MIT Hobby Shop Spawns Offbeat Creations Like ‘Hairball’

Folkers Rojas calls his invention, simply, “the hairball.”

Inspired by the 2010 BP Plc oil spill, the prototype is a small motor that feeds wire into a ruptured pipe. As the wire gets entangled inside, it forms a hairball-like mass that oil compresses into a nearly impermeable plug. Rojas said trial runs show it could shrink a leak from 33 gallons a second -- the rate of BP’s -- to three. Such results have attracted oil executives looking to prevent another environmental catastrophe.

Rojas began assembly not on a big budget in some fancy lab but with items he bought at Home Depot and brought with him into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Hobby Shop. Tucked away in the basement of a red-brick gymnasium on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the little-known incubator has spawned hundreds of patented inventions, from a contraption that drops a line of salt around your Margarita to a wheelchair sold worldwide that can move the disabled across the roughest terrain.

“Tinkering and making things is actually part of how we think, how we solve problems, how we learn,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said. “So one way to understand the Hobby Shop is as a place where ideas happen.”

Pioneers like Digital Equipment Corp. founder Kenneth Olsen and car designer Chuck Jordan honed their skills and imagination amid the shop’s bandsaws, milling machines and lathes.

Ball Robot

Greg Schroll, a 2008 MIT graduate who lives in Denver, came up with a ball robot in the Hobby Shop that landed him on the cover of Popular Mechanics as one of the “10 Most Brilliant Innovators of 2009.” Almost twice the size of a basketball, the robot can roll up inclines and ascend stairs, feeding back intelligence.

Since leaving school, Schroll has failed to find a workshop with a similar vibe. “I miss it still,” he said.

The Hobby Shop is a far different and more informal place than the better-known MIT Media Lab, which has a budget 180 times larger and occupies more than 250,000 square feet in two buildings.

By comparison, the 4,000-square-foot Hobby Shop, with its low rumble of machines and sweet perfume of cut wood, is an underground oasis in the increasingly regimented and career-focused cauldron of academia. Overseen by MIT’s Division of Student Life, it’s a refuge for a merry band of tinkerers whose designs on a better mousetrap didn’t leave them when the Erector Set, Tinker Toys and Legos did.

Creative Freedom

That freedom to come and go as they please and work on what they choose sparks their creativity, shop devotees say, and is critical to sustaining innovation in the U.S., according to Quanyu Huang, director of Asian and American Studies at Miami University of Ohio. Huang, author of “The Hybrid Tiger” (Prometheus, 2014), says higher education should have more of these “safe kingdoms” where new ideas can be cut, hammered and buffed into prototypes.

“Students need a place to feel safe about their crazy thinking without being ridiculed,” Huang said. “Without crazy thinking, how can we break free from convention?”

The Hobby Shop’s doors are open to students, alums, employees and spouses. Students pay a $40 per-semester fee, going up to $200 for alums. If they can’t find what they need among the scrap wood or bins of metal, it’s off to the nearest store. The only rules are for safety.

Winter’s Wheelchair

As an MIT student, Amos Winter scrounged for bicycle parts so he could build prototypes of his all-terrain wheelchair at the Hobby Shop. Now an assistant professor, Winter, 33, has sold 550 chairs for $200 each from India to Guatemala, he said.

Kim Schmahmann, husband of an MIT Sloan Management School professor, spent six years -- six and a half days a week, eight hours a day -- building an eight-foot-tall cabinet now in the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C.

The “Bureau of Bureaucracy,” as Schmahmann titled it, is described by the gallery’s website as “a dizzying array of surreal puzzles and hidden compartments.” It features highly polished African mahogany, in tribute to Schmahmann’s South African homeland, and various hardwoods, embellished, at turns, in mother of pearl, gold leaf and brass.

The Hobby Shop’s beginnings were modest, 16 students in 1938 under then-MIT Vice President Vannevar Bush, who started the defense contractor known today as Raytheon Co. and who led the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II.

Men Only

Photographs from those early days show men only, in drab lab coats. Olsen, who founded now-defunct Digital, once the world’s second-largest computer company, spent time as an undergraduate in the Hobby Shop, according to the 1950 school yearbook. He died in 2011.

Today there are 300 students each semester. Gone are the lab coats, and women in googles and school sweatshirts can be seen drilling and measuring.

