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Back in MAKE vol. 09, aka the Fringe Issue (2008), I wrote an essay arguing that makers should take back Freemasonry. With things like Hackerspace Roaming Membership, a similar system is evolving anyway. Here’s the essay, inspired by Jean Gimpel’s great book The Cathedral Builders, and with a wonderful illustration by Hal Robins. Several readers asked if I am a Mason. I’m not, but it’s on my list.

Masonic Conspiracy Revealed!

When engineering culture detaches from reality.

Generations of conspiracy-minded observers have nurtured theories about powerful secret societies such as the Masons. Here is my theory: Occult institutions evolve out of professional
guilds after they stop caring about how to actually build things.

In every age, geeks gravitate to where the interesting action is, and in medieval Europe, this was the cathedral — the structure itself, the art, and the pipe organ inside. Like most people, I’ve always been amazed by the great gothic cathedrals, but it was French historian Jean Gimpel’s book, The Cathedral Builders, that gave me the real nerd’s–eye view.

Gimpel explains that starting in the last half of the 12th century, competitive cathedral builders broke the world’s record for the highest interior vault five times within 62 years: from the completion of Notre–Dame de Paris in 1163 (32.8 meters high), through Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, and finally to Beauvais in 1225 (48 meters high, collapsed in 1284). This space–race happened during what’s now called the Early Gothic era, when cathedral building was literally at its height.

Engineering culture flourished during this era, and the cathedral builders were the alpha geeks. They and their kind traveled throughout Europe and contracted independently with parishes and municipalities to build churches, bridges, and other public works. They scouted talent by hiring unskilled stonecutters from the local populations, and invited the most promising ones to apprentice. They formed an international maker subculture that was surrounded by an illiterate and innumerate population that relied on their work, but could never understand it. To outsiders (non–engineers), they must have seemed like wizards: they used strange implements and symbols, spoke their own terminology, and produced magical seeming sights, sounds, and structures.

Meantime, these builders had a unique relationship to the Church, which monopolistically financed and controlled all culture — like today’s Hollywood and Madison Avenue, combined. The Catholic Church needed the building expertise of “free
masons,” who didn’t have to buy into any ideology or hierarchy, or even obey the local clergy. This gave the masons an unusually powerful position, which was inevitably eyed with suspicion.

Toward the end of the 13th century, as Europe became more nationalistic and political, Church funding for great cathedrals dried up. Design expertise was also tragically lost, and no one knew how to build as high anymore. This resulted in the Late Gothic style of cathedral, characterized by smaller structures that were built using old plans, but with more ornamentation added — lame.

Not surprisingly, the masons’ professional culture also began to change during the Late Gothic period. Inside the guilds, nepotism and politics replaced ability and contribution as the path to master status. What had become known as Freemasonry
was more secretive, perhaps out of defensiveness; the great cathedrals stood as prominent witness to all the knowledge that had died with previous generations. By the 15th century, masons in Germany adopted professional codes that forbade speaking publicly of lodge activities or divulging old methods for rendering drawings. Throughout Europe, the building trades carried an overlay of secrecy, antique reverence, and the promise of access to great lost wisdom.

From Operative to Speculative

Jumping ahead, Gimpel describes Scotland in the 16th century, where a boom in castle building took place. Job seekers answered the calls for work, and traveled from all over to converge at building sites. But the assembled workers didn’t know each other and had no educational degrees to go on, so the structural–engineering geeks developed a secret system of hand signals to identify themselves to one another at job sites and distinguish themselves from the unskilled stonecutters who could only build walls. After recognizing the signs and gathering together, these masons could then approach the local authority and say, “We’re the master builders here, and you need to put us in charge.”

Around this same time, the masons in Scotland also formed a network of lodges where traveling members could stay and meet with other builder geeks. Conspiracists point to these Scottish lodges as the cradle of a mysterious occult society tied to the medieval Knights Templar, but as Gimpel writes:

Masonic historians have long thought that [the] secrets which the workmen were asked to keepwere of an esoteric nature. They were nothing of the sort … there is no reason to suppose that these secrets contained anything more esoteric than … discussions in the lodge … as well as technical secrets of the trade concerning, for example, the design of an arch.

