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The Last Maker Faire?

Maker Faire Bay Area once again offers a visual feast, but financial woes could spell its demise

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Tens of thousands braved rainy weather for the 2019 Maker Faire Bay Area, a festival of do-it-yourself ingenuity that’s been dubbed the “Greatest Show and Tell on Earth.” Held May 17-19 at the San Mateo County Event Center, it was a showcase for a wide range of creative projects, including many with steampunk appeal.

Maker Faire robot

Sadly, it might have been the last Maker Faire in the San Francisco area due to financial challenges facing Maker Media, the company that produces the event. “We are struggling a bit to keep it all going,” Maker Media CEO Dale Dougherty told the San Francisco Chronicle. In addition to rising expenses, the event has lost major sponsors, including Microsoft, Intel, and Autodesk. The company, which also publishes Make magazine, laid off some employees in March.

This would be a huge loss for the maker movement and, in a lesser way, for steampunk. I had my first real-world encounter with steampunk at the 2011 Maker Faire, which featured a Steampunk Grotto with Obtainium Works, The League of S.T.E.A.M., and a handful of vendors. That put me on a course that eventually led to the launch of The Steampunk Explorer. Over the past couple of years, the genre has had a muted presence at the event, but given the sheer scale, Maker Faire still had plenty to inspire steampunk enthusiasts and creators.

The Bay Area event is the largest of about 200 Maker Faires held around the world. Only two — Bay Area and New York — are produced by Maker Media. The others operate under licenses.

The metaphorical storm clouds became real ones on Saturday afternoon, as rain drove many attendees into Expo Hall, Fiesta Hall, and other indoor venues. Many outdoor exhibits were under canopies, but foot traffic outside was sparse. The region rarely gets rain in May, and this was the first Bay Area Maker Faire where the weather was an issue. I also attended on Friday, a special preview day with blue skies and smaller crowds.

Steampunk highlights

Flying Saucer

The “Steam Bohemians” of Obtainium Works brought their latest mobile contraption, a flying saucer built on a disability scooter. It was an impressive piece of work: As “Fearless Leader” Shannon O’Hare drove it around, it tilted back and forth like a wobbly UFO. They had originally planned to bring their Steampunk Rocket Sled, but decided against it due to the weather forecast. The sled was first seen at the Mad Hatter Holiday Parade in Vallejo, California.

Obtainium Works was the anchor for an outdoor area informally dubbed “Obtainium Grove” that also included a handful of steampunk vendors. Sandra and Gene Forrer were also there promoting Clockwork Alchemy, the steampunk convention held in Burlingame, near San Francisco.

Kinetic Steam Works was back with some of its steam-powered contraptions: A printing press, an orrery (solar system model), and a restored 1917 tractor named Pappy. They had shown the orrery at January’s Edwardian Ball in San Francisco, but this time it was powered by steam instead of an electric motor.

Steamy Tech

Inside the Expo Hall, Steamy Tech showed its steampunk-inspired kinetic art projects, which are made largely from wood. Some are sold as finished products, but many are available as kits through Steamy Tech’s online store or the Box of Making, a monthly subscription program.

A few projects were not for sale, including Esmeralda, the box that recently won the Bay Area edition of The Great World Suitcase Challenge at Clockwork Alchemy. Esmeralda opens in response to spoken requests, but only if you ask nicely. If you speak in a harsh tone, you only get a peek inside, and it flashes a red light. This appears to be a sophisticated example of voice recognition, but the company’s official stance is that its products are infused not with technology, but with magic.

From the Playa

As always, Maker Faire also provided a showcase for art projects first seen at Burning Man. They included “Rearing Horse,” a new kinetic sculpture from Barry Crawford. Towering 14.5 feet, it’s surrounded by a fence containing cranks that control its movements. Crawford has set up a Facebook page that shows the project as it was under construction, from initial stick figures to completion.

Rearing Horse

Crawford’s ”Mechateuthis,” a giant mechanical squid, has been a highlight of past Maker Faires. He told me that “Rearing Horse” was easier to build because it includes more found objects. He had to fabricate most of the pieces for “Mechateuthis.”

”Myriapoda Robota,” a 30-foot mechanical centipede, was the centerpiece of the Dark Gallery, a room dedicated to illuminated art projects. It was made by David Date and David Han, largely from industrial aluminum scrap and LEDs.

Other notable works from Burning Man included “Captured Robot Squid” by Justin Gray; “Maria del Camino” by Bruce Tomb; “F1 Machine” by Ryon Gesink; “Playa Crawler” by Mark Ellis; and “Let U.S. Prey” by Mr and Mrs Ferguson.

Flaming Lotus Girls offered a preview of “Serenity,” a pyrotechnic art installation planned for the 2019 Burning Man. Three giant fireflies, each with different flame effects, will sit on a broken jar. Each firefly will have 24 buttons that people can push to generate the flames. The San Francisco-based arts collective launched a Kickstarter campaign on April 18 and met its $27,000 goal a month later.

You can see these projects and more in the photo gallery below.

Related coverage:

A Showcase for DIY Creativity (May 13, 2019)

Steampunk “Cools” at Maker Faire (May 28, 2018)

Burners at Maker Faire (May 23, 2018)

Steam-Powered Makers (Feb 27, 2018)

Steampunks Head for Maker Faire (Feb 23, 2018)


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