Meet Your Makers
Vermont hackers, artists and inventors are sharing ideas — and solving problems
Photos: Matthew Thorsen
Remember when geeks were uncool? John Cohn does. The 52-year-old IBM fellow recalls the disapproving look people shot him when, growing up, he told them he wanted to be an engineer. “I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to get other people interested in geekiness,” he says.
Looks like it worked — the Age of the Geek has arrived.
With the advent of the internet, open-source software, and increasingly affordable and accessible high-tech tools, making stuff isn’t just possible; it’s hip. Evidence of both qualities is in the pages of Make magazine, where readers find slouch-detecting belts and Star Wars deck chairs. You’ll even find instructions for do-it-yourself space exploration using homemade satellites. Yes, really.
Vermont’s “makers” — a term that originated in the early 2000s, meaning any amateur or professional inventor of physical objects — are farmers, programmers, artists, educators and kids. Whether they’re dreaming up Roomba-style contraptions to scare the deer from their fields or creating sound installations for a gallery, makers have a few things in common: curiosity; a renegade, DIY spirit; and a willingness — even eagerness — to share.
“The whole idea is that you give freely of your ideas,” says Cohn.
“There’s always been a core group of makers in Vermont, but they may not have called themselves makers,” says Eric Hall, an active member in the newly formed Vermont Makers community. “I worked with a man who smelted his own metal to make a cannon from scratch.”
Thanks to the formation of Vermont Makers; the unveiling of the University of Vermont’s new fabrication laboratory, or “fab lab”; and the announcement of a Champlain Maker Faire in September, the state’s makers have been emerging, sharing ideas, collaborating on projects and developing physical spaces where they can work together.
“The maker movement is really about taking back control of our consumerism, being more thoughtful about our relationship to the things that we use,” says Ken Howell, the interim director of Champlain College’s MFA in Emergent Media, who has partnered with Vermont Makers to host meet-ups.
For Hall, who writes software for a living, making is all about connecting with his 8-year-old son — they use LED lights to soup up model train sets together. “On a random rainy day, he’ll come say, ‘Let’s go invent something.’ That creativity is the key.”
Seven Days peered into the Burlington area’s wild and woolly maker scene, which seems to be growing exponentially — just like the technology that fuels it.
Farmers, the original makers
Rob Rock is the 32-year-old co-owner of Pitchfork Farms in Burlington’s Intervale. On a recent drizzly afternoon, he’s out on his 16 acres with the prototype of his latest invention: the flame weeder. “It’s like a barbecue tank that you roll around,” he explains with a grin. It looks about as safe. He’s fixed a propane tank atop a rectangular metal frame on four wheels. A tube connects the tank to a row of miniature flame throwers below, positioned just a few inches above the seedbed.
Burning off weeds isn’t a new concept. Farmers have long known that if you heat the water inside a weed’s cells to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, you can rupture the cell wall. But Rock’s device makes the process easier. He doesn’t have to carry a propane tank on his back, and because his machine is the same width as the seedbed, he can burn the whole row at once.
Rock borrows a lighter from a farmhand and lights the corner of a shred of cardboard, which he places on the bed directly in the flame weeder’s path. He turns on the propane and wheels the beast over the burning cardboard. Whoosh! Flames billow onto the bed below. Rock grabs two handles on the front of the machine and, suddenly looking like a dark lord of the underworld, slowly pushes the weeder down the row.
The project has made him a little nervous, “because, you know, you’re playing with fire,” he says. Early in the weeder’s development, Rock would crouch down to ignite it with a barbecue lighter. One time he got too close, and the flames singed off his eyelashes.
Once Rock has perfected the weeder, he plans to upload the blueprints to Farm Hack, a nationwide on- and off-line community of farmers who share projects, some modifying existing technology and others inventing something new.
“The big problem on the modern small farm is that technology doesn’t always exist at the scale we’re operating at,” says Rock. For example, how does a small farmer dry his lettuce? Products abound to help 1000-acre farms wash and spin-dry their greens in bulk, but those machines are simply too big, and expensive, for a farm the size of Pitchfork.
“I’ve seen people spinning leaves dry with those buckets where you turn the handle,” Rock says. “I have a friend who connected human power to a washing machine — it’s since been abandoned for an electric motor.”
