Hacktory offers geek-friendly classes

The DIY community has long been a prominent force in Philadelphia. Now, the geeks are staking their claim in it.

“Philadelphia sucks just enough,” Far McKon said.

That’s why McKon, self-described “community wrangler” of the Hacktory, is excited to be the host of Philadelphia’s only do-it-yourself hacker space. The Hacktory is a workspace full of tools, helpful individuals and electronic parts that anyone can utilize to complete technological projects.

The city has been extremely important to the Hacktory’s formation.

“If Philadelphia were bigger, better, more organized or had more money, things would be too organized. People wouldn’t be interested in latching on to a new idea because there’d be existing systems that already worked,” McKon said. “If Philadelphia sucked any more, you couldn’t get things going because it would be absolutely too chaotic.”

How can something as illegal as hacking into the FBI’s computer systems have its own club in Philly? It doesn’t. This isn’t that kind of hacking.

“Hacking is taking something and putting it to a totally new and unintended use,” McKon said. “When an artist picks up a piece of material and does something completely nontraditional, that’s a type of hacking.”

Far McKon is the founder of the Hacktory, a workspace that provides the tools and know-how for finishing technological projects (Roman Krivitzsky/TTN).

The Hacktory specializes in electronic projects, such as turning an old projector and a Wii remote into an interactive white board. While other cities’ hacker groups like hackDC, New York City Resistor and Noise Bridge have existed for several years, the Hacktory is Philadelphia’s only hacker space, and it’s quickly gaining followers.

Located on the third floor of the Nonprofit Technology Resources building at 1508 Brandywine St., the Hacktory is for people who have an idea but don’t have the means to complete it. This includes building simple electronic equipment like circuit boards and finishing more complex projects like 3D fabrication systems.

McKon started the Hacktory by reaching out to some of Philly’s electronics nerds, who were teaching classes and running other community groups. His idea was to round up a bunch of electronics geeks who were already working on similar projects, and create one community space for all things electronic.

Now that the geeks are all in one place, the Hacktory is able to help others who might lack the know-how or ingenuity to bring their ideas to fruition.

McKon and his small team of volunteers have tools for people who want to work on different projects, from circuit bending a keyboard to turning a Game Boy into a musical instrument. They act as teachers as well as partners in helping people complete different projects.

The workspace consists of a supply closet, classroom and another room filled with larger tools. The tools are always readily available, as is help from McKon and his colleagues.

The Hacktory’s founder, Far McKon, says the city is ideal for his projects, one of which is pictured above, because “Philadelphia sucks just enough.” Strangely enough, he means it as a compliment (Roman Krivitzsky/TTN).

The Hacktory is open once a month as a workspace, but more often for classes that focus on creating specific projects. They include classes on simple projects like “LED Throwies” (where you learn how a watch battery, magnet and LED wrapped in duct tape make a magnetic LED light) and building a “GPS Etch-A-Sketch,” which tracks your journey and then displays your movement patterns on a map.
These classes aren’t just for the tech-savvy, either.

Thomas Chandler, who participated in the Arduino DangerShield class, doesn’t think experience is a requirement.

“I had never soldiered before, nor had I really ever experimented with electronics, but the class went fine. [It] was well led and easy to follow,” he said. “I’ve become much more aware of the possibility of creating something that I want, rather than searching for it in a pre-made state.”

Jordan Miller, who participated in the same class, agreed.

“Far’s classes were conducted with extreme patience and a wonderful community atmosphere, so I felt right at home,” he said.

The Hacktory isn’t just meant to be a convenient workspace, however. McKon has a larger vision of community and support that he hopes to perpetuate through the sharing of ideas.

“The Hacktory [is] already showing tremendous positive influence on the [do-it-yourself] community in Philly by bringing people together, educating them about cutting-edge tools and resources available and empowering them with human connections, knowledge and space for community-driven projects to really take off,” Miller said.

The Hacktory may be Philadelphia’s only hacking space, but after only one year of activity, it has already made a big impression on a growing community of followers.

In fact, Miller said the Hacktory has the potential to change the city by integrating itself into the fabric of mainstream Philadelphia, such as art galleries and scientific research.

“Far McKon and his team are important pioneers hacking together the Philadelphia community for positive social change.”

Garrett Smith can be reached at garrett.smith@temple.edu.

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