The convention of do-it-yourselfers connected builders and dreamers from South Jersey with some of the biggest ideas in the world of technology.
By Matt Skoufalos
Jeff Del Papa is about to pull the trigger on a waist-high, scrap-iron coin flipper that’s modeled on a 15x scale magnification of his own thumb.
“Call it!” he barks.
Someone yells, “Heads!”
The rope jerks, and the mechanism discharges, sending a silver disc the size of a garbage can lid somersaulting end over end before it lands in the dirt with a hefty thunk, clown-face side up.
“Heads!” Del Papa says.
While the Massachusetts native with the frontier beard reloads his device with a cordless drill, University of Connecticut student Stephen Hawes is readying his wrist-mounted personal flamethrower with the help of his roommate.
They’re trying to move quickly to capitalize on the overflow crowd from the Eepybird.com Coke-and-Mentos presentation, which is winding down while Mark Perez and crew reset their life-sized version of the physics lesson that is the board game Mousetrap.
Audible in the background is the commentator from the Game of Drones UAV-dogfighting league, hyping up an audience that has gathered to watch remote-controlled hobbyists smash their flying machines against one another in mid-air.
This is Maker Faire, a two-day collision of arts and technology that has drawn curiosity seekers, patent-holders, and schoolchildren to Corona Park and the Hall of Science in Queens, New York on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Even as “maker spaces” have cropped up nationwide—locally, at places like The Factory in Collingswood and the SoHa Arts Building in Haddon Township, which organized a busload of attendees from South Jersey—and the maker “movement” spurs a cottage industry of tech startups and craftsmen, the question of what a maker is, does, or makes is still not universally appreciated.
“Remember all those people in high school who were doing science fair or sewing their own clothes?” Del Papa said.
“Now they’re 15 years older and they have money and some time. They’re doing the same thing, but to a much larger, more elaborate standard.
“The big difference now is that there’s a name for people like me,” he said.
Del Papa, whose claims to fame include being one of the first American contestants on Junkyard Wars, describes himself as having “creative compulsive disorder.”
(Del Papa even distributes plans for the latter device, which he’s mocked up like an IKEA catalogue, complete with a fake, Swedish-sounding name: Hjürl).
That D.I.Y. atmosphere is what makes Maker Faire distinct from a technology trade show like CES.
Not only are presenters happy to discuss how their technologies work, but they offer pointers, sometimes even blueprints, for spectators to make their own. The admonition “Don’t try this at home” is loudly upended at every turn.
That approach to information-sharing is what’s bringing the maker movement out of solitary garages and basements and into public spaces, said Bridgette Vanderlaan, Marketing Director for Maker Faire.
“It’s back to that spirit of community,” she said. “If one of us does better, we’re all going to do better.”
The inclusivity factor is farther-reaching than just the open-source movement, Vanderlaan said.
At the earliest Maker Faires, she confesses it took her a little while to repress the impulse to direct boys to the model rocketry exhibits and the girls to the crafting stations. Today she points out how much parents to children of either gender are hands-on in a cross-section of activities with their kids.
“It’s boys and girls, black and white, rich and poor, handicapped and able,” agreed SoHa Director Lavon Phillips.
“Everybody’s invited,” he said. “When you cater to the kids, all the adults are enjoying it.”
Fifteen-year-old Daniel Pfeiffer of Philadelphia, who attended SoHa classes in motorized paper airplanes and 3D printing, left Maker Faire with one thought: “I should learn more programming.”
“Kids are learning,” said Joseph Acerbo, 13, of Mount Laurel. “They’re thinking, ‘When I get home, I want to build this stuff.’”
Joe and Barbara Acerbo, who home-school their children, said that Maker Faire is a can’t-miss event for the family because it enables them to follow their interests immersively.
Parents are looking for “every bit of inspiration you can cram in,” said Joe Acerbo.
“It only takes one light bulb to go off,” he said.
Acerbo’s daughter, Gina, who directs the makerspace at the Mount Laurel public library, said that events like Maker Faire still help to “show people what’s there,” even as more technological activities creep into traditional school curriculums.
“I like new technologies,” she said. “I like design. A lot more careers are going to come out of it.”