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The Mini Maker Faire in Toronto is a science fair for grownups that matters

Beneath the rusting beams of the kiln building at the Evergreen Brick Works, I am trying my hand at making a cup of tea.  I'm winding a key in order to turn a gear, which tightens a spring, which releases some thread, which dangles a tea-leaf holder into a (admittedly empty) mug at the other side of the table.

If you can't see the point of all this, then you've never been to a Maker Faire.

The contraption I'm playing with is "Clockwork Infuser," one of Russell Zeid's creations, a steam-punk contraption that lies somewhere between art and engineering. Zeid was one of 80 exhibitors to show off their home-made creations at Toronto's first Mini Maker Faire a few weeks ago at the Evergreen Brick Works.

Maker Faire is named after O'Reilley media's phenomenally successful Make Magazine, a collection of instructions, blueprints and recipes designed to encourage people to make their own stuff. The first Maker Faire, held in the San Francisco Bay area in 2006, was a place where crafters, glass-blowers, robot-makers and hackers could get together and trade tips.
The Faires have since spread, to New York, Detroit, North Carolina and now to Toronto.  Makers and hackers came from as far as Buffalo and Montreal to show off their creations, ranging from a giant solar reflector powerful enough to burn wood, to jewelry with LEDs that blink along with your heartbeat.   

At one end of the exhibit, Toronto maker Derek Quenneville shows off his 3D printer, which, as the name suggests, has the ability to print 3D prototypes of objects created on the computer.

Quenneville's 3D printer sprays thin layers of plastic onto a platform which eventually turns into an object that previously existed only on a computer screen.  During the Faire, Quenneville printed toys, whistles, chess pieces, even the earrings he was wearing.

Quenneville's MakerBot is a staple of the DIY community. Many "maker spaces" buy the kit on-line for $1200 and make their own printers at home to print out prototypes or moving parts for their latest projects. These printers have the potential to revolutionize the consumer goods industry. Imagine your kitchen faucet breaks and replacing it consists of finding the correct plans online and printing up a new one. 

At the other end of the Faire, crafters sell their creations, including bags made from old brewery sacs, and made-to-order glass-blown beads.  Quebecker Normand Fullum has developed a passion for making his own telescopes out of wood. As if his maker credentials weren't good enough, he even grinds his own lenses.  Beside him, the FIRST Robotics Team from Toronto high school East York Collegiate showed off their robot, which amused itself by playing a giant game of tic-tac-toe with inflatable pool toys.

Makers even found a creative way of capturing the tweeting and texting that went on all weekend.  Montreal's Foulab created a connection between the Mini Maker Faire twitter feed and an old typewriter from the 70s. Whenever a message was sent to @MakerFaire_TO, their "Tweletype" would spring to life, clacking away to produce a physical version of the ephemeral tweet.

Txt2Fold, a project that was incubated at the Canadian Film Centre's Media Lab at MaRS, turned text messages into origami keepsakes. "This is a system we created to take a text message that's trapped inside a phone," says project co-creator Ryan Bigge "and turn it into an attractive paper keep-sake."

Few of the engineers and hackers at Mini Maker Faire are motivated by money. Most have regular day jobs and devote most of their spare time to making stuff. In his recent book Shop Class as Soulcraft, motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford argues that working in offices with invisible data can be unsatisfying for many people, which leads to an urge to work with their hands.

There are, however, some groups at the Faire for whom making is a livelihood. Aesthetec is a Toronto-based company who make "engaging interactive experiences…touch, move, jump, hit, play." They were on-site prototyping upcoming exhibits for the Telus World of Science in Calgary, including a tight-rope walking solar-powered robot (aka the light-rope walker) and a screen on which people were encouraged to "paint with music".

Such experiments and whimsical designs in basements across the city are what form the basis for many of the innovative designs and technologies that change the marketplace every few years. When they get tested out on people, and refined and perfected, many of these ideas will, in some form, crawl out of the shadows and into the market, changing our relationship with technology.

Many makers wear their "maker" credentials like a badge and see their work as a philosophical reaction to technology. "We've gotten to the point where too much of the population doesn't understand that things are made," says James Arlen, founder of Hamilton maker-space Think|Haus, "that's a problem because we become beholden to it instead of it being beholden to us."
So the next time you break something, don't just toss it out, open it up to see what it looks like. Who knows, you might even be able to make something out of it.

Joseph Wilson is a freelance writer on issues of science, technology and culture.

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