Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Maker Faire in San Mateo: This Weekend!

If you're within driving distance of the San Francisco Bay Area, don't forget that the Bay Area Maker Faire is at the San Mateo Fairgrounds this weekend (May 19-21). Billed as the "world's largest show and tell", it's a huge, amazing World's Fair of crafty entertainment: multiple buildings full of folks showing off garage projects, manufacturers showing off the latest in electronics and tools, and tons of wacky and just plain interesting creations. I'd held off going for years because I wanted to spend the time on my own projects... but I finally went last year and found it quite amazing.

More importantly - for us as model railroaders - it's a gathering for our people. Much of Maker Faire is non-commercial; it has normal people showing off the things they've made with electronics (belly dancing outfit with an Arduino), machined metal, crazy Rube Goldberg devices (garage-sized spirograph that draws on the pavement with chalk), ham radio folks building high speed data networks, and parents helping kids understand biology by building cells out of Fimo clay.

And then there's all the crazy stuff that comes straight from Burning Man, like the Live Action Mousetrap game (with 5,000 lb safe crushing a car at the end), strangely lit art projects filling the darkened main hall, blacksmithing classes, oddly-shaped cars and conveyances, and sculptures shooting twenty foot high flames into the air.

More importantly, if you've had any questions whether the younger generation wants to make things, Maker Faire will convince you that the younger generation not only wants to build stuff with their hands, but is building some pretty amazing things. You'll see it both in the sheer number of kids watching and participating, and in the various clubs, and robot leagues, and craft projects that encouraging more kids to build things. Many booths are even interactive, allowing kids (and adults) to make something right there as a first step towards filling a garage with large metalworking tools.

Note that Maker Faire takes over most of the parking lots at the San Mateo fairgrounds, and the crowds are huge. Plan to either park at satellite lots and take shuttle buses to the fairgrounds, or take Caltrain to the show. Buy the tickets in advance, and bring comfortable shoes and a sense of wonder.

Details, details...

Now, if all that description didn't convince you to go, how about a quick run-down of what I saw last year, and what Maker Faire says about how we ought to be promoting our hobby?

Make Things, Share Things

Like I said, these are our people - many of the folks demonstrating at Maker Faire (or attending Maker Faire) have the same love of building things with their hands that we as model railroaders do. One maker space (shared shop and club) in Sacramento, for example, loved the idea of forming a team and working through a challenge. They built a spaceship bridge with multiple computer displays, and they'd have evening "operating sessions" where four people would work through some challenge set up by another - one person on navigation, another on engineering, weapons, life support, and someone sitting in Captain Kirk's chair. As a fan of model railroad operations, I can understand exactly what buzz they got out of a team co-operatively pulling through a problem.

Other booths were full of all the vendors selling Arduino, Raspberry Pis, and all sorts of other electronics that can run model railroad signals, or create a "working" car scale. I brought home a little Wi-Fi enabled microprocessor for a yet-to-be determined project on the layout. Other folks sold little boards that could be used to build a handheld device that could communicate with a cell phone over Bluetooth - just the right innards to make my own wireless throttle. Others showed off snap-together electronics kits to help kids get interested in electricity, or robots, or programming.

The folks selling all the modern shop tools were also there, with multiple 3d printer companies, laser cutters, huge CNC cutters that could carve full sheets of plywood at a time (now that would speed up benchwork!) For me, I found it great to compare the different printers and talk with the manufacturers. For folks less familiar with the different kinds of 3d printers and laser cutters, Maker Faire was the perfect way to see these machines in action, understand how they really worked, and what the resulting parts looked like.

There were also the crazy inventors that reminded me of a lot of my model railroader friends - folks making home-brew electronics for monitoring your car's diagnostics port, or some guys who had made their own pick-and-place machine for doing garage manufacturing of electronics.

