Falling down the rabbit hole at Arch Reactor's hackerspace
It's a piece of metal with some buttons on it. It once might have been an operator panel on some type of industrial equipment. To Soulard resident Travis Megee, it’s the beginning of an epic project. He’s going to build something and he knows it’s going to be great. What’s harder to tell is exactly what he’s planning to make.
He certainly has no idea.
“I saw this in the pile and I just love these buttons,” said the 25 year old turning the old piece of scrapped industrial equipment over in hands. “They just have a nice look and feel to them.”
Welcome to Arch Reactor, an organization that can brag about having its own distinctive look and feel. Enter the cream-colored, three-story brick building on Jefferson Avenue and it’s a bit like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole – assuming Lewis Carroll had been born a techie.
On the other end of a lengthy maze of partially lit corridors, a visitor emerges into what can only be described as an enclave of proud, gritty geekiness. Power converters are piled next to toy robots. Loose circuitry waits patiently by a 40-Watt laser cutter made from plans found on the Internet. A homemade cathode-based nixie tube display counts down near boxes piled with various batteries, cast-off gamepads and remote-controlled cars. Every horizontal surface seems strewn with debris from a previous project and the potential ingredients for a new one.
A reporter’s only guide to this strange universe is Deech Mestel, an affable, dry-humored 36 year old with an unassuming manner and the wherewithal to admit once having invented a carbon dioxide-powered sandwich gun that could launch hoagies 30 feet.
“I also made a nozzle that could shoot a twinkie about 200 yards,” the group’s former president noted with something that sounded very much like pride.
For the uninitiated, Arch Reactor is a hackerspace, a unique world that’s part machine shop, part social club and part bohemian loft hangout, where a blend of art, ideas and gadgetry combine to form the sort of DIY-hobbyist’s techno-heaven that looks like it could have fallen out of the pages of an '80s cult movie script.
Contrary to the name, the “hackers” here have nothing to do with computer viruses or security breaches. They are merely good-natured tinkerers and hands-on techie-types who enjoy making, doing and learning. The concept has been around for more than a decade but has only really taken off in the past few years with the creation of hundreds of similar membership-based organizations where spare parts and innovative minds can meet, collaborate, socialize and build.
Hackerspaces.org lists dozens of such groups in the United States with a few here in Missouri such as the Columbia Gadget Works, Kansas City’s Cowtown Computer Congress and Springfield’s Squidfoo Art Gallery Studio and Hackerspace.
Arch Reactor, which is in the process of getting its nonprofit status, arose in 2009 out of a series of living room conversations between Mestel and several others looking to bring the unusual concept to St. Louis. Starting in a small space at the old Lemp Brewery, the group quickly found the need for more room.
“We pulled in about 300 people out of nowhere,” said Mestel, recalling the initiative’s first open house. “Very quickly we realized that the space we were renting was not going to be sufficient.”
That necessitated a move to the present digs on Jefferson where Arch Reactor occupies 2,400 square feet of an office building and event venue that began life as a Roaring '20s-era Chevy dealership.
Today, about 40 people have full membership in the organization, which costs $30 a month. Partial memberships with fewer privileges come cheaper and dozens choose that option or simply come to hang out for free.
Mestel said the common thread for everyone is a desire for knowledge exchange. In addition to providing space for projects, Arch Reactor regularly hosts classes in a wide variety of subjects from glassblowing to sign language to Airsoft guns to electronics. Not long ago, they brought in a band which specialized in “circuit bending,” a term denoting the manipulation of sound effects from electronic toys to make music.
“It’s really whatever our members want to do,” Mestel said. “We don’t put out a lot of limits. If our members are interested in something, we go out and track it down to see if we can find some knowledge on it.”
Knowledge isn’t in short supply here. Many of the tools used at Arch Reactor were built by members themselves, from the laser cutter to the 3-D printer for plastics. Even the arcade games in the corner were assembled by participants.
“We believe really firmly that your stuff is your stuff and you should know how it works,” Mestel said.
Not that everything they do necessarily works as intended. Last fall, the group tried launching a balloon that was supposed to reach 90,000 feet touching the edge of outer space. It fell short – by about 88,000 feet.
It eventually descended into some power lines in a farmer’s field.
“We found ourselves in an argument over how best to get it down,” Mestel said. “Somebody was in favor of a hook on a rope. I was actually partial to building a spear to pop it. It turned out neither of those worked so the farmer shot it down with a gun.”
Another recent episode was a competition in which self-guided robots were supposed to race around an oval track. Instead, they escaped and began tearing freely around the parking lot. Worse still, the devices, which were designed to sense objects in their path and skitter away, proved difficult for their human creators to capture. One particularly speedy model eluded pursuers until they gave up and just let its battery run down 40 minutes later.
Still, such travails aren’t unusual for hackerspaces, which pride themselves on finding notable ways to do unique things, often inventing competitions to that end. A contest not long ago saw numerous hackerspaces sending a fully decorated cupcake more than a thousand miles by standard postal delivery. The engineering challenge was for the baked treat to arrive unharmed.
In the end, whether it works or not isn’t the point. Failure breeds as many lessons as success.
“Our goal is to teach people that it’s OK to learn and explore and experiment,” Mestel said. “We try a lot of stuff that is completely out of our depth, but it’s fun because we learn every time we try something new.”
Chris Weiss, who, like Mestel, works in IT, said the experiences are always fun. The 40-year-old co-founder of the group said the conversation with other techies is rewarding.
Personally, I enjoy the community,” he said. “There’s a lot of smart people and interesting opinions.”
Weiss also enjoys woodworking, a decidedly low-tech activity that can be indulged in the facility’s back room where a selection of lathes and machine tools await.
Weiss likes doing a bit of creative wiring as well. He’s rigged up a small breaker switch near the front door which, when flipped, automatically logs itself onto the internet and sends out a message on Twitter letting everyone know the space is open.
Darrell Flynn, a member for about two years, finds his hacking has a practical use.
“Mostly, I hack this building,” said the 55-year-old telephone test technician. “I pretty much built the electrical system.”
Flynn drives all the way in from Chesterfield for the experience.
I can only make it up here once or twice a week,” he said. “It’s a bit of a haul.”
Still, the camaraderie is worth it, he said.
Mestel agrees. New projects are always around the corner.
“We spend a lot of time socializing with each other,” Mestel said. “We’ll be sitting around talking and someone will say ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…?’”
It never ends there.
“That’s a really dangerous statement to make in this room,” he added with a laugh.