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A team of tinkerers

Gadget lovers explore electronic possibilities as they create robots and replicated iPhones

Photograph by Katie Alaimo

Ryan Raney works on a robot he made as a member of Columbia Gadget Works. The group, which explores science and technology, holds regular Hack Night meetings.

March 15, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

At Brad Collette’s workshop, tucked into the woods near the Columbia Regional Airport, a crowd of about a dozen stands around a steel box that whines and at moments flashes erratically. Under the machine’s lid, a high-powered laser zaps a small, thin block of wood. Collette tests the attention span of his computer by feeding design instructions to the laser cutter at the same time as it directs a 3-D printer. The 3-D printer sits on a shelf above the laser cutter, its robotic arm toiling inside a cubic cage, pouring in short, jerky passes a goopy molten plastic that will eventually form a functional gear.

“Let’s throw something else at the computer and see if we can get everything to lock up at once,” Collette says, joking.

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“I always feel the most productive when my computer crashes,” says Zach Zeman, a software engineer and the president of this small assembly. Zeman holds this office by electoral draft, not choice, and it is clear why they would choose him. Tall, lanky and donning a wiry beard, he resembles Abe Lincoln reborn as a hacker.

Collette, Zeman and the others in the shop belong to Columbia Gadget Works, a loosely organized band of tinkerers, makers, inventors and do-it-yourselfers. The group, now more than two years old, is slowly growing. Six to eight of the 30 people who belong to their Google Group might show up at any given meeting, which is called Hack Night, the thinking behind the name being that you can hack more than a computer. You can hack anything. They have a president and bylaws but no agendas or goals for their meetings.

About 12 people are here — all male, about a quarter of them middle-aged, another quarter in high school or college, everybody else somewhere in between. If you exclude the members under 18 years old, a majority of the men sport glasses and a beard. They wear jeans with T-shirts or flannel. One member arrives in a suit. They are engineering grad students by nature and temperament, if not age or occupation.

The Columbia Gadget Works is one of many such groups around the world that meet regularly to build things and take things apart. Scott Kovaleski, a founding member of Columbia Gadget Works and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU, says the group and others like it often are defined by their lack of structure and formality. It’s open-source engineering done in person, on gadgets prone to breaking, smoking and failing.

“The whole movement itself is chaotic,” Kovaleski says. “It’s a punk rock version of ham radio.”
Something doesn’t always get made, or at least successfully made, at Hack Nights. Kovaleski says the meetings are more about like-minded souls sharing an interest in technology, science and making or dismantling stuff on their own.

Tonight, something does get made. What eventually emerges from Collette’s laser cutter is a finely detailed wooden replica of an iPhone, realistic down to the compass on the Safari thumbnail. On the back Collette printed the website and logo for Columbia Gadget Works. Collette passes the wooden phone around for everybody to see, smell and admire.

The next step for the group is to establish a permanent space. Collette, Zeman and Kovaleski imagine a place where people come and go as they please, tinkering on gadgets in their spare time — an open-source workshop with open doors.

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