Scene But Not Nerd

Geeks in Philadelphia make their mark.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Jan. 7, 2009

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If you know your Philly geek history, the city's reemergence as a major geek hub isn't that surprising. Benjamin Franklin, the city's favorite son and top tourist-dollar whore, was the prototype tech-geek.

The first science fiction convention was held in Philly in 1936, when a half-dozen fans from New York took the train into town to hang out with a half-dozen Philly dorks. This would later grow into Philcon, one of the world's largest science fiction gatherings.

In 1941 a bunch of Philly geeks relaunched Junto, Benjamin Franklin's legendary mutual self-improvement society comprised of "ingenious acquaintances." Time magazine reported that 2,000 Philadelphians turned up at the Academy of Music, while "stripteasers" performed in an almost empty burlesque theater next door. (In 2007 Junto was relaunched. It attracts 50 to 60 people on a monthly basis.)

The area still attracts way more than its share of culture geek conventions, including Wizard World and Nerdcon.

If you take any Regional Rail train north out of Center City, you'll pass through the rusted wreckage of Philadelphia's once flourishing light manufacturing workshops, many built by, run by and employing old-school analog geekery.

Now, just in time for the total collapse of the notion that America can survive on thin air, magic moonbeams, the plundered labor of developing-world wage slaves and the deranged fantasies of right-wing economists, the geek is back: a screwdriver in one hand, a circuit board in the other and a head full of what-ifs, wiring diagrams and computer code.

The question being: Does the geek get to save the city? Or maybe even the world?


In an externally dilapidated West Philly row house, 31-year-old AIDS/HIV activist Val Sowell sits on the couch and plays Fall Out on Xbox. Sowell, who calls herself "microbe geek," and says, "I don't ever not volunteer for anything," says this isn't the only media attention she's had recently; she was also interviewed for a documentary about bearded ladies.

This rowhome used to be a halfway house for pregnant teenagers who were notorious locally for ordering pizza and then answering the door naked. Now it's called the House of the Future.

"It's called that because we used to live in another house when we were the Philadelphia Radical Surrealist Front," says 29-year-old Hannah Sassaman, explaining the distinctly lo-tech surroundings. "And we were always talking about what we were going to do in the 'house of the future.'"

In HOtF, bikes hang from the living room ceiling. String puppets hang from the mantelpiece. In the kitchen a communally bought and cooked late breakfast of tofu, veggies and deliciously fatty lamb sizzles on the cooker. On the counter there's an under-repair $2,000 espresso machine that HotF resident and Ph.D. student Dave Arney bought at a yard sale for $25.

In the incredibly cold basement, amid a scrabble of junk, there's an impressive assortment of mid-tech drills, lathes and other hardcore, polished steel, DIY geek tools. Arney talks about a loose-knit West Philly geek community that includes both a nearby house called the No-Squat and the self-described geeks who run the mock swordfights for kids in Clark Park.

Arney and his housemates expound and practice a hands-on, what-if, locally active and globally conscious artisanal have-a-go geekdom. Arney talks about a fellow West Philly geek who was straddling his illegal whiskey home distillery ("They called it Glen Philly") when the kettle exploded, blowing a hole in the dude's basement ceiling, spitting hot shrapnel through the wall into the street and sending the would-be booze-geek to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns.

Arney has the lean build and studious, bespectacled, physically hesitant demeanor of the stereotypical geek obsessive. He's anything but. Among his many hobbies he's also a skilled lock picker, watchmaker and mountain climber.

Arney is one of the links between the West Philly radical geeks (they bridle with horror when I use the world "liberal") and the less overtly ideological Philly geek mainstream.

Arney, Sassaman and Sowell talk enthusiastically about how new geek-driven technologies might enable the world's poor to operate outside the neo-feudalism favored by the global corporations. Arney says the partly Philly-based "fabber" technology might make this possible.

A fabber (a 3-D printer or a rapid prototyping machine) employs liquids like plastic or chocolate to create unique items using design software downloaded from the Internet. Say you need a new part for a refrigerator, a custom cake decoration or the latest Obama bobblehead doll. Point, click, download, wait a few hours and voil�.

