweezers, for the Franklin Institute (it’ll also be available to play at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ “Grossed Out” exhibit on March 31).
“As an organization, we’re good at providing tools, equipment and resources to people who already know what they want to do,” McKon says. “But the people that come in with that deer-in-the-headlights look, we’re trying to do more to teach them a few little things to get them rolling and learning at their own pace.”
It’s all a matter of taking technology into your own hands and not waiting for someone else to give you (or sell you) something, McKon adds. “I’d like to see people think, ‘Hey, this isn’t a mystery—it’s just some stuff, I’m not a genius but I’m halfway smart, and if I spend an hour reading about it, I can do it.’ You don’t need a university education. You just have to have a cool idea and really want to make it happen.”
Open house Wednesdays
8pm. Hive76, 915 Spring Garden St., #519. hive76.org
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4