Makerspace Roots

The Origin Story of Makerspace

Students working on computers in our makerspace–using Makey Makey– and creating perler bead pixel art

If you’re reading this, you probably already have some ideas about what a makerspace is. However, you may not know the origin story – how makerspace came about, and the ways in which the history of makerspace influences what we see today. To supplement my own five-year journey with makerspace, I did some research. This is what I discovered.

If you sensed a hint of the subversive in makerspace, you’d be right. Makerspaces harkens back to the late-1990s with hackerspaces. These were preceded by hacklabs, which first came on the scene in the mid-1990s. Both hacklabs and hackerspaces were a result of the proliferation of personal computers. Both also have computers and hacker culture at their respective centers. However, hacklabs are usually associated with some sort of political agenda, whereas hackerspaces are thought of as community organizations for learning and collaboration. What hackerspaces and makerspaces share in common is the focus on community and the use of technology.

So how did makerspaces branch off from hackerspaces? The answer, put simply, is Dale Dougherty. Dougherty is the founder of Maker Media, MAKE magazine and inventor of the term makerspace. Legend goes that Dougherty was originally going to call MAKE magazine HACK. When he proposed HACK as the name of his magazine to his daughter, she purportedly said that he should call it MAKE instead, because ‘everyone likes making things’.  The first issue of MAKE was published in January, 2005. Dougherty likened it to “Martha Stewart for geeks” and with this single publication, the maker movement was nudged into the mainstream.

The term makerspace didn’t come into play until several years after the launch of Make magazine, in 2011, when Dougherty registered, and started using makerspace to refer to spaces for designing and creating (often with kids). This was the point at which the maker movement started really taking off.

MAKE has always had its finger on the pulse of what’s trending in makerspaces and although some of the content is more applicable to professional making, it also contains some practical, kid-friendly projects, often complete with images, project completion time estimates and materials cost. MAKE also publishes a desktop fabrication guide with reviews of tools such as 3D printers, CNC and Lasers. This is akin to the Consumer Reports car buying guides, but for desktop fabrication. If you are considering making something, there has likely been an article written about it in MAKE.

Makerspace vs. Hackerspace

Makerspaces and hackerspaces currently exist all over the world. So, how do we differentiate between them? Honestly, it depends a lot upon who you ask. From my experiences, I tend to think of them in contrast to each other. Hackerspaces tend to be edgier, makerspaces a bit friendlier and more welcoming. Hackerspaces have a heavy tech focus, makerspaces tend to blend in more of the D.I.Y.

Makerspaces are usually more kid-friendly. Of the hackerspaces that I’ve encountered, I would not send a kid to any of them without a trusted adult (although I’m sure there are exceptions where that would be perfectly fine). This is partly because in hackerspaces, often the activities aren’t something a kid could do without help, either the materials or equipment are too dangerous (using lead solder, for example) or the skills are too advanced for kids, at least those younger than high-school aged.

If you’re wondering if there are any makerspaces or hackerspaces near you, there is a directory you can check. You can also register your makerspace or hackerspace in this same directory, once you have it up and running. You might be surprised by how many you find. Go check them out!