University funding for the Hobby Shop is only $250,000 a year, mostly to pay director Ken Stone and his two assistants. Equipment is purchased with donations, and some of it, like a paint-worn anvil, looks as though it might have been around since founder Bush gave his blessing.

A notable exception is the imposing Omax JetMachining Center, or waterjet. The $100,000 piece of equipment was donated to the shop in 2002 and can precision-cut materials a notch below a diamond in hardness and save hours on projects, Stone said. Jonny Slocum, an MIT senior, has been using it to design an intelligent toothbrush that lets users know when they’re brushing too hard and damaging the enamel.

Iron Man Suit

Hanging in one corner is a replica red- and brass-colored Iron Man suit worn by the Marvel Comics superhero. It is the creation of one of Stone’s assistants, Brian Chan, an MIT graduate. On his website, Chan calls himself “maker of anything,” including a folding ukulele listed for sale online at $87.50.

The amiable Stone, 63, is the shop’s fourth director. Studying architecture as an MIT undergraduate, Stone said he “spent more time than I should have” at the Hobby Shop. After graduation, he designed furniture and renovated homes until 1991, when he found his calling as the shop’s director.

Though Stone knows most of the shop’s history, there have been surprises. In 1998, he received a letter from Jordan, a 1949 MIT graduate. Jordan wrote that the car model he built in the Hobby Shop won him the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild model car competition in 1947, a $4,000 scholarship and a job at General Motors Co. He eventually became GM’s fourth vice president of design. When he died in 201O at 83, the New York Times described him as “the last of the Great Design Dinosaurs,” responsible for “automotive confections dripping with tailfins, chrome and postwar exuberance.”

‘Great Relief’

The Hobby Shop, Jordan wrote to Stone, was “a great relief from the mental exercises at MIT.”

Folkers Rojas, 28, has been working in the Hobby Shop for eight years. Growing up in Nicaragua and then Miami, Rojas was liable to disassemble any object put in front of him. In high school he bought a Honda Accord for $400 and covered his parents’ backyard in car parts.

Enrolling at MIT in 2006, he focused on nuclear engineering until he discovered the Hobby Shop and plunged back into the magic world of pull-apart and put-together.

“You can imagine anything you want, but if you can’t make it, then what are you doing?” Rojas said.

After graduating, he considered the University of California at Berkeley for doctoral work until he inquired about a workshop he saw there. “They said it was for research-related projects only,” he recalled. “And you know what I said? ‘Goodbye.’”

Clogged Sinks

Instead, he stayed at MIT, where he earned his doctorate in December in mechanical engineering for the HAWK (Hampering Active Wellbore Kit), aka the hairball. He and his adviser, Professor Alexander Slocum, Jonny’s father and a Hobby Shopper himself, share two patents on the device.

An MIT graduate, Slocum served as an adviser to then-U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon, or BP, oil spill. That rupture of a supply line and explosion on a rig killed 11 workers and sent about 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.

That got Slocum thinking about his teenage sons and their friends, who clog sinks and showers at home with hair. Firing a mass of junk like golf balls and rubber pieces into a breach -- a procedure known as a “junk shot” -- had failed to stop the BP spill. Slocum thought a different kind of clog, properly fashioned, could block a tsunami of petroleum.

Endorphins Permeate

Slocum suggested the idea as a doctoral thesis to Rojas. He headed for the Hobby Shop, where he can think uninterrupted because his cell phone gets poor reception in the basement location. Slocum, his adviser, testifies to his own rush of happiness there, “endorphins permeating the air.”

The hairball intrigues oil insiders such as Frank Springett, a vice president at Houston-based National Oilwell Varco Inc., which supplies equipment to the oil industry. “We have seen this interesting new concept and are interested in seeing more,” Springett said. His company is in talks with Rojas and Slocum about the hairball’s commercial viability, he said.

Another Hobby Shop creation has proven its worth. Tim McCaffery was working on his master’s degree in business at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 2006 when he came up with a clever way to re-salt one’s Margarita glass. His so-called Barmaid, which he patented, looks like an inverted salt-shaker and rides around the rim of the glass, depositing a line of salt.

McCaffery took his prototype to the Jimmy Buffet Parrot Head Club of Eastern Massachusetts. They were impressed, and now the Barmaid is sold by McCaffery’s Lime Tree Cove company along with 14 different flavors of sugar and salt -- plenty of options for wasting away in Margaritaville.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.