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Makers Faire Inspires Inventions

  • Shelley Schlender

Making ordinary things into extraordinary objects is a passion for many people. The many forms of that creative inspiration are celebrated each spring at the San Mateo Fairgrounds, near San Francisco. It's called the Maker Faire, as Shelley Schlender reports.

Everyone's having fun at the Maker Faire, an annual event in San Francisco that draws over 60,000 artists, children, inventors and computer geeks, to enjoy making things and swapping often-zany ideas.

One of the artists, a glassblower, says he loves being part of it. "This place is so big, it's like this demented Disneyland. There's 300 hours of stuff to see in a short weekend!"

That stuff includes the unusual crafts; latest in solar powered, plug in cars; and big metal balls that follow children around like puppies. Artist Marnia Johnston shows off the remote control that makes the spheres roll wherever she wants them to. "That's how we steer and that's how we go forward or backward with the orbs," she explains.

Both girls and boys like using remote controls to run robot cars, while it's mostly girls at the booth where they make paper boxes with stapled-on flowers and plenty of ribbon. One young crafter explains, "I like doing it because, in the end, you have a really nice box!"

"It's an opportunity to bring makers together," says Dale Dougherty, the maker of the Maker Faire, adding that the festival has something for everyone. Dougherty is editor and publisher of Make Magazine. It focuses on do it yourself projects, ranging from computers to metal welding, often using inexpensive and easy-to-find materials that people tinker with then transform into something amazing.

Doherty says that he's a tinkerer. He gets ideas in his head . . . like creating this Maker Faire. "I thought it would inspire even the makers to do more work and for the public themselves to become makers. We have rockets and robots and sewing and needle felting, musical instrument making and people creating different interfaces for music."

Among those interfaces is a hands-on exhibit that includes rubber mallets and piano strings that show just how the music gets made. After trying it, a young boy has it figured out. "When you hit a different string, it makes a higher or lower note, depending on how long or short it is," he explains.

Nearby, scientist Kurt Kuhlmann shows how he's using computer chips to make a low-cost microscope that can identify infections such as TB and malaria. He says it provides nearly as sharp an image as a $10,000 microscope, yet his $100 instrument is cheap enough, and durable enough, to use in developing nations.

He uses a camera phone to take a picture through the eyepiece, and shows it to a visitor. "So that's a good picture of a white blood cell next to malaria. You want to be able to upload a picture to a website where real pathologist with 20 years experience can look at it right away and go 'oh, that's this rare blood infection. You want to do this.'" Kuhlmann is trying to mass-produce these low-cost microscopes and get them out to clinics in rural areas.

Dale Dougherty says serious inventions, such as this microscope, are included in the Maker Faire on purpose. "It is a combination of science fair and art fair and craft fair. I think the explosion of creativity around Maker Faire is part of seeing this odd mix of different things."

That odd mix includes a lightning making demonstration and the blast of fun as people pedal around on a sort of porch swing that's suspended from a contraption with three-meter high wheels. It was made by a local tinkerer, who's on hand to explain how he made it. "The wheels are two-inch aluminum tubing and we built basically a tube bender in the driveway. The tires are mountain bike tires. They're just cut-up mountain bike tires that are glued onto the aluminum rims."

Whatever they're made from, all these made objects matter to Dale Dougherty. The man behind the Maker Faire says it's fun to see the makers talk about what they do, and to watch people learn from them. It also means a lot to him that for the most part, the makers are local. "Many of these people are coming from Bay Area garages and backyards and homes. This is something they do at night or they do it on the weekend or early in the morning. Maker Faire is a place for them to bring it, and they meet other people that are just like them."

Doherty has started a similar Maker Faire in Austin, Texas. He says it would be easy to hold Maker Faires, in any size city, anywhere in the world, because whether it's making music, crafts, whimsical contraptions or scientific inventions, there are makers everywhere.

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