But then something happened that changed Masonry completely, and (I believe) did eventually turn it into an occult conspiracy. Upper–class men who weren’t trained masons wanted to join Scotland’s Masonic lodges. They were refused at first, but were later accepted under the provision that they paid double the dues of working masons. We can only guess at the mixture of motivations that led these fancy lads to seek companionship in a professional builders’ society, but as a result, they gained access to a nationwide network of lodging and social contacts — an exclusive club, in the more modern sense.

This new membership policy gradually detached Masonry from its engineering roots, and within a couple of generations, more Masons were wealthy gentlemen than actual builders. But as the makers gave way to the schmoozers, the lodge system proved to be a resilient social construct. Masonry became political and social, rather than practical — a cabal of insiders, rather than a collective devoted to expertise and education. Expert trade knowledge and levels of technical proficiency evolved (devolved?) into an artificial system of signs, symbols, and access, whose function was to distinguish insiders from outsiders. But in the social context within which this knowledge operated, it was still powerful.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re an insider who knows some secret mumbo–jumbo. Promoting the belief to outsiders that your secrets have great power makes this belief self–fulfilling because it makes outsiders think you have something on them. The more mysterious and powerful these inside secrets seem, the more effective the hype becomes. Now, if you imagine running this secretsas–status dynamic recursively, you get concentrically nested levels of power, a hierarchy that runs from complete outsider to innermost circle. Add the human imagination on both sides, and you spawn a thousand occult rituals and a thousand conspiracy theories.

Masonic historians refer to this great shift away from building as the shift from “operative” to “speculative” masonry, and the event that signified the completed transition is considered to be the establishment of the Grand Lodge in London, in 1717. Numerous books trace modern Masonry’s lineage from the Grand Lodge to today’s Masonic lodges, which combine, to varying degrees, the roles of community service organization, local chamber of commerce, and drinking club.

The Masonic blueprint has also informed other secret societies and organizations, ranging from the occultist Golden Dawn to college fraternities. However, I believe that the true heirs to the Masonic tradition are at makers’ fairs, s33krit hackers’ conferences, engineering departments, and other places where people share practical knowledge with other wizards.

So, what is to be done? Cities across America have beautiful Masonic lodge buildings sitting on prime downtown real estate. Lodge membership is graying, and many chapters have closed due to the lack of new members. I think this presents a grand opportunity. Let’s start a new Masonic Conspiracy! Let’s take Masonry back, and convert it from speculative back to operative! Let’s get all the makers we know to become Masons, and turn all those gorgeous, unused lodge buildings into temples of
geekdom! Who’s with me?

Illustration by Hal Robins

paul spinrad

Paul Spinrad

I’m a broad-spectrum enthusiast, writer, editor (Wired, MAKE), maker, and dad who lives in San Francisco and hatches schemes at investian.com.


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Comments

  1. cateanevski says:

    I love this idea! With one addendum: Make sure that female geeks have the same opportunities as men. We love to get our make on, too! :)

    1. I agree. Gotta be a brother AND sister hood.

  2. Lee Thew says:

    Fascinating article. I am a Hardware and Software Engineer by trade, and a Maker for those too few hours in between coming home from work and returning.  I am also a Master Mason that had not connected the dots in the fashion that your article has done. 
    It was a smack up side the head . . . Thank you.

  3. Robert says:

    I really liked the idea too. I shot a copy of this page url to the Grand Lodge of Texas. We can see what happens.

  4. John Meyer says:

    My father was a mason, though ironically, my mother was the master carpenter and architect…

    There are so many beautiful buildings that are being sold off by the masonic lodge, such potential for maker spaces and centers of knowledge.

    The grand lodge in Oklahoma city is a call center now…

  5. Initially, I read this essay, thought “Huh, that’s kinda neat”, and then clicked away.
    Moments later, the idea burrowed into my brain and now I can’t stop liking it.

    If *I* were appointed Supreme Overlord of This Idea by a wealthy benefactor who would fund the whole thing, I’d do something like this:

    Each lodge would have a public hackerspace (possibly separate from a fancier Secret Hideout space for members) with some basic tools and supplies.

