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Group hopes to create hackerspace for St. Louis techies
[November 28, 2009]

Group hopes to create hackerspace for St. Louis techies


Nov 28, 2009 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Before their weekly meeting begins, the founding members of Arch Reactor make it clear to a visitor their fledgling group is more Geek Squad than Mod Squad.



They fidget over teeny-tiny laptop computers while making small talk about stuff like the Defcon hacker convention, Unix code and PayPal. A passing joke about the file-sharing service BitTorrent gets hearty laughs.

"The thing about St. Louis' tech community is that there are a lot of us, but we tend to be pretty cliquish," said Dave Mestel, a systems analyst who dabbles in costume design. "Part of what we're trying to do is bring those cliques together and show other people what we can do." Since September, Mestel and about a half-dozen others have gotten together on Tuesday nights in a small room inside the old Lemp Brewery in Benton Park. Their goal: to create St. Louis' first hackerspace, a co-op workshop for techies, tinkerers and free thinkers.


Despite the name, the group isn't composed of hackers in the traditional, computer virus sense. They envision a sort of clubhouse with high-tech computer equipment, a table saw, some soldering guns, a couple of couches and maybe a pinball game or two.

"Basically, we're a bunch of software guys who want to build things with our hands," said Arch Reactor President Robert Ward, 25, a software developer for Beck Automation. "We also want to get other people interested in technology and making things." They've already written bylaws, filled out paperwork to become a nonprofit and rented a 1,200-square-foot loft space on the second floor of the Lemp building that also houses a recording studio and band practice rooms. They hope to move in next month and have Arch Reactor in shape for an open house in January.

From there, the plan is to launch a series of projects, workshops and lectures. Think robots and gizmo-making and classes on how to build a pocket-size remote control that turns off any TV within 50 feet. Dues-paying members -- it's $30 a month -- will have 24/7 access to the hackerspace and its tools; nonmembers are welcome to hang out.

The hackerspace concept is relatively new in the United States but has existed in Germany and elsewhere in Europe for several years. Hackerspaces.org lists about 125 registered U.S. groups -- more than double the number from six months ago, as multiple spaces have opened in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

Although Arch Reactor is building St. Louis' first hackerspace, a Kansas City group is believed to have started Missouri's original hackerspace last year.

The Cowtown Computer Congress K.C. had a similar start to Arch Reactor, with five or six guys sitting around a coffee shop, thinking of ways to unite the area's techies.

The group is rolling now, with more than 40 members who play with donated equipment at an underground workshop just south of downtown. Recent projects included building a robot for a haunted house and teaching Boy Scouts to use soldering tools. Last week, the Kansas City group had a hacker movie night. "Bring your favorite movies, TV shows, videos and whatnot," its website advertised.

Arch Reactor has spread the word through various Web message boards, and Ward said he hopes to expand membership to about 40 people. About 15 people have expressed interest so far. Most have computer-related day jobs and are men in their mid-20s to mid-30s. There is one woman who, although not present at Tuesday's meeting, was elected unanimously to be the group's director of public relations and fundraising.

This week's meeting adjourned nine minutes after it commenced, with the members then moving upstairs to scope out the hackerspace. It's a fixer-upper, with soft spots in the floorboards, cracks in the windows and exposed insulation along the walls.

But if anyone's up for a little tinkering, it's the Arch Reactor guys and gal. Several pulled out mini flashlights and pointed out areas where the electrical hookups could be rewired.

"If we've got someone who knows a little about this, and someone else who knows a little about that, we could make a lot of really cool things happen," said Chris Weiss, a ponytailed IT manager at Wilson Manufacturing. "I think that's exactly what we've got going on here." For more information, visit archreactor.org.

To see more of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.stltoday.com. Copyright (c) 2009, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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