In Oakland, in the basement of a home he shares with his father, Thomas Lemieux has been engaged in a lonely endeavor. He stayed up around the clock last Monday, working frantically to put the finishing touches on a high-tech Iron Man costume he has spent more than $2,000 and 500 hours to make.
In New Sharon, Karin Schott, who spends much of her time tending a small orchard and a large garden on her home at the end of a dirt road, has been making extra sweaters, hats and mittens on an old hand-powered knitting machine.
In his Gardiner home, teenager Harris Plaisted spent countless hours writing computer codes for the video game MineCraft, where he created new, science element-based materials that could be used in the virtual world of the game.
In Gardiner, Paul Fowler, who repairs photocopiers for a living, is planning to attach a robotic arm to his robot, which he made in his private workshop from the scavenged motors of an electric wheelchair.
Each of them is an example of a maker, a term coined in 2005 to describe people who, in a world of mass consumption, produce things, often quirky projects, for the sheer joy of learning and doing.
On Saturday, the four will meet each other and about 30 other makers for the first time at the Lewiston-Auburn Mini Maker Faire.
The event, the third one in Maine, is part of maker efforts to leave their isolated workspaces and come together, not just in the digital ether of the Internet, but in the physical world.
Members of the public are invited to come to see the creations, which include walking robots, giant bubbles, lockpicking tools, art made from bicycle parts and papier-mache puppets.
Central Maine’s makers are building not just projects, but a movement, said Rick Sisco, of Skowhegan, who has been pushing to organize makers in the area.
Up until now, Sisco and other Maine makers have existed mostly as a Facebook group that has drawn more than 60 members.
Most of the members have never seen each other in person.
But on Sept. 7, Sisco announced the group would begin meeting at Barrels Community Market on Waterville’s Main Street. He hopes to offer public classes on topics such as soldering and making stained glass.
Melissa Hackett, manager of Barrels Community Market, said the maker culture is a good fit for the market, which specializes in local produce, baked goods, meat, cheese and crafts.
She said she is drawn to the idea that makers can resurrect skills, such as whittling, that might have been commonly practiced two generations ago but are nearly lost today.
The meetings are important, but they’re just a first step, Sisco said. He is working toward a permanent communal workshop that would allow makers to take advantage of each other’s presence and tools.
The space would be equipped with common hand and power tools, but also welders, an air compressor, a 3-D printer, a vinyl cutter, an embroidery machine and a silk screen, he said.
“Anyone in the public who has always wanted to make something but has been limited by space, budget or knowledge will no longer have to be limited,” Sisco said.
The first maker fair of record was organized in California in 2006.
Since then, Mini Maker Faires, sponsored by California-based Make Magazine, are increasingly common. Listings offered by the magazine show that in 2012 there were 58 held around the world. About 100 are scheduled this year, many in the United States, but also in China, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Scotland, and many other countries.
Sisco said bringing makers together face to face can help them dream up their next project or solve a problem.
“Inspiration can happen anywhere, but there are many things at a maker fair to be inspired by,” he said.
Saturday’s event in Lewiston will be the second annual one hosted by Museum L-A. Earlier this month, a fair was also hosted by the public library in Camden, where makers showcased projects including underwater submersible robots, inventive bike designs and stone arches held together by their weight.
For Lemieux, whose Iron Man suit has made him, in some ways, the most prominent local example of the maker community, the fair is a whole new world.
Despite having engaged in thousands of online interactions with hundreds of other people about his suit, up until this weekend Lemieux had never met another maker face to face.
“In person would be completely different,” he said last week. “That would be one thing I would love to do.”
The maker gatherings are giving Lemieux the chance to interact with people like himself.
Since being featured in a Morning Sentinel article last month, Lemieux has accepted an invitation to participate in this upcoming weekend’s event in Lewiston. He also accepted an invitation to attend the World Maker Faire Saturday in New York City, which organizers expected to draw more than 650 participants and 70,000 attendees.
Lemieux will also be featured on the Discovery Channel program “Daily Planet,” which showcases experiments, inventors and technology. An air date has not been set for the segment.
Lemieux has also continued to add to his suit, which he can take on the road by dismantling and carting around on a collapsible dolly. He recently finished the eyes, which he made from a pair of chrome sunglasses covered in fabric. When the faceplate, which is attached to the rest of the helmet by magnets, is snapped into place, powerful