    Aspirants who wish to become “Makesonic” siblings need to obtain a token indicating their 1st degree member status. This token is locked in a box with at least two means of opening, one purely mechanical (i.e. a “lock” that needs a physical “key”), one electronic in some fashion (perhaps opening for having light of a particular wavelength shined into it, or a sufficiently-high amplitude radio-frequency signal, or something similarly simple). The means of opening the box are documented (e.g. the size and shape of the physical “key”, wavelength/frequency of electromagnetic radiation that must be applied to a spot or opening on the box, etc.)

    To become a 1st degree member, the aspirant must:
    1. Open the box without damaging it
    2. Using a “key” (physical or electronic or whatever as appropriate) they make themselves in the Lodge’s public hackerspace
    3. DOCUMENT and publish (granting the “Makesonic Lodge” sufficient copyrights to republish, of course) the process they took in designing and making the “key”.

    The dual options of “physical” and “electronic” being there to accomodate makers of all varieties, so that people who would prefer to carve/sculpt/cast a phsyical “key” rather than solder together an electronic circuit can play too. (And, yes, if an aspirant came in, examined the documentation for the box, and built herself a set of lockpicks with which to open the box, or crafted a special tool for disassembling the box [without damaging it], that would still count…)

    The idea is that the membership test becomes automatically “operative” here.

    Degree advancement tests ought to always work this way, with increasing difficulty of course.

    Sufficient numbers of members with a particular interest can form “orders” within the organization with appropriate tests for induction as well (An order of makers who do metal casting might require a prospective member to cast their own membership token out of a specified material, for example), but all of the tests take the general form of “accomplish a specified task within specified parameters, using something that the aspirant makes, and documents the making of”.

    My only fear is that at some level the “Secret Handshake” will no doubt end up requiring signalling with an “Arduino®”…

  6. deadlydad says:

    I would join a ‘Makesonic Lodge’ in a heartbeat! (Audio generator built from discrete components, of course.)

  7. macegr says:

    I’m fine with using a building, but see no need to become Masons (either literally or figuratively). We exist due to open sharing of knowledge, not secret clubs. The last thing the Maker Movement needs is to appear elitist and suspicious.

  8. Wayne says:

    Making a lodge “operative” completely misses the point of Freemasonry. If you have no interest in the esoteric meaning of our work, please just stay home, we don’t need our fraternity “taken back” by anyone.

  9. I’m in. Where’s the animatronic robot riding goat? :-)

  10. I’m sorry but this has to be the WORSET idea possible for the make movement to even think about doing.

    I’m sorry I’m not trying to be mean and the masons are neat and all that, but macegr said it. Being a “Maker” is about the free and open sharing of Knowledge and the idea to become some secretive closed off club goes against everything I thought the maker movement was about. I mean do only grand master maker get to see all the great mods and hacks in this new club? Do you only get to make a 3d printer if you’ve gone through some pseudo religious CEREMONY?

    I understand its human nature to want to set ourselves aside so we can feel special but that kind of culture can never be open or free. So you can keep your masons and your ideas of “wizards” while I and others keep treating each other like equals sharing what we know freely with anyone and everyone who wants to learn.

    1. Eric says:

      Well said.

      1. brother moose says:

        I agree, I like the boy scout badge better then the mason plan. Nerds really don’t need any help looking dorky.

  11. J Capp says:

    In Pennsylvania, Freemasonry is all about “Making Good Men Better”. It’s about applying logic and principles of religion and morality to build character, in much the same way that operative masons used tools to build cathedrals. The only “secrets” are those that allow us to establish instant trust “in a handshake”, much like the operative masons of the past in order to prove their worth.

    And, there ARE a lot of geeks joining up, but not to make better things, but to better make themselves.

  12. Adrienne Knight says:

    Aye!

  13. Al says:

    This is the kind of bad idea that ends up splitting a great movement and community, Masonic positioning is at the opposite end of the spectrum to sharing,open and free which currently sits at the crux of making.

    regards
    Al

  14. shawn says:

    Free & Open community can ‘coexist’ with a Makesonic Lodge type community. It’s a neat idea, but see a few have slanted towards complete derailing stance. I doubt any club, were a few people gather to share knowledge & have fun with ‘secret’ knowledge & handshakes, would take away from or slow down anything in the social open free movements. just my thoughts

  15. Andrew says:

    Why tear down one beautiful institution to build another?

