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Hill District hacking group aims to use skills for good

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Gabe Cottrell, of Ambridge and member of HackPittsburgh, shows the group his homemade snow machine at the weekly meeting of HackPittsburgh at the group work space in the Hill District, Friday, January 25, 2013.

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Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 11:30 p.m.

Four men sit inside a Hill District garage on a frigid evening, plotting to bend machines to their will.

Like a laboratory for building a Frankenstein robot, the garage holds lots of parts. Pieces of a Roomba vacuum cleaner are stored in one box; across the way, a vending machine spills its guts onto the floor.

Shelves made from two-by-fours and plywood hold dozens of books on topics such as knot-tying, Lego robots and computer coding. A plastic deer stands near the door with a mannequin head wearing an Irish cap.

Each man has his own half-finished endeavors, such as building a safe-breaking robot that would try every combination to get in. Together, they share tasks such as floating a weather balloon 20 miles in the air or retrofitting a child's toy car to travel 30 mph.

The members of HackPittsburgh share a mission, too: making useful things rather than making havoc.

“Here we are a community of people who like to take things and make them do other things than their intended purpose,” said club President Scott Thomas, 34.

Unlike “black hat” hackers who might try to steal your identification and drain your bank account, these “makers” — as they like to call themselves — simply enjoy tearing apart machines to see how they work, then building others from their parts. By day, they work as software engineers and computer security experts. Here they have fun.

The group sponsors Friday night public lectures on topics such as building a snow-making machine. It helps put on the Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire, a summertime event for showing off remade items.

Around a long table on this night, two men sit in front of open laptop computers, eating Chinese takeout. A third man purrs as he runs his hands over a complete set of socket wrenches. Members can go and come as they please, as long as they keep their personal projects confined to a bin while they're gone.

Doug Philips, the group's treasurer, wears a head scarf printed to look as if it has neon paint splatters like a Jackson Pollock painting. He wears gold-rimmed wire glasses and has a bushy gray beard. On his own, he's working to design art with lighted fabrics.

“The point is,” he said, “I could be in my own basement, but I wouldn't have a community around me.”

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or

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