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World’s largest 'hackspace' launches in London

Where science meets hedonism: a new generation of mad professors.

'Drunk pilot' and ex-navy robotics expert Chris Paton prepares to launch the spaceship. Credit: Kieron Monks/Metro "Drunk pilot" and ex-Navy robotics expert Chris Paton prepares to launch the spaceship.
Credit: Kieron Monks/Metro

Red buttons flash before me. The oxygen levels are falling sharply and smoke floods the cockpit. “WARNING! Your pilot is drunk,” the PA system announces. Moments later the craft swings out of control and we are finished.

Rather than floating in the Atlantic Ocean, we emerge into the backyard of a central London warehouse, surrounded by half-built machines and imported beer. The spaceship simulator I just crashed is one of the star attractions at the launch of London’s new hackspace, where innovation meets intoxication.

There are more than 1,000 hackspaces in the world, bringing together tech-minded people in community hubs from Iraq to Albania, and this new arrival is believed to be the largest yet with more than 700 members. The launch party hopes to draw in many more and offers a diverse menu.

Deep underground we visit the biohack lab, where genes are spliced and DNA is tested. “It will be the first completely public laboratory; you can have your meal tested for horse-meat,” says hackspace trustee Mark Steward, referring to the recent Ikea meatball scandal.

Down the corridor are metalwork labs, 3D printers and a row of drills. Doors open at the swipe of hacked London transit cards, while smart readers on the wall show internet connectivity and energy consumption. Food hacking offers ice cream cooled in liquid nitrogen – slightly thicker than normal – and experimental cocktails.

“It’s the old meaning of hacking, which is building and creating,” member and programmer Dave Ingram says. “There is very little ‘cracking’ – breaking into security systems – although we do workshops to learn how the systems work.”

The space operates as a nonprofit company, entirely owned and funded by its members, with a board of trustees for legal purposes. “It’s a cooperative, and you don’t see those in London now,” says founder Russ Garrett, who launched the first hackspace in 2009 in response to a broken chair.

Free access and equality are guiding principles – behind Rule Zero: Do not be on fire – and the hackers have realized their role in the community. Among the workshops in radio production, space exploration and lock-picking are classes for local youths who would otherwise miss out.

But expansion brings its own challenges. Members generally use the honor system’with resources and safe behavior, but as the group grows so does the risk. In a facility full of toxic chemicals, deadly blades and alcohol, new members are more likely to cause accidents. “I worry a lot more now,” says Russ.

The space has begun to attract serious commercial interest. NASA funds one startup here, while resident drone producer "Universal Air" is valued in millions of dollars, and the message board is flooded with offers.

But despite the money, there is loyalty to the hackspace spirit. “We spent all yesterday freezing kiwis with liquid nitrogen and smashing them with hammers,” says longtime member Tim Reynolds. “That’s what it’s about.”

 
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