Maker Faire

Posted on in On Our Radar by Goli Mohammadi

The Greatest Showand-Tell on Earth


Every spring for the past 11 years, a team of dedicated people have been transforming the San Mateo Fairgrounds into a wonderland of creativity, a celebration of human imagination and ingenuity called Maker Faire. Where else can you meet beekeepers sharing their latest homemade bee box designs across from a tent where anyone can learn how to solder electronics, while a 17-foot robotic giraffe named Russell rolls by and blasts hypnotic beats from his legs?

Each year, thousands of makers come out of their workshops to share what they’ve made, whether it’s art, tech, craft, food, robotics, musical instruments, or basically anything else. Whereas once, there were craft fairs for quilters, and tech conferences for folks who make R2-D2 replicas, Maker Faire brings all the creative realms together and celebrates them equally, encouraging cross-pollination, collaboration, and above all, sharing of knowledge.

The brainchild of Maker Media founder Dale Dougherty, Maker Faire was preceded by a DIY magazine called Make, which debuted in 2005 and still features a wide array of how-to projects ranging from repurposing an old VCR into a programmable cat feeder to making your own sous vide immersion cooker from scratch.

Dougherty recognized a shift taking place: alongside an increase in online networking and knowledge-sharing, a growing number of people were interested in being makers instead of just consumers, in making things with their hands or modifying what they had to better suit them. Early Make slogans like “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” “Void your warranty,” and “Permission to play” encouraged readers to roll up their sleeves, grab their tools, and indulge in the joy of tinkering. The overarching ethos, as Dougherty put it, is that “we are all makers.” It’s human nature to make things.

In a world where shop class had been cut long ago and many hands-on jobs had been outsourced to faraway lands, the pendulum swung, and people began gravitating back toward the tactile and creative, toward opportunities to imagine, create, and build, to be active participants rather than passive consumers. The Maker movement was in its early stages.

Make magazine was attracting people who were making amazing things. Four issues into the magazine, Dougherty, inspired by what might happen if serendipity were courted by bringing makers together in a physical space to share their creations, conceived Maker Faire.

Two other key factors that helped pave the way for the Maker movement were an increase in communal workspaces called makerspaces and an influx of new tools that brought manufacturing out of factories and onto desktops.

Often community-run, makerspaces house collections of tools that members can get trained in and use for personal projects. Knowledge-sharing is a cultural pillar of makerspaces, and they usually host classes and workshops. Libraries, schools, and museums began creating their own makerspaces, many with an emphasis on bringing the benefits of project-based learning to youth.

Desktop manufacturing tools like home 3D printers and laptop-controllable milling machines started appearing on the market and in makerspaces. These tools, previously available only at high cost to professionals, were becoming accessible to hobbyists, who were then able to create small businesses from their ideas.

In 2006, the first Maker Faire Bay Area drew 25,000 people who came out to be inspired by the projects of 200 makers. The 10th annual Faire last year drew over 100,000. Among the more than 1,000 projects were a high-tech fashion show, a 30-foot flaming sculpture made of old airplane parts, a bicycle-powered music stage, and a massive clothing swap.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Maker Faire and the Maker movement, though, is that the phenomenon is global. Now there are 150 community-based Maker Faires in places like Rome, Tokyo, Paris, Stockholm, Cairo, Vancouver, and Rio de Janeiro. There are Mini Maker Faires in towns like Telemark, Norway, and Anchorage, Alaska. Each of these fairs is organized by a local team of enthusiasts driven by the desire to bring their maker communities together, to infuse the local economy with a boost of ingenuity, and to spark youth interest in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math).

And while the basic premise is the same whether the demographic speaks Japanese or Russian, it’s fascinating to see how makers’ creations are reflective of their cultures. The universal language of making has many dialects.

In 2014, the White House hosted its own Maker Faire, and President Obama declared the first National Day of Making, issuing a call to action to “encourage a new generation of makers and manufacturers to share their talents and hone their skills.” This year the White House will commemorate a Week of Making starting June 12, inviting community spaces like libraries, schools, museums, and rec centers “to support and grow the number of our citizen-makers by hosting events, making commitments, and highlighting new innovations.”

Maker Faire is one of those events where even the most accurate descriptions fail to do justice to the singular experience of being there. Fortunately, regardless of where you live, chances are there’s a Maker Faire nearby. And if you’re in Northern California, you’re in luck since the biggest Maker Faire in the world is in our backyard, coming up on May 21 and 22 at the San Mateo Fairgrounds. Just remember that while the Maker movement is not a spectator sport, everyone is welcome. Roll up your sleeves, join the fun, and dare to be inspired by your own potential.

Goli Mohammadi is a word nerd, mountain addict, and former senior editor of Make.

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