The Centre for Life in Newcastle was once again host to the annual Maker Faire UK this past weekend, and while a hard-working team is responsible there's one person at the centre of it all: Ian Simmons, director of science communications.
"[Maker Faire] started in California, in the Bay Area at San Mateo Fairground in 2006, because Make Magazine wanted to gather together their readers, essentially," Ian recalls, surrounded by makers putting together their stands and exhibits ahead of the event opening its doors to the public on Saturday. "I'd heard about the first couple of Faires in Austin and the Bay Area, and we were looking for something to be the anchor event for our Science Festival, which we were running in those days. This looked great, so I rang them up and said 'could we do one of those,' and we were the first Maker Faire to take place outside the US."
The Maker Faire is a great fit for the Centre for Life. Its exhibits are hands-on, colourful, and based in science and technology - just like many of the Maker Faire exhibitors. "Seeing Aaron and oomlout here every year is always good," laughs Ian from his position in front of our stand. "I like Mitch [Altman] and his soldering, that's always a good one that's here. For this year, I'm really entertained by Copenhagen Suborbitals: they've brought some awesome kit with them, they've got their own rocket and space capsule, and yes they do intend to launch an amateur, manned space mission, which is very cool."
Thinking back to earlier Maker Faires, Ian recalls one particular exhibitor with glee. "I have a soft spot for the pole-dancing robots that got lots of complaints a few years ago," he admits with a grin. "They were basically some bits of plastic and eleven windscreen-wiper motors, and they kind of had bodies a bit like Star Wars stormtroopers and CCTV cameras for heads, and we got loads of complaints about them being obscene - so if you can make something behave obscenely when that's essentially what they look like, that's quite a feat!"
A key feature of Maker Faires in general, with its UK incarnation being no exception, is a blend of technology and crafts which you rarely see: exhibitors range from amateur quilters to the aforementioned rocketmen. There's a secret to this harmonious blending, Ian reveals: "it's just going for it, and behaving as though it's totally normal; if you behave as though it's normal, people will accept it as normal!" It's also something Ian is keen to see increase: "It's much more prevalent in the US Faires. "There's a whole bunch of food makers at the US Faires as well, and we'd really like to get more of that in to our Faire, but it takes quite a bit of effort to persuade these people that it's a good idea to turn up because it seems very different. So, we're working on getting more of that in."
For Ian and the Centre for Life, the Maker Faires are a guaranteed crowd-please. "We can get up to 10,000 people over the weekend," he explained, generating one or two nervous glances from makers still preparing their exhibits. "It's great, everybody loves it."