Rock’s solution? He took apart a pair of household washing machines and rigged them so all he has to do to drain water from his arugula and spinach is toss the leaves in and hit “spin cycle.”
Rock’s earlier creations can be found all over the farm. His first was a pedal-powered, prone workstation for hand weeding, which currently sits unused beneath a tree near a buckwheat field. “I should rebuild that thing,” muses Rock. Beside it is his first successful creation, a high-density seeder.
Rock draws his designs on Google SketchUp, an easy-to-use 3-D modeling program, and has even taken advantage of 3-D “printing,” which spits out parts to order. For the seeder, he painstakingly machined 16 small plastic parts before he discovered he could have sent the design to ponoko.com to have them printed — for $3 each.
Rock has no background in engineering. He’s learned by taking things apart and putting them back together — and from reading Make magazine. That’s where he learned about the Arduino, a dirt-cheap, customizable, open-source microcontroller — essentially, the brain of a computer — that is changing the nature of DIY projects.
The Arduino, which can receive input from the environment through sensors, has endless applications on the farm. One of them is the automated chicken coop that Rock read about in Make. Farmers have programmed their Arduinos to count their hens as they enter the coop at dusk. “When all four of your chickens have gone into the coop, it’ll send you a text message that says, ‘The girls are home,’ shut the door and turn on the light for an hour while they settle in,” says Rock.
Rock is hoping to use the Arduino to address a universal farm nuisance: deer munching on his crops. The idea is to set up sensors at the corners of his fields so that a deer crossing the sensor triggers a light cannon, which frightens it away. When Rock brought up the idea at a meeting of Burlington hackers who call themselves Laboratory B, he says, “One of the guys looked up from the circuit board he was soldering, and he was like, ‘I’ll help you with that!’ And I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah, man!’”
Turns out computer programmers and farmers have a lot in common. “On the farm, you really thrive on that from-scratch-ness,” says Rock. “Like, goddamnit, this isn’t working! Why can’t I just do it the way I want?”
Most people don’t think of organic farmers when they think of “hackers”; they’re picturing the guys from Laboratory B. Technophiles of the highest order, these men — and they are, so far, all men — are coders, phone techs and IT professionals. They are devotees of DEF CON, the world’s longest-running underground hacking conference, and, after spending a few hours with them, you start to believe that any one of them could be involved in Anonymous, the notorious group of anarchic, havoc-wreaking “hactivists.”
Except that these nerds are really nice.
The group, which was formed in 2010 as an offshoot of the worldwide monthly hacker meetings known as 2600, recently became a nonprofit called Vermont Hackerspaces, Inc. Last January, Lab B took up residence in the former walk-in freezer of Burlington’s Hood Plant. “That’s why there are drains on the floor,” explains the group’s director, Jesse Krembs, a data engineer at FairPoint Communications.
During Lab B’s regular open hours — Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. — hackers drop by to work on and share projects. On one recent evening, five core members take time off from their tinkering to welcome a visitor, a newcomer to the hacker scene.
That scene started in 1980s Germany with the Chaos Computer Club, a group of programmers advocating for government transparency and universal access to technology, explains Krembs. The club visited the U.S. in 2000 to share its model for so-called hacker spaces, and the phenomenon of hackers collaborating in large groups took off. “Then we got more nerds,” says Krembs. “And then being a nerd somehow became cool.”
Next came fab labs, which grew out of a popular class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called “How to Make (Almost) Anything.” The idea was simple: Equip a lab with state-of-the-art digital technology — 3-D printers, laser cutters and more — and open it up to the community. You don’t have to be an expert to play around in a fab lab; all you need is an idea.
Then, in 2005, Dale Dougherty published the first issue of Make magazine, popularizing the concept of amateur inventing by featuring cool DIY projects along with designs and instructions. The magazine also helped to rebrand hackers, a term that connotes mischief, as the friendlier-sounding “makers.” These days, you’ll find maker spaces as well as hacker spaces. The difference? Not much, says Krembs. “It’s basically the same stuff, but all cleaned up and happy. The principle’s the same: Find technology and break it — or make it.”
At Lab B, there’s a bit of both. And the group accepts new members, whether they consider themselves hackers or makers. The only requirement is that members be “adult-type people,” says Krembs. “It doesn’t mean you are an adult. It means you’re not a jerk.”
Plenty of what hackers do at Lab B, says member Sam Stelfox, “is just to prove that we can do it.”
