A hackerspace, then, is a physical location, where members of the hackerspace community pool their resources (time, money, tools, equipment and supplies) in order to create a collaborative environment for learning, exploring, teaching, doing, and inventing.
Common features of hackerspaces include: A well-lit, accessible physical environment, with plenty of tabletops and workbenches; a video projector for presentations; small hand tools; electronic tools, including soldering irons, multimeters, oscilloscopes, benchtop power supplies, and more; machining and physical fabrication tools, including drill presses, band saws, grinders, CNC mills, CNC lathes, 3D printers, and related goods; scientific supplies and equipment; a lending library of books and journals; and of course, plenty of computers and computing equipment. Hackerspaces also tend to have a "spare parts" area where equipment is stored and intended to be taken apart, hacked, modified, or scavenged for parts for another project.
Hackerspace origins and evolution
The hackerspaces movement as we know it today largely originated in Germany. Soon after, an explosion of interest in hackerspaces resulted in the creation of new spaces all over the world, especially in Europe and North America. Mitch Altman has said there are now more than 1,100 hackerspaces in existence around the world, up from 20 or so in 2007. Hackerspaces.org maintains a list that attempts to catalog all of the world's hackerspaces.
The goals of hackerspaces are varied, but there is a common element of emphasizing education and invention. In the United States, most hackerspaces are 501(c)3 nonprofit educational organizations, and many hackerspaces in other parts of the world hold equivalent status. Hackerspaces promote education by hosting events at the Space, usually open to the public and free of charge, which range from soldering workshops to industrial sewing workshops to sessions on DIY residential electrical wiring to classes on cryptography, data security, and every topic in between.
Many hackerspace members also volunteer to take their skills on the road by participating in events at local schools, libraries, and other nonprofit institutions. A popular activity at some hackerspaces is the appliance repair café, in which members of the surrounding community are invited to bring in dead appliances (alarm clocks, toasters, microwaves, you name it), and members of the space will help them repair the device and restore it to a working state (or establish that it is truly beyond repair).
Hackerspaces and their members like to "dream big" and create BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) for themselves. There is currently an initiative called the International Hackerspace Space Program that has a goal of putting a hacker on the moon by year 2023! Talk about audacious. As Mitch Altman points out, it doesn't matter if the goal is actually attained, as the process of pursuing the goal is its own end; the learning, the exploring and the creativity harnessed and energized bytrying to put a hacker on the moon will be its own reward. Note that this is not an entirely "pie in the sky" initiative yet; several hackerspaces are participating in a DARPA-funded project to do space research.
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