There are some big hackerspaces out there.
And then there’s The Geek Group.
It takes a certain chutzpah to convert a 43,000 foot former YMCA into a hackerspace. And an epic hackerspace it is, complete with 5 axis CNC machines, 3d printers, and of course, giant robots romping through a forest of Tesla coils. The Geek Group has performed live demos in front of thousands of people over the years, and inspired tens of thousands more via the internet. You don’t work this big without having some big adventures, and The Geek Group is no exception. They’ve been through roof leaks, gas pipe breaks, surprise tax bills and angry neighbors. They’ve also been dealing with their current adventure, fire.
Unless you’ve been under a rock the last few weeks, you’ve probably read about the recent fire, and ensuing cleanup at The Geek Group labs. We’ve covered the fire and its cause here on Hackaday, with no small amount of drama in our comments section. There is a small but vocal minority who don’t have many good things to say. Accusations of cults, safety violations, and tax evasion often fly. While some groups would take this lying down, the geek group put on their flame proof suits and wade through the comments. None more vocally than [Chris Boden], the president, CEO and founder.
DISCLAIMER: The interview contains questionable content and some profanity (which we’ve altered as grawlix). We have posted the transcript as it was captured, which includes some spelling and grammar issues. Please consider these things before clicking through to the interview itself.
Are any of the accusations true? Is The Geek Group a cult? Finding out for sure would involve a trip to Grand Rapids Michigan, which is a bit outside Hackaday’s budget. However, The Geek Group is more than just their facility. They maintain a strong internet presence with their YouTube videos, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel, and live video stream. Chris runs twice daily shows where he streams video and talks to the group on IRC. It was during one of these shows that I entered the IRC room and said hello. Nearly immediately I found myself pulled into an impromptu interview, with me on IRC and Chris on live Video. The mixed format was a bit awkward, but we managed to get it done.
My first question to Chris concerned the future of The Geek Group.
[Adam] Chris, what [is] your ultimate vision for the geek group
[Chris] My ultimate vision for the geek group is to build a non-profit hackerspace concept similar in structure to the girl scouts. I want to have a college style campus without all the extra structure. I mean every hackerspace has an electronics lab, we have an electronics lab. But I want to have a large-scale high voltage lab. a 20,000 square foot building specifically dedicated to high voltage. A 20,000 to 30,000 square foot building specifically dedicated to vehicular sciences. It’s infrastructure. It’s all about infrastructure.
Just to clear the air, I had to ask him the cult accusations, some of which may be traced back to this tongue in cheek video from 2009.
[Adam] just for the record, are you running a cult?
[Chris] As far as I know no. If we could run a cult I probably would. I’d want virgins and slaves though. One a more serious note, If I’m running a cult it’s the most disorganized, irreverent cult in the history of mankind because nobody does what I tell them. If we’re evading taxes than I’m the worst tax evader in history because I mail a check to them every month, and they know my address.
We then moved onto the subject which first brought me into the IRC, the fire in the high voltage laboratory.
[Adam] On the subject of the rotary spark gap that started this all. Hindsight is 20/20, but one screw? Did they back out over the years?
[Chris] None of the other screws were loose. We’d never had a problem with them working loose before and we’d run that gap for 10 or 15 years. We’d changed the electrodes a couple of times, but it’s never been a worry or a problem. It happened, it’s something we have to worry about in the future. We’re certainly going to change our rotor design. We chose to play with dangerous things. It’s high voltage physics. This s**t will kill you the moment you don’t respect it. We go as safe as we can, but we’re not gods, we f**k up. It’s really easy on shows like Mythbusters, where if they f**k up you’ll never see it. When we f**k up we show it. That’s why we made the video and said ‘Hey guys, we had a fire, we f**ked up’. It’s important to show people science is about making mistakes. Science is about ’hey we’re going to try this thing, and maybe it will work, or maybe we’ll f**k up real bad.’ But it happens. You say ‘ok that sucked lets not do that again. and you go on, and you do it better the next time’. The blog is a behind the scenes look, I try really hard to do the right thing, but some days we eat it. We make screwups all the time, and we’re going to make a lot more.
[Adam] With the fire and knowing that high voltage is dangerous – how do you keep the public reasonably safe during demos?