We've all been enjoying many of the perks from the same electronics crowd in model railroading. In our local group, I know folks who are doing small-scale electronics manufacturing, or building CTC panels run off some of these bits of electronics. We're all quite happy about our garage manufacturers using those laser cutters to make finely detailed brick or designing kits for Southern Pacific stations. The crowd at Maker Faire are the same sorts of folks.

One Interest, but a Bunch of Directions to Explore

There's also the kindred spirits from near and far. This year, like last year, the Bay Area Garden Railway Society will be showing off large-scale live-steam locomotives. The historians and collectors were also represented, with the Computer History Museum bringing many 1970's era personal computers for anyone to come and try programming. For all of you who got a start programming on BASIC on a TRS-80 or Apple II back in 1977, getting to type "10 PRINT "HELLO"; 20 GOTO 10" can bring back some awfully fond memories. The Computer History Museum's larger projects have a lot more in common with railroad museums; Computer History Museum's restoration and operation of a 1950's IBM punch card-based computer probably has many of the same restoration stories as the folks getting an SD-9 running again... only with slightly lower amperages, and less grease.

Several ham radio clubs also showed up last year. I'm a little ashamed to say my mental image of ham radio operators is a bunch of guys tapping out morse code and trying to contact folks halfway around the world.

Their huge booth did match the stereotype a bit; they were offering ham radio license prep *and* license exams in the booth. But they also described themselves as "Not Your Grandfather's Ham Radio". The members pointed out that ham radio was a hobby for folks that liked building, experimenting with, and sharing technical projects that involved radio. These days, a ham radio operator is much more likely to be experimenting with high-speed Internet over radio than crowing about contacting a fellow operator in Russia.

I like that message. "We want to make things. Our hobby gives us a structure to figure out what to build next, past projects to build on and expand, and a community that will encourage and inspire us." Model railroading's a lot like that. We all have some interest in railroads, of course, but we all have our own reasons for being in the hobby: constructing models, experimenting with electronics, learning about geology, historical and architectural research, photography, or motors and mechanical engineering. We've got long-lived projects like our home layout or our particular subject interest that keeps us going. We've got a bunch of like-minded friends who understand our fascination with a particular locomotive, or freight car, or long-gone industry.

Like I said, Maker Faire is our people.

Be Interactive.

Maker Faire booths are often interactive; the goal isn't to get you watching someone doing something, but for you to do it as well. A friend from Apple, for instance, made a human-sized spirograph from bike parts, conduit, 3d printed parts, a scooter, and chalk. He sets it up outside one of the halls, and lets the kids ride around on the scooter while drawing patterns on the concrete. Like the Exploratorium, the infamously hands-on museum in San Francisco, Maker Faire is all about letting people touch, try, and make.

A booth last year was a bit more involved; they wanted to teach kids about the parts of a human cell, so they brought some Fimo clay and showed kids how to make little models of the cell by forming all the different bits in a multi-colored log. Slice the log apart, and the kid has a bunch of little clay cells. For a $5 donation, they'd go through the project with your child and send her home with a little reminder that biology was fun.

The fiber arts community went all-in, with a huge booth area and many volunteers teaching anyone interested how to crochet or knit. They even brought lots of spare knitting needles, crochet hooks, and yarn so folks could be sent home with a just-started project and the tools to complete it.

With model railroading, we're often not good at that kind of interaction and teaching. We can have a train show, but kids don't often get a chance to touch the models, let alone try building something themselves. Years ago, I remember a Canadian model railway show where one club had several modelers constructing models right there on the show floor, answering questions about the hobby, materials, and techniques the whole time. I loved it - both the chance to see how someone else models, and the chance to share tips while motioning with the specific model and tools. The modeling classes at model railroad conventions show how this interaction can draw people into the hobby more. I'd love it if we could find ways to introduce kids to model railroading - perhaps making a first freight car, or switching freight cars on a Timesaver (the PCR division's timesaver got me interested in switching as a teenager), or getting to make a quick cardboard building or hillside.