    If you want to create a mystical society revolving around making physical things, be my guest, but leave the speculative side of masonry alone. It has value on its own. Freemasonry is about “soul building” using a wealth of symbolism to communicate different levels of meaning to different levels of individuals.

    One might argue there are parallels with the Maker movement, particularly in the lack of dogma and the personal search for truth and understanding. Freemasons are free thinkers, as are Makers and in both groups what may seem like hocus pocus to outsiders can have great meaning to “the initiated.”

    On a somewhat unrelated note, I would argue that speculative Freemasonry dates back to the earliest human civilizations, so the notion that Freemasonry has its roots in Cathedral building is likely a cover story. Why would there be a cover story? You’ll have to think about that one…

  16. ANON says:

    As someone who has family members who are 32nd and 33rd degree Masons, you obviously have NO idea what Freemasonry is about…they are hardly ‘builder geeks.’

    I would *never* be a part of a secret (often racist, bigoted) group which seems to be what you are promoting….modern society does not need it.

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      Your point is well taken, and thanks for sharing it. But I expect we’ll see the sun turn to cheese before we’ll see Paul Spinrad promoting racism or bigotry.

  17. Gilgamesh says:

    Just FYI, unless something has changed, Freemasons don’t admit atheists. I’m going to guess that would leave out a fair chunk of the Maker community who wouldn’t get to be in the sooper sekret club. Besides, isn’t the Maker community a secret club all on its own, with its own meetings and rituals? How many other people use the word “repurpose” in daily life?

    1. J Capp says:

      You are correct. Freemasons don’t admit atheists. Belief in a Supreme Being is the first and foremost requirement. However, it should be noted that there is no distinction beyond that. In Freemasonry there is no distinction between Arab and Jew, between Christian and Buddhist. All men are brothers. Frankly I’m surprised there are a lot of atheists. I suspect it is largely because of a turn off of “religious” practices that divide people. Anyone who thinks an apple, with 800 million base pairs of DNA could “assemble itself” would also believe that an iPhone could be assembled out of a shifting “box of parts”, given enough time.

      1. Gilgamesh says:

        If that’s how people thought evolution worked, or it had anything to do with not believing in gods I could see why you’d think atheism was pretty silly. Your iPhone analogy might work better if cell phones reproduced and underwent natural selection while competing for limited resources over millions of years. I wasn’t “turned off” religious belief because of religious practices, I don’t believe in gods because they’re not supported by evidence or logic.
        Sorry, dangerously close to a thread derail. My point was, Freemasonry is an actively discriminatory organization aside from whatever baggage it otherwise has, and it’s a “society with secrets” which is pretty antithetical to the Maker ethos. Do they admit women? Has that changed in the last little while?

        I mean, call me crazy but an organization that wouldn’t admit Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman probably shouldn’t be one that the Maker community would want to join or endorse. Seems kind of silly to me. If anything, given how inclusive and opposed we are to hoarding knowledge Makers are kind of Anti-Masons.

        Now there’s a group I would join! The NegaMasons! REVEAL ALL THE SECRETS! DOCUMENT EVERYTHING! BWA HA HA HA!

        1. J Capp says:

          Matthew 7:6

          1. Gilgamesh says:

            Couldn’t you just post
            “Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you.”?

            And doesn’t that line kind of contradict the whole “Preach to all nations” thing? How can you convert people if you aren’t going to talk to the unholy ones?

            And seriously, that’s the best burn you could come up with? Quoting the bible to an atheist has about the same authority as quoting Dr.Seuss and them. I’ve read your book several times. I own more than one copy. It’s not lack of familiarity with the material, it’s that I don’t find the premise credible. The fact that your club has as a litmus test for membership a belief in the supernatural (Pick a god, literally >anyat best< misguided tells me that it's not faith that is a requirement for membership, it's gullibility. You only get to join the Masons if you can demonstrate the ability to suspend rational thought. Or are you an apostate, believing that the heathen members' beliefs are equally legitimate to your own?
            I seriously don't get that. Christians (and many other religions) are pretty clear on their feelings towards members of other religions (pagan, heretics, you get the idea). If you're that invested in your faith, how could you in good conscience belong to a spiritual organization that is mystical in nature and allows in members that aren't Christian? Doesn't that make you a heretic? And if the actual faith of the members isn't that important, why exclude atheists? Is it because we don't tend to believe in magic? Do you all worship some other non-biblical god? Is it C'thuhlu? I would totally be down for Lovecraft style cosplay if that's the case. Oh sorry, right, it's a secret, you can't talk about. Sorry.
            Wait, can Pastafarians join your club? They believe in a god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may you be touched by his noodley appendage, ramen). I will totally invest in a pirate outfit if Pastafarians can join the Masons.