[Chris] The first level of safety is the cage itself. We take the minimum safe distance for the cage and then multiply that by about three. The public never enters the cage when anything is armed. Operating any of the big systems like Gemini or Thumper requires a key. Every system has multiple redundant safety interlocks, so they can’t just spring to life. Each of these systems fails safe. The High voltage lab has its own grounding system separate from the building’s ground. 12 ground rods are interconnected with heavy gauge copper wire. Other systems include the fire extinguishers, the fireproof aspect of the room itself, the HVAC fire alarm and cutoff, and the emergency stop switch which kills all power to the room. Planned systems include the fire suppression system and an evacuation fan. When the fan is installed we’ll be able to change the entire atmosphere of the room in about a minute and a half. We make a lot of smoke in that room sometimes even when we’re not trying to burn the building down. The room is a workshop 90% of the time. 10% of the time it’s a showpiece. As such we have to have safety systems for both.
[Adam] Do you have manual lathes and mills? One thing I personally hate is seeing the machining skills of generations past dying off and being lost as CNC comes in. CNC is great, don’t get me wrong. but it would be great to see some old timers passing skills to the next generation.
[Chris] We do have manual lathes and mills both in wood and metal. That is a big thing for us – it’s great to learn the CNC stuff, which we’re doing a video series on. But basic craftsmanship is a big part of what we do here.
[Adam] I’ve been in meetings, and sat at tables asking for donations. How the hell do you negotiate all those wonderful toys?
[Chris] I sit at a lot of those tables, that’s how I do it. 90% of my job does not appear in the blog. I sit at a lot of tables, and spend a lot of face time with people. I give hundreds of tours every month. It’s a nonstop thing, and it’s a lot of begging. It’s a lot of ‘no’s’. For every ‘yes’ you see on the videos there were five ‘no’s’ ahead of it. We hear a lot more ‘yes’ now because we have a lot more to offer. We’ve got a really solid reputation. A lot of people know who we are, and we’ve got a very powerful megaphone. People want to showcase their products on our channel. We know who we’re talking to we know what we’re asking for, we make sure it’s relevant. The real secret to it is perseverance. I have an amazing team of brilliant people who do a lot of research and make sure we waste as little time as possible. The IRC is a huge help here. Before I walk into a meeting I know who I’m talking to – they’re vetted, I know what they like, I know what they do, everything.
[Adam] You definitely have a great crew. Liz, Doogie, Batman, Kidwell, Are there any others we don’t get to see?
[Chris] There are a lot of people who you don’t really see on the blog. Vicky is almost never on the blog. Mum might have been in one blog. These people don’t want to be in the public eye because they see the hell that I catch, and they don’t want it. I don’t want them to suffer like that. There are a lot of people who exist very much behind the scenes, and this place wouldn’t’ work without them. I owe everything I am to these people. I am exceedingly grateful for everything that they do here. The people involved with this company, who know the truth who see what really goes on here day-to-day, are the most ardent supporters of it. The more people learn about the truth about who I really am, what I’m really like, The more they want to be a part of it. The more they want to support it. That tells me I’m doing something right.
The Geek Group IRC is also huge for us. The IRC, which only averages 100 or so people, donated over $74,000 USD last year. That’s amazing – these are not wealthy people. You should see the percentage of donations that come in at $5 or $20. $100 is a big donation to us. Yet we raised $74,000 just from the IRC. That’s staggering. Normal hackerspaces don’t’ work like this. We’re the only hackerspace that has to file the IRS 990 long form. That’s how big we’ve grown, and we’ve done it fast.
[Adam] How many kVA are you planning for the next tesla coil?
[Chris] It’s really limited to the size of the room. If we keep the same room, it’s probably a maximum of 200kVA. If we rebuild the high voltage lab, we’d be looking at a 50 foot ceiling, so the power levels would go up significantly. I can tell you that the next totally separate Tesla coil project will be a big outdoor coil called project Zeus. Zeus will about 500kVA. You’ll be able to safely stand inside the top load while it is operating. I’ve already got the power supply sitting here ready to go.
So there you have it. At face value it seems that everything is on the up and up. No cults, no tax evasion. While I can’t be 100% sure of The Geek Group’s motivations without visiting in person, it does seem that they are providing a great resource to the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. When you play with large high voltage projects, the danger levels ramp up to incredible levels. History has proven that high voltage displays can be done safely for the public, from The Boston Museum of Science Van De Graaff Generator to ArcAttack, to The Geek Group themselves.