April 12-18, 2006

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Tomato soup battery

Courtesy www.woodeson.co.uk
Tomato Soup Battery: British artist Ben Woodeson contributes his invention, a battery that draws its power solely from generic tomato soup, to the 'Make' blogsite.

Meet Your Makers

The refashioning craze is hailed in O'Reilly's new magazine

By David Templeton

After gadget-loving hacker advocate Dale Dougherty--the editor and publisher of the popular Make magazine--was introduced around at a recent dinner party, his new acquaintances were asked if they'd ever heard of Make. One of the people Dougherty had just met jumped in and said, 'I can tell you about Make magazine! Make magazine has ruined two cocktail parties I've been at recently!'"

So recalls Dougherty, speaking from his office at the sprawling O'Reilly Media Inc. complex in Sebastopol. "Husbands and boyfriends, evidently, have a habit of abandoning their dates as soon as they notice a copy of Make on the coffee table or wherever," Dougherty laughs. "Once they pick it up and start reading, that's it, they're absorbed. The date has lost the guy for at least an hour. I love hearing that kind of thing."

The absorption factor is incredibly high with Make, no doubt because no one who's ever taken apart a gizmo and put it back together again can resist reading about the guy who built his own monorail in his backyard, or detailed instructions on how to build a video-camera stabilizer for $14.

Since Make's inception last year, it has also informed readers on how to remove the legs from mechanical dogs, attach wheels and place a toxic gas sensor in its nose, then program the thing to roll around landfills looking for methane releases; how to turn bicycle wheels into a high-tech, rolling light show with full-color effects; how to rig an aerial camera to a kite and combine a blue-tooth headset with a Mac; how to turn a little stuffed toy into the world's best white-board eraser; how to build a portable, foldable wheelchair ramp, a magnetic-card swipe reader, a portable satellite radio, or a ground-scuttling robot built from a computer mouse.

Dougherty knows that somewhere out there, there are a lot more crazy projects like these, just like he knew that those kinds of people were waiting for a publication that honored and celebrated their frequently impugned, obsessive-compulsive maker lifestyle.

Dougherty, who's been with O'Reilly since 1984, is the guy who developed the Hacks series of books--Google Hacks, eBay Hacks, TiVo Hacks, Linux Server Hacks--all of which take the hacker ethic and apply it to solving all kinds of technological problems, serious and otherwise. From those books came the idea of a regular publication that celebrated and explained the do-it-yourself innovation of everyday people.

Created as a cross between Popular Mechanics and Martha Stewart Living, the slickly produced, paperback-quality magazine is a quarterly publication and runs $15 a pop with pages packed full of profiles of creative people with a techno bent who make super-incredible things in their own homes. Recently celebrating its one-year anniversary, with each issue outselling the last, Make and its creators have a lot be happy about. Issue five is currently in the stores, number six is due out at the end of May and sales are strong for the recently released box set containing Make's first four volumes.

Along the way, the editors and writers of Make have turned the word "maker" into a household noun among tinkerers, hackers and other inventors--most of whom are now calling themselves makers.

Makers, in fact, is the name of the book O'Reilly published last September, a collection of 60 profiles of especially unusual inventors and their projects, including one guy who's found a way to heat his pool using his patio barbecue.

"There are so many interesting people out there doing all this cool stuff," Dougherty says. "Gradually, we're hearing from more and more of them all the time. The more well-known the magazine becomes, the more of those people are finding their way to us, sending us e-mails saying, 'Hey, I've been a maker for 10 years.' We've only used the term 'maker' for about a year, but it seems to have caught on, and now everybody who does these kinds of projects is referring to themselves [that way]. It's pretty cool."

All of this glory and renown, of course, was bound to end up breeding side projects. Right on cue, O'Reilly is preparing to announce that Make will soon be launching a special crafts issue, one that is being positioned as the first step toward a full-fledged sister magazine to Make, a publication that will probably be titled Craft. That one will focus on the ways in which materials and tools are transforming traditional crafts, making it possible to knit your own robot dolls or weave LED threads into fabric in order to make snappy outfits that glow, blink and change colors.

With so many newly dubbed makers out there fusing things together in their garages and extra bedrooms, Dougherty and his team have decided it was time to bring a bunch of them together outside the pages of the magazine. This month, on April 22-23, O'Reilly throws its first annual Maker Faire at the San Mateo Fairgrounds, featuring over a hundred makers and about 60 crafters.

"That's going to be interesting," Dougherty says. "All those makers in one place, showing off their gadgets and crafts and crazy inventions. From what we're hearing, makers from all over the country are going to be in San Mateo for this thing. It's a way they can see what others are doing, and maybe talk about or showoff what they've been up to. I can't wait to see what's there."

Some critics have accused Make of a kind of underground, anti-Americanism, encouraging people to create things they could be spending their hard-earned U.S. cash on, thereby supporting the American economy. These naysayers suggest that this is a bad thing, alarmed that Make might be galvanizing a new generation of impressionable techno-geeks, motivating them to tear their possessions to pieces in a quest to put them back together in ways that make them better, stronger, faster, freakier, taller and cooler.

"I don't think we're trying to convince people to do anything they're not already doing," argues Dougherty. "If this is fun, people will do it for the fun. We're not trying to convince people to void the warranty on their gadgets just because it's a radical thing to do; we're just saying that toying with your gadgets is a fun thing to do, it's a possible thing to do, and isn't that interesting? Doesn't it open up doors to look at everything around us in a new way? Isn't that the purest expression of the creative impulse? Taking apart a mouse to see if you can turn it into a light-seeking junkbot isn't just a cool, bold thing to do; it's a human thing to do."

One could argue that building things is the ultimate celebration of American pluck, resolve and innovation. In a way, there is nothing more American than finding a way to build an air-conditioning system for your college dorm room using a bucket of cold water running through a tub of ice, up through a series of coils, then up behind a fan. Dougherty was approached last summer by a guy who'd done just that.

"I wouldn't say we are creating a new breed of makers so much as helping people to identify themselves as always having been makers," he says. "It's almost instinctual to make things, at some level, even though some people are sort of condescending toward that, constantly reminding the makers of the world that what they are doing isn't all that important. I was talking to this woman the other day, and she was sort of ashamed to admit to me that for years she's been buying old purses, taking the insides out and remaking the purse into something else. She was sure I wouldn't think it was a very important project, but it is, because every time someone takes something, thinks it over creatively and then turns that something into something else, they continue the maker impulse.

"We happen to think that a very important impulse."

For information about the upcoming Maker Faire, check out www.makezine.com/faire.

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