For weeks we’d been anticipating our large public debut at the Maker Fair, a massive exhibit of creations by nearly 600 home inventors from around the world. Held in the San Mateo County fairgrounds south of San Francisco, the fair has grown in its past eight years to a Bay Area happening attracting some 80,000 home DIY-ers, tinkerers, artists and alpha geeks.
The organizers of the Fair, associated with Make Magazine, couldn’t have been nicer to us. They provided us with parking and a lovely conspicuous outdoor spot in full sunshine. So Saturday morning we found ourselves on a lush grass lawn at the end of one of the big buildings, near the bike technology zone. Across the road from us was a coal gasification device. On the other side of the walkway was a robot group from a catholic college. They had diving robots in a backyard pool. This was a good location, as we had southern exposure for the panels, and visibility from three sides.
There was a lot of visitor traffic. There were also interesting vehicles wheeling past, one of which was a solar powered quadracycle. A neighbor cycled by on a fully suspended recumbent trike he had made, and had them for sale. The fun vehicles inspired us to take rides around occasionally. This was a good idea, since we then got more exposure, gauging by the exclamations.
It was strange to ride at such slow speed parting through the thick crowds, and thrilling to have them appreciate this. We used the bell and horn a lot, though we weren’t obnoxious. Everyone expected the next strange contraption to pass by, piloted by eccentric inventors. We got a lot of serious interest on these excursions, but couldn’t talk for as long as when we were stationary. We would hear “…solar bike…solar?…it’s solar…” as we passed by.
Bryan, being more gregarious, handled the people with many questions and long discussions. He had a chair with shade, and could hang out and talk at length. Russell took the opposite end of the trike, waiting until people had read the posters and had questions. We passed out many of our flyers with specifications. Russell is the type who would read first and ask questions later, but some people are the opposite, and we could handle either type.
For the posters, we had a block diagram of the electrical system, a spec sheet, and the drawing of us as hot rod monsters. It all said what needed to be said. People could take the 8 1/2 by 11 flyers from a table. It was gratifying to see groups of fans having technical discussions, pointing at the posters and designing their own solar vehicles on the fly.
Others peered at the mechanisms, absorbing information that way. Such people often had very specific questions. Where else but at the Maker Fair could one have random conversations about battery chemistry, charge controllers and the aerodynamic advantages of bike fairings? We were surprised by how many technical tinkerers had thought about building a solar bike but couldn’t quite get things together. This year…
We were also tickled by the warm culture of helping and gifting among the exhibiting inventors. One guy from Canada lent us a portable sound system he’d designed expressly for electric bikes. We strapped it onto our trailer and would add loud solar-powered music to the din of the crowd. Later on we learned that the audio amplifier he designed will be available to any ebike running 20-72 volts through The Renaissance Bicycle Company in Vancouver, B.C. It’ll be a wonderful thing to have music on board when we take our long ride and enjoy music when we camp.
There were hundreds of fascinating people and projects we came to know over the long weekend, but one in particular matched the spirit of empowering science education we embrace. Kevin Norman of the Berkeley-based ‘Science Whiz’ holds a series of summer camps to teach youth how to make their own electric bikes. At the end of each week’s session the student emerges with a working bike of their own. Remarkable. And even more remarkable is that one week’s session designs and funds a small solar-charged electric bike. If you know a kid who would be dazzled by this challenge they would really enjoy going to: www.sciencewiz.org
Guys tended to be the technical ones, explaining the device at hand to their girlfriends. Though we did talk to one woman who made electrified bikes and trikes, and was asking some detailed questions as to how she might incorporate solar power. Russell has installed Exploaratorium-style science education exhibits at Burning Man, and has found the same guy-explains-tech-to-girlfriend phenomenon. Its something the guy can do, and in the best of situations, is seen as endearing and enhancing closeness.
It was gratifying to see so many kids brought there by their parents. Here, three generations share interest. One little kid was crawling on his hands and knees, asking what this and that was. As Russell explained the solar charging scheme, the child understood immediately, repeating back his verbal formulation of what had been said. He could have been six or seven. The kids being at the faire indicates what kind of parents they have; the type who teach technical thinking early. There are probably both innate and learned aspects to this kind of thinking, which flourishes when natural ability is augmented with mental discipline. Making a project that has to work is the best discipline I can think of.