Jordie Smith's wings aren't working. He crosses his arms, lets a short pop of breath leak from his lips.
The four thin, black carbon rods that he has attached to a headless mannequin, via an elaborate thorax of gears and pulleys, are supposed to spin in figure eights. They make up the centerpiece of a woman-sized-wasp Halloween costume that Smith has been commissioned to build. To make wings out of the rods, Smith plans to cover them in rubberized fabric. But first they need to move.
"That's the first law of robotics," says Dave Dalton, a lanky man whose face at this moment is obscured by the mask portion of Smith's incomplete costume. He sits on a stool nearby and reminds Smith of another axiom, one about demonstrating an invention: "Your robot will never work when you want to show someone what it does."
Smith reddens and fidgets with the gears and the casings. After a small click, the robot wings spring to life. They gain speed over the next few seconds until they're moving fast enough to shake the dummy's torso.
"I saw something like this on the Internet," Smith says. "But the wings only went up and down. This is the seventh version I'm working on. I think it's going to work."
"That's what I love about kids like Jordie," Dalton says. "They haven't had their dreams crushed yet."
If there's a haven for locals like Smith right now, it's Hammerspace, Dalton's workshop at 440 East 63rd Street. The 6,500-square-foot brick building, which previously housed an AT&T telecommunications center, is now a hacker space — a community-oriented work space where 90 members pay $40 per month (or $400 per year) to access power tools and lasers and share their knowledge. It's where a 21-year-old movie usher can go if he wants to spend his afternoons building mechanized wasp wings.
According to hackerspaces.org, Hammerspace (named, Dalton says, for the "magical dimension from which small anime girls produce large and ridiculous weapons") is one of 154 active hacker spaces in the United States, all of which have opened in the past five years. Each is part of the maker movement — the latest iteration of the do-it-yourself culture, centered on a belief in getting back to building and repairing objects.
It's a rebellion against the notion that technology is disposable. Makers prize practical skill above blueprint innovation — they want to extend the lives of objects, bring them back to life, find new uses for them. That's why, at Hammerspace, a 60-year-old woman is learning to rivet next to a 30-year-old man who has recently taken up embroidery.
Hacker workshops like Hammerspace are loosely organized within the nonprofit School Factory's Space Federation program, which provides support and consulting on items such as insurance, permitting and liability. But the very nature of hacker spaces defies a clear organizational structure.
"Each space has its own personality," says Willow Brugh, the co-founder of the Space Federation and director of the entrepreneur-mentoring project Geeks Without Bounds. "If we had homogeneous spaces, that would kill the movement."
Hammerspace is a work in progress. Dalton doesn't know yet what his year-old venture might become. But he knows that it's already a de facto business incubator, housing Dalton's own plantation-shutter business, Craig Berscheidt's laser-cutting operation (Built to Spec), and another dozen potential ventures from the 2012 class of the e-Scholars Program at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
"There are more schools that don't have resources than do," Dalton says. "And there's this next generation of creative individuals who don't have the tools to express themselves. Hopefully places like this can provide something for them."
Outside Hammerspace, there's a can't-miss-it red concrete hammer in the grass along 63rd Street. Behind a chain-link gate, Dalton's black-and-white Ford Crown Victoria stands out among the pickup trucks in the parking lot. The Kansas vanity plate reads: ELWOOD. Wooden pallets are stacked near the front door, next to an antique milk can and an engine block. Everything is in a state of almost.