Making It

I can imagine the ghosts of Ford, Edison and Wrights smiling on these people, people who are sometimes dismissed by society at large as being “nerdy.” These people are making and doing and sharing and learning. These people are in and of the present, but they are also avatars of the future.

On July 27, standing in the parking lot of The Henry Ford in Dearborn, a parking lot that had been transformed into what could be considered a 21st-century old time traveling show of technology (yes, that’s oxymoronic, but then seeing a replica of an R2D2 rolling along by the first Fordson tractor inside the Henry Ford Museum isn’t exactly the sort of thing that is temporally ordinary, either), a parking lot packed with exhibits and people and an assortment of vehicles not ordinarily found outside of steam punk sagas, a woman who was keeping the crowd warmed up for the LifeSize Mousetrap game asked those in the audience who were engineers to raise their hands. And a number of arms shot up in the air, from young people with tats and piercings to those whose hair had long ago turned gray or absent. And she asked the rest of us to give them a hand because those are the men and women who make things.

I’ve been around engineers for the greater part of my career. I’d never witnessed so many non-engineers give it up for engineers the way they did at Maker Faire Detroit.

For the past several years I’ve gone to the Maker Faire (makerfaire.com). This was the fifth time that the event was hosted at The Henry Ford (thehenryford.com), the national historic landmark that was a consequence of Henry Ford’s proclivity to collect things historic and even prosaic. If you have any interest in technology and American history and you haven’t made it to Dearborn, you’re really missing out on something extraordinary. For those of us who live around here, it’s one of those places that we were taken to by parents or teachers, but a place that needs to be revisited in order to recharge our batteries as we see the actual places where people like Edison and the Wright Brothers invented things, and the actual consequences of their work, as well as the work of numerous other inventors—and makers.

One of the things that was more evident this year than even last was the number of desktop/tabletop additive printing machines, both brand-named and maker-made. I must admit that I’ve been somewhat skeptical of all of the breathless media run that 3D printers have been receiving, as though this is going to be the Most Transformative Technology Ever—Starting Tomorrow. After all, there are only so many iPhone cases that any one person needs to print for her- or himself. But something occurred to me at this Maker Faire.

Here is a group of people printing game pieces and toys and cases and whatnot but, at the same time, learning the ways and means, the ins and outs, the dodges and fixes of the technology. These are people who are learning this stuff on the ground, learning the stuff through trial-and-error, learning it in public.

And these are the people who are going to figure out how to transform the technology so it will have applicability far beyond the array of polymer tchotchkes. I can imagine the ghosts of Ford, Edison and Wrights smiling on these people, people who are sometimes dismissed by society at large as being “nerdy.” These people are interested in things ranging from making better and individualized walking sticks to photosynthesis, from developing 3D scanners with an app to creating Lego robots. These people are making and doing and sharing and learning. These people are in and of the present, but they are also avatars of the future.

Nowadays, it is all too easy for many of us to become somewhat disenchanted as regards designing and engineering and producing things. There are all of those recalls which have given engineering a not particularly good reputation. And while there is certainly a certain amount of reshoring and reinvestment going on when it comes to manufacturing in the U.S., there are still boatloads of things—literally speaking—that we can and do buy every day that are sourced from somewhere that isn’t the U.S.

But then you go to the Maker Faire. And you see the kids enchanted by devices that propel balls across the asphalt. You see teenagers that aren’t slagging but building things. You see older people who are helping mentor the young—and in many instances, vice versa.

You can’t help but feel better.

The parking lot on the south side of The Henry Ford is now back to being a parking lot. The Makers are elsewhere, back in their enclaves and communities, their spaces and their shops. Making stuff. Some of it silly. Some of it serious. All of it relevant in that it represents curiosity and ability, imagination melded with making. And we need more of it. 

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