Independents day: Alex Hillman, co-founder of working space/clubhouse IndyHall, believes Philadelphia's geeks are having their moment. (photo by jeff fusco)

There are probably less than 250 fabbers on the entire planet and at least three of them are in Philadelphia. Two are in the Rittenhouse home of 38-year-old Evan Malone, who helped develop the technology at Cornell University and is the founder of the fab@home project, dedicated to turning the amazing machines into household objects.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Eric said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:21PM

“Ah! You reached out and talked to so many great people in the scene. Great article Steven. And Alex looks soooooo dreamy.”

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2. Lauren Galanter said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:36PM

“Thank you, Steven, for writing this article! As a fellow Philly geek I'm glad to see the scene in general get such in-depth coverage and see so many familiar names get cred. Just thought I'd let you know, there's a typo in "...they’re likely to strike sparks with other Philly braniacs." Though I'm sure there are fiber geeks out there too. : )”

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3. K said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:59PM

“Great article, and, um, nice to see so many familiar names! ”

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4. DotEd said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 08:07PM

“I was having a bad day until i read this. seriously. wait, there's proof: http://twitter.com/doted ”

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5. sol said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 08:49PM

"Geeks in other supposedly more glamorous cities fantasize about living here...Philly’s scene is unique and, apparently, the envy of the geekosphere."
I agree with @DotEd, this makes my week. Philly is the geekdom, and this is an article that brings light to how much of a tech sector and talent core the city has. Philly is the real deal, not just a few corporate walls.”

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6. alexknowshtml said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 09:29PM

“Steven, Our interview together was a blast, and I really appreciate the angle you took on this piece. You touched so many of the wonderful corners of the Philly geek community, and made each one shine. The "pissed aliens ripping a Victorian city apart" are starfish (from the Starfish and the Spider metaphor) taking over the city of Philadelphia. I think that metaphor is a strong underpinning of how you described Philly in the article, a strong and growing network of networks. One leg cannot take out any of the others. It's one of the defining factors of what makes Philly special. ”

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7. mikemaney said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 10:02PM

“One of the best stories I've read in a year (and I'm counting '08). Great reporting and, man, just really well-written. I couldn't send the link around to enough people fast enough.”

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8. Soimya Dada said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 06:52AM

“Where's the typo??? Don't geeks eat a lot of bran? Fiber clears out the system - "bran for brains" I always say.”

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9. Tim Canny said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:38AM

“Great article! Living on the outskirts of Philly I wasn't familiar with a number of the people and groups mentioned. Just one correction. The Crayonator is 10 years old! I know because he's my son. We entered the Art Buggy Derby as a team. He used much of the money to buy an iPod and lots of LEGO. We can't wait for next years competition. As a dad one thing I'd like to see or hear more about is how geekiness is being nutured in the next generation in Philly. My son and I are doing what we can with our web show, WREXLabs (http://www.wrexlabs.com). And the people at Make Philly and the Hacktory have always been very welcoming to us.”

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10. yegg said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:47AM

“If you are interested in startups (especially Internet startups), check out: http://startups.philadelphia.groupomatic.com/ http://www.phillystartupleaders.org/ http://www.founderfactory.com/”

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11. iconjohn said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:58AM

“Things sure have changed since the Punk Philly scene days of Hot Club, East Side Club and Kennel Club. All we wanted to do was get high, drunk and see the hippest band before they sold out. ”

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12. CMD said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 09:18AM

“Good stuff. Thanks for bring the Geek, or do I mean Nerd? Anyway, fun article and great video. ;)”

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13. Timothy Mayer said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 10:05AM

“Nice article. Our own little start-up supplies the epoxy used by the Fab@Home machine. More here: http://www.kraftcreation.biz/2008/02/fabhome-does-philly.html”

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14. crosswiredmind said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 11:40AM

“Truly awesome article. The stars are right indeed. Bar Camp Philly, Geeks who Give, UX Book Club - those are just a few more bits of geekery that created real bright spots in 09 and hopefully will grow even brighter in 09.”

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15. PovertyJetSet said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 02:21PM

“Philly geeks, FTW! Fave quote: "a serene Yoda to Hillman’s impulsive Luke Skywalker" - Go Geoff! LOL”

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16. Tara said... on Jan 8, 2009 at 01:46PM

“Excellent article. I like how this also covers a lot of the crossover you find in Philly...community centric, music nerds, etc. What can I say? I'm a LARPer, and I love it here.”

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