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Looking Back at the Launch of the Maker Movement: The First Maker Faire

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Ten years ago this spring, on April 22 and 23, the staff of a scrappy new “technology on your time” magazine called Make: descended upon a very spacious and suddenly sparse-looking San Mateo fairgrounds. No one was actually sure how many people would attend, or how all this was going to go down on that slightly overcast weekend. But the crew was filled with nervous excitement over what was about to take happen. The gates opened on Saturday morning, attendees streamed in, and Maker Faire — and in many ways, the Maker Movement — was off to the races.

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By the end of the weekend, the thoroughly inspired and spent organizers realized they were clearly onto something, something potentially big and significant. As founding Editor-in-Chief Mark Frauenfelder recalls: “None of us, the staff or the attendees, had any idea what to expect. The Faire turned out to be one of those things that was way better than any of us could have imagined. It was the Woodstock moment for our tribe, a lovefest and kickoff event for a new way of life for hundreds of thousands of us.”

Phillip Torrone, then the editor of this website, recalls his feelings over that surprising weekend: “I remember thinking we’d be lucky if two thousand people showed up. By 1PM there was about 10,000 people elbow-to-elbow, pouring into all corners of the fairgrounds. By the next day, it was 20,000 people, and I remember thinking: ‘OK, this is going to be a something big that’s not going to go away. We’re going to need a bigger boat, as they say.’ I lost my voice from talking so much.”

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“One of the things that struck me was how a team of editors, authors, designers, and publishers had the ability to put on such a kick-ass event,” says illustrator Tim Lillis (who was doing a comic for the magazine). “It really did feel like Make: magazine had come to life.”

“I can trace many changes in my life to that weekend,” says Maker Ken Murphy. “The Blinkybug project I rolled out at the event went on to be one of the first kits sold in the Maker Shed. A whole chain of experiences and opportunities grew out of that Faire. I was eventually able to change how I devoted my time and energy, how I make my living.”

becauseWeCanMany maker businesses got their start over this first event, and at the many Faires that have followed. Jillian Northrup, co-owner of Oakland-based design-build studio Because We Can, remembers how excited they were to go to the 2006 Faire. “We had just launched our business, but had not quit our day jobs yet. We were truly just beginning. I remember when we received our acceptance letter, thinking: ‘Wow! They’re giving us a spot! We’re like a real company now.'”

“Our workshop was called CNC for Couples,” adds Jeffrey McGrew, Jillian’s business partner (and husband). “We met so many amazing people that first Faire, people who became lifelong friends, future collaborators, and future clients. That weekend changed our lives forever!”

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For the first Faire, Make: founder Dale Dougherty asked Bay Area tech educator Michael Shiloh to put together Make Play Day, an area filled with tools and techno-junk where kids and families could come in and cobble together their own crazed inventions and high-tech kid art. The room was a huge success and in many ways planted the seeds for all Maker educational activities that have followed, from the Learn to Solder tents at today’s Maker Faires to the Maker Education Initiative.

Former O’Reilly employee Bruce Stewart remembers that first Faire day, and surely speaks for other parents, in seeing his young son’s reaction to the event: “I remember walking up to the gate with my son Kindy, then 11,” he says. “We stopped in our tracks at the sound of a very loud, fiery explosion coming from somewhere near the entrance. Kindy looked at the tall flames rising up, looked back at me, and started running towards their source. He was sucked in before we even got inside! Between robots, Legos, fire, explosions, and the great ‘build what you want out of this e-junk’ room, he was in heaven. I remember thinking: ‘I bet this is a deeply interesting and inspirational experience for kids.'”

playDay_3Torrone (and others associated with Make:) sometimes get email from young adults first inspired by Maker Faire: “Ten years for an adult isn’t such a long time, but there were kids at that first Faire who are now in their early 20s. They’ll email me once in a while and tell me how much Maker Faire sparked something in them to pursue a career that wasn’t even thought possible at the time.”