    2. Andrew says:

      I think you are misinterpreting a couple of things.

      Freemasonry excludes atheists because freemasonry revolves around a supreme being. Removing a supreme being from Freemasonry would be like taking Arduinos away from an Arduino club. Knowing that, if you are an atheist, why care? As I don’t imagine you would be very interested in attending church, I don’t think Freemasonry would float your boat either.

      Oddly enough, the Grand Lodge of France actually does admit atheists. Seems odd to me as a Mason, and I don’t know what the point would be but hey, they’re French.

      Regarding the “sooper sekrets” as I think others have mentioned, the only ones that are still really kept under wraps are the means of recognizing other Masons. The other secrets I think were largely kept in order to avoid religious prosecution. Dogmatists don’t get along with free thinkers very well and the stakes were quite a bit higher in the past.

      Freemasonry in my personal experience has been an excellent organization filled with excellent men. Why not just leave it to its own devices rather than slag it?

  18. matthewmiddletondotca says:

    I’m assuming you’re joking at the end there – the Make/Hack community tends towards openness (with exceptions, of course), which pretty much goes against the whole “secret society” thing.

  19. From the discussion, it looks to me like the naysayers are either objecting to the “Secret” part of “Secret Society” (rightly so, I might add – hence the “document how you did it for republication” part of my own crazy idea) or are simply upset because of a perceived insult to Freemasonry (which I don’t really understand).

    If I close my eyes and imagine once more that I’ve been appointed the well-funded Supreme Overlord of the hypothetical “Makesonic” society, the only parts of the society that would be “Secret” would be amusing rituals (“Secret Handshake” and whatnot) and similar trivia used as “tribal” shibboleths, while the organization itself holds that dissemination of actual “making” information is a moral imperative (and acts quite the opposite of being a “trade secrets” group).

    Or in short, this organization would take it’s maker-encouragement mission very seriously, but not take itself seriously at all…

    I’d eagerly join an organization like this. Heck, I’d try to organize it myself if I had the experience necessary to do so, which I sadly don’t.

    (Of course, if someone were to kick in funding and connect me to competent advisors who could teach me what I needed to know… Oh, and let me have a Special Hat, because all Supreme Overlords need to have a Special Hat.)

  20. Gilgamesh says:

    I’m still think becoming the Nega-Masons has a nice ring to it. After all, a secret society that has no secrets and any one can join… well, it’s very Discordian isn’t it? All hail Eris! LOL

    I think it would make more sense to buy up the old Masonic Temples that are being sold off and repurpose them into something open, inclusive and dedicated to the dissemination of skills and knowledge. Again, the >opposite< of the Masons. We should keep the secret rooms though, secret rooms are cool. If you really need ranks and orders in the Non-Secret society of FreeMakers, you could have subdivisions by specialties, such as Archivists, Life Hackers, Builders, Programmers, Media Specialists, Magicians, Crafters, etc.

    Seriously, let the Freemasons have their thing, we can do a lot better.

    1. Kevin B says:

      I like this idea the best. Repurposing existing buildings from a failing exclusionary group seems much better than asking makers to “take it back.”. They don’t let in women, children, or atheists. Why would we want to be part of them?

      It seems like it may be a good way to pick up a good space on the cheap if your hacker space is looking for a permanent location. But it seems like picking up cheap mall space or a closed church would be more feasible. Plus the building would then possibly pick up walkin traffic.

      Is the purpose of the Maker Movement to share knowledge, to collaborate, to improve our understanding or techniques? If so, then taking “back” freemasonry seems the wrong call.

      I personally prefer the merit badge/passport style system.

  21. Light Keeper says:

    I like your sentiments. The lineage behind Freemasonry takes a new shape every so often as culture changes. I’m almost certain that the modern shift to the digital age will have its effects on the Craft and the bright minds of the world.

    You should check out Born in Blood for a great look at the history of freemasonry and how it evolved.