A few months ago, we enjoyed a lovely afternoon at the Ottawa Maker Faire. I’ve been meaning to write about it forever but somehow it got pushed aside and buried beneath other things until now. What is a Maker Faire, you ask? It’s wonderful, that’s what it is!
The Maker Faire is a celebration of the spirit of creation. It’s purpose is to “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset.” It is a two-day event where inventors and artists and ordinary people who like to tinker and create get to strut their stuff and inspire a little DIY making spirit in people of all ages. The kids loved it. Absolutely loved it. Especially when they got handed a bag full of electronic bits and pieces and a hot soldering iron and were told to play with molten metal for a bit, all by themselves.
The first thing that caught their eye was this:
(Sorry for the terrible photos – I forgot the camera and took these with my phone in a dimly lit and very crowded hall) It’s a table tennis robot. It shoots ping pong balls across the room over and over again, powered by a stripped down cordless screwdriver. Having just acquired a table tennis table the month before, the kids were quite understandably fascinated by the idea of building a robotic tennis partner that would never get tired of playing.
Nearby, we found other robots. Many, many robots. Some were even made out of Lego (one even had a tiny Yoda minifig riding on top). Most were covered in signs that said things like “please do not touch” — understandable, given how many hours went into creating them — and the kids were amazingly good about keeping their hands to themselves despite the almost unbearable urge to pick things up and give them a poke and turn them over to inspect their guts.
Not everything was untouchable, however. One woman had set up a stop motion animation station with buildings made out of paper and crumpled up balls of “rock” that could be arranged all around as if a massive rockfall had just wiped out the area. She even had a old tin car that you could drive through the wreckage — or bury in boulders, depending on your personal preferences. She let the kids set up a scene and then coached them through making slow little changes while she photographed it with a digital SLR on a tripod. The camera was wired into her laptop and after running through a bunch of stills, she would play them back to you as a mini-movie. There was a looooooong lineup of kids wanting their turn at creating paper mahem at her booth.
Elsewhere, there was a double-temptation: an old-fashioned dynamite detonator like you see in really old movies, essentially a box on the ground with a T-shaped handle that you press down on. That was rigged up to be a force meter and the goal was to push the bar down as hard as you could and then look at the computer to see how strong you are.
Right beside the DynoForceMeter, there was an old-school teletype machine chattering away and long streams of teletype paper covered in messages. Twitter messages, to be exact. What else were we to do but log in to Twitter right there on my phone and leave a message for the TwitterType machine? It just had to be done. The kids were suitably impressed when a message I typed into my cell phone appeared bare moments later typed on the page by the rattling, clattering teletype (which, having never seen one before, was enough of a novelty all on its own).
I must admit, I was impressed, too. I remember the first time my dad brought home a cell phone. It made phone calls. Anywhere. Without plugging it in. And you could carry it around in a briefcase (it came with its own, since it was about the size of one). And here I was at the Maker Faire with a phone that slips into my pocket with room leftover, not only making phone calls but taking pictures of a teletype machine as it typed the message I had just sent it via the Internet, and then emailing those same photos to The Man We Call Dad, all in the span of a minute. Things sure have changed a lot in the last 25 years.
Further on, the kids had another opportunity to try something for themselves, though this one was a lot larger. And redder.
My favourite part was when the builder was explaining how the electric motor powers the bike wheels in really simple terms (for what was probably the thousandth time that weekend) and K, annoyed with being talked down to, asked him why he wasn’t recovering the energy generating during braking to extend the range the bike could go on a single charge. The man literally recoiled half a step and blinked about a dozen times while his brain rearranged itself, and then the two of them started really talking. And talking. And talking.
I have a feeling a similar bike may appear in our garage some day soon.
As for that soldering iron? We definitely need to buy one soon. I’ve had my eye on the Snap Electronics kits for a while now, but after watching the kids do this:
…I’m thinking there’s value in doing the real thing, even if we might end up with a few singed fingers.