The path that Evil Mad Scientist Lab’s Lenore Edman (and husband Windell Oskay) has taken through Maker Faire and the Maker Movement is perhaps indicative of the trajectory of the movement itself. “We took our interactive LED dining table to the first Faire. So many people said they’d like to make one that we created a kit with PCBs. That was one of our first motivations for starting our business. Fast forward 10 years and we just got back from demonstrating our EggBot at the White House Easter Egg Roll during National Robotics Week. That seems to capture something of the journey that Maker Faire set us on. I think this means my life is pretty extraordinary.”

Bre Pettis, co-founder and former CEO of MakerBot, was Make:‘s video podcaster at that first event. Like everyone else, he was inspired by that dizzying weekend and where Makers have gone since, but he thinks the Maker Movement still has a long way to go. “I think the hard work of inspiring the next generation to be more creative, self-reliant, and empowered is still in its infancy. We still have a lot of work to do. I’m definitely going to continue to do my part to empower creative explorers. When Make: started, its tag line was ‘technology on your time.’ It was focused on hobbyists. Now, with Kickstarter, Raspberry Pi, Adafruit, there are so many more pathways for turning a passion for making into a product and career. It’s an exciting time to be a Maker.”

And so, here’s to that first Maker Faire weekend, the last 10 years, and to the next decade of the Faire and to its ever-growing “maker tribe.”

[All photos by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid]

9 thoughts on “Looking Back at the Launch of the Maker Movement: The First Maker Faire

  1. My sons and I piled into the mini cooper in Oceanside (down by San Diego) back in 2006 and made the first of many trips up to the bay area for all of the Maker Faires as well as the robot competitions. We had no idea what to expect, but had the same experience as we parked the car and there were huge plumes of flame coming from just inside the gates :) We knew we had found something special. We have not missed a Faire since and are looking forward to this year as well. Every year we have brought more people (graduated to the minivan after the first 3 years…) and we actually have two cars full coming this year. Too much fun! :)

    1. Thanks for sharing your story Eric. 10 years later and it is truly still something special. I was with the team in San Mateo yesterday planning. The excitement and energy is still as strong as it was 10 years ago, and the Maker Faire team is still the same (go Louise, Jonathan, Bridgette and Dale, Ralf and Rob and many, many more)…. It truly is the Greatest Show and Tell on Earth!

      1. Sherry – Thank you and your team for your work at the Faires. As I mentioned it has become a tradition in our family and we look forward to it every year. My older son is at college now, but there is no way he will miss the Faire, we swing by and pick him up on the way up :). I know you are busy getting ready, just wanted to pass along our gratitude for all the hard work!

  2. I was so lucky to be around at the beginning of Maker Faire. For me, most of it happened before the gates opened. My desk was next to Dale’s, and I remember him picking up the phone, time after time, to call makers and discuss what they needed, answer their questions, help them solve any problems that were coming up. The intricate logistics of it all were maddening; the number of details that Dale, Louise, and Sherry were working with boggle the mind. I realized later how lucky I was to see that happen: to see someone have a vision and to make that vision a reality. It really was Dale’s vision; everyone else brought their ideas of what a Maker Faire should be, and those ideas were welcomed. But Dale knew how the event should unfold; he knew it had to be dynamic, participatory, and interesting. People resonated with the idea but in practice it’s very difficult to execute on something like that. He broke us out of the “legal will never let us do it” mindset. It was just incredible to be around someone bringing a vision like that into physical reality.

    1. Terrie – thanks for chiming in. You played an important part in getting our “Call for Makers” out and our web site up. The details are still crazy and complicated; and we still call makers and get them to come to the event and bring their projects. And we continue to think differently about everything — and give the makers an amazing venue to “show and tell” what they do…. It isn’t always easy, but is is very rewarding. Hope to see you at our 10th Anniversary Show this year… and, we could always find something for you to do if you are so inclined ;-)

      1. Sherry, I’d be happy to help—feel free to send my contact info to anyone who needs it. Email is terriem@gmail.com and my phone number is on Facebook. I keep meaning to check out the volunteer signup. Every once in a while I think about sending you guys a resume but it becomes a problem to try to target it for any one thing!

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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