The breadth of Maker Faire is also stunning. I'd go from 3d printing or weaving projects from college art students, to a glowing robotic giraffe from Burning Man to scientists from Oak Ridge National Labs answering any and all science questions while making a supercomputer out of cheap Raspberry Pi computers. There was an entire section on living off the grid, gardening, and structures - I didn't even make dent that section last year.

And again, everyone was working to make their exhibits interactive. The Crucible, a shared shop for blacksmithing and metal arts, was doing their usual "shoot flames twenty feet in the air" schtick, but was also demonstrating blacksmithing, and letting kids paint and fire clay pots.

Next door, the civil engineering students from San Jose State were showing off their prototype for a monorail-like city transportation system. At a quarter scale, it must have taken several trucks to bring the vehicles, track, and supports, but they had it running automatically under computer control. Better yet, the students could talk about what they'd learned as they fabricated the rails and support, coded the computer controls to keep cars from crashing into each other, and worked through the economics. The students were obviously having a blast describing their work, even as the Crucible was setting off blasts of propane and flames forty feet away - with noticeable heat.

About Model Railroading

Honestly, I think model railroaders ought to be better-represented at events like this Maker Faire. The folks attending are our folks: interested in building stuff, in experimenting, in learning skills, and in sharing what they've learned with others. Maker Faire also shows the breadth of all the tinkerers and builders in society, from experimenting with lasers or modern computers to those who want to play around with tintype photography or blacksmithing, or the jury-rigged magic of the giant spirograph and live-action Mousetrap game. The focus on interaction - on letting kids and adults touch, and ask questions, and get a chance to see what the hobby is all about - seems essential to introducing new people to the hobby. Not everyone at Maker Faire might be interested in railroads. Those twenty-something kids who make the spaceship console, as much as they might be great candidates for yard master on a few model railroads I can think of, might never have caught the railroad bug. But if I brought out an operating layout of a yard and gave them a throttle, I suspect they'd appreciate the hobby and the games we play with model railroad operation.

How should our hobby interact with something like the Maker Faire? I don't think we need the NMRA at a table handing out brochures; we need to be interactive. We need to bring models, the people building models, and people operating trains. A couple friends and I talked a bit about an exhibit for the smaller Maker Faire run in San Jose every September. We thought about setting up a booth that could show the variety of directions in model railroading. We could bring some modules to show trains in operation, and talk about the historic research for Dave's model of the Santa Fe ferry slip in San Francisco. We could bring electronics, and talk about how John or Chuck built their CTC panels, and how the railroads kept trains from crashing into each other. We could build models with paper or styrene, give kids a paper building to cut out, put on the layout, and later take home. We could set up a timesaver to explain switching problems, and a loop of track so kids could handle a model train and get a sense for the fun of trains.

We never got around to that plan, but I think the idea is sound: share our hobby, share the fun of building things, and remind kids that they can make things too.

Again, the San Mateo Maker's Faire is May 19-21, 2017 at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds, just south of San Francisco. The San Mateo Maker's Faire is one of the largest in the country, if not the world - think of it as the equivalent of the huge Springfield, Massachusetts model railroad meet for the Maker community. If you're not local, keep an eye out for similar events in your area. Although there are similarly huge events in New York and elsewhere, there's also a ton of local, smaller Maker Faires that still capture the informal, show-and-tell feel. San Jose's Faire, for example, may not require multiple days to explore, but there's more time to talk with the participants, and wander, and just enjoy the kids and adults getting excited about laser cutters, balloon rockets, pressing flowers, or making music on home-made instruments. If you're part of a railroad, science, or historical museum, consider hosting a Maker Faire to get all these sorts of weird folks together to show what they're making.


  1. There are 3 train exhibits that I know of. Inside, the Lego trains. Outside, the live steam trains, I think it's BAGRS. And under a tent near the East Gate, the European Train Enthusiasts have their modules set up, and demos on how modules are built, and how signalling works on the modules.

  2. That's great news! I'm glad the ETE folks are showing the modules, and sharing about how they've built their layout. I'll be interested to hear what feedback they get from attendees.