Frank Thornton, a former Shelburne police detective who now owns the digital forensics and penetration-testing firm Blackthorn Information Security, agrees. “There’s nothing like getting a bunch of alpha geeks together and saying, ‘What if we press this button?’” he says.
But there are practical applications for their projects, too. Krembs has plans to use an Arduino microcontroller to track the temperature of his compost pile, as well as of his homebrew. Doug Smith, who recently finished tweaking the lab’s landline so that messages left on its answering machine are forwarded directly to each of the core members’ cellphones, has been constructing a 3-D television made of LEDs. Eventually, the volumetric display will be a multiplayer game of Snakes.
Many of these projects are possible because of the Arduino. “You don’t need to know everything about electrical engineering and programming and computer engineering just to make this one little device work,” says treasurer Chad Loseby. “It’s basically big, physical and virtual LEGOs.” All it takes is basic programming knowledge and the willingness to noodle around online for directions and inspiration.
That’s the big secret to learning new technology. “Most problems have been solved by somebody else,” says Krembs. “And maybe they’ve talked about it online, and usually you just need a hint about how to get there.”
Any time you start talking about the open-source movement, you start talking big ideas. Over the next hour and a half, the conversation at Lab B darts around excitedly, from P.T. Barnum and the collective intelligence of crowds to AIDS research, prosthetic limbs and 3-D printers. And, of course, to paradigm shifts.
It won’t be long before everyone has access to 3-D printers and downloadable designs for objects, Thornton says. Imagine the knob breaks on your washing machine, he suggests. Instead of buying a new one from the company that sold you the thing, you can download a non-digital-rights design (one that is not proprietary) and make your own replacement part. “Right now, [the issue of digital rights] is about books and music and movies,” says Thornton. “What happens when it becomes about knobs?”
When UVM’S Vermont FabLab held its grand opening in May, organizers were expecting to show off the new digs and state-of-the-art tools to a small group of enthusiastic tech geeks. But the lab in Votey Hall was overrun that afternoon with makers and wannabe makers from far beyond the college community.
It’s no wonder. The place is equipped with some badass tools, including an electronics station, circuit-board fabrication, a 3-D scanner and a 3-D printer the size of a vending machine. At the opening event, onlookers watched through the printer’s glass front as it constructed an oversize chess piece using a coil of plastic cord.
On the other side of the crowded room, a laser cutter was “engraving” the words “Vermont FabLab” onto laser-cut ovals of lavash bread. (It can cut much tougher stuff, including Plexiglas, plywood, thin aluminum, cloth and leather.) John Cohn, who helped get the fab lab off the ground, scurried around with LED lights strung around his head, passing out lasered lavash as hors d’oeuvres.
Currently the UVM fab lab is open only to students, but the school plans to make it available to the public through a continuing-education program. An affiliated fab lab is slated to open at Essex High School in the fall. Both are modeled on MIT’s program.
When it comes to maker spaces, Cohn believes the more the merrier. “I think it would be great if you could make one perfect facility for everyone,” he says. “But my practical view is that these things live and breathe on the personal passion of whoever’s running them.”
And it’s not all about the fancy equipment. “I think the skills and interest are more important than the tools,” Cohn notes.
But some in the Vermont maker community feel strongly about building a centralized hub. Matt Penney, who runs the artisan collective Pine Street Studios, is one of them. He’s on the steering committee, with Rob Rock, steel artist Kat Clear and several other area makers, of a proposed community workshop in the Queen City’s South End. They’re calling it Fab Lab Burlington.
A community maker hub, says Penney, “can put Burlington on the map. I think it could be helpful and beneficial to the city.”
Rock agrees. “If you had a common space where everyone could work together, you’d have the guy working on the Iron Man costume for Halloween, but also someone working on a new seeder.”
Penney, whose Pine Street Studios focus on traditional industrial arts such as metalwork and iron pouring, is in this for two reasons: to stimulate community engagement with the arts and to revive the South End’s industrial buildings. “Ever since I was a kid, I was always interested in bringing things back to life,” he says.
Ideally, Penney says, the fab lab would occupy a currently empty wooden structure connected to the Pine Street Studios building. “Right now it has a leaky membrane floor and is developing a great culture for something inside, which is mold,” he quips.
Most fab labs have what makers call a “clean” room for computer programming and a “dirty” room for 3-D printing, computer-numeric-control (CNC) machine tools and the like. Penney envisions one more room at Fab Lab Burlington equipped with traditional machine-shop tools. “I’m going to call it the dirty, dirty space,” he says with a smile. “In my ideal world, it would all be in one space, and these cultures could share time and stories.”
Building a community
When Jenn Karson cofounded the Vermont Makers community last fall, all she wanted was to find people who shared her interests, namely using open-source technologies such as the Arduino to make art. She never expected so many enthusiasts to explode out of the woodwork.
It all started with a Twitter feed. After attending a code camp at UVM, Karson tweeted that she was looking for members to join an Arduino user group. One person contacted her, then another. When they were three, they wrote the Vermont Makers charter and published it in a Google group. Twenty people signed up, and Karson contacted Ken Howell at Champlain College, who offered them a place to gather.
In this digital age, face-to-face contact is still crucial when it comes to building a community. “Without that, I don’t think it would be flourishing,” says Cohn. And physical gatherings are crucial to Vermont Makers’ mission, which includes hosting meet-ups, workshops and even a monthly book club (July’s book is Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff).
Karson and co. decided to hold their first meet-up immediately after a talk at Champlain College by the California algorithmic artist Casey Reas, whose work was exhibited at the BCA Center. A rock star in the maker world, Reas creates his organic abstractions using the open-source software platform he developed specifically for visual artists, called Processing.
It was a smart move — 40 people showed up for Reas’ talk, and 60 came to the maker meet-up afterward. Vermont Makers was off the ground.
“My interest is creating a community that is made up of tech, arts and science people who come together to share ideas,” says Karson.
As a sound artist, she believes the arts are integral to creating a compassionate society. But the art world is “so isolated, and it can be kind of snotty,” Karson says. The tech and science worlds can be similarly exclusive, and each group has its own language.
“Our first meet-up was very techy, and there were people talking about stuff that I didn’t understand,” she says. “I’ve trained myself not to be intimidated by it.”
Karson discovered programming in the past five years. But the maker community is so accessible, she says, that she navigated the learning curve quickly. Tech geeks these days are a different breed from the troubleshooters she used to call to help fix her computer when she worked at UVM. “They’d talk to me like a total idiot, and then tell me how to fix the problem, and I still didn’t understand it,” she says. “This is so different.”
That desire for accessibility perfectly fits Ken Howell’s vision for Champlain’s emergent-media program. Eventually, he says, he’d like to be able to get new technology into the hands of community members who might not otherwise have access, starting by offering low-cost workshops this fall.
But he’s also interested in the potential of the maker movement on a personal level. An artist himself, Howell has used microcontrollers in his installations, which explore human interactions with machines. “A lot of the sensor-driven stuff that the Arduino does is about making the computer more human, rather than making the human more computer,” says Howell. “We’re the ones designing the machines, and in some ways the machines are better at adapting to us than we are at adapting to them.”
We’d better start adapting, though. “Crowdsourcing is changing the world,” says John Abele, who has been working with Doug Webster, an education coordinator for the state of Vermont, to organize the first-ever Champlain Maker Faire this September 29 at Shelburne Farms. The faire, modeled after Make magazine’s annual celebration of art, science and techy DIY projects, will feature workshops, speakers, demonstrations, music and food.
Abele, an inventor and entrepreneur who founded the medical-device company Boston Scientific, spent 10 years as the board chair of the FIRST Robotics Competition, an international high school contest in which kids work in teams to create homemade robots, then pit them against those of other teams.
For Abele, the maker movement is all about harnessing the power of the entrepreneurial spirit. “Unfortunately, we’re in a world where a lot of people sort of let the experts tell us how to do things,” he says. “If you really want to learn something, you’ve got to make mistakes along the way. You learn something when you put it to work.”
Abele says he’s been “blown away” by the rapid growth of the Vermont maker community. “I thought we’d find people, but, wow, we’re being drowned in them.”
Which is a good thing, because the movement is all about collaboration. “People who’ve never met each other are working together to solve problems,” says Abele. “It’s an interesting world with lots more risks … And learning how to work across borders is even more important than it used to be.”
Still, most makers do what they do for much humbler reasons.
“Somewhere along the line, you solve your problem and you still have the tools,” Abele says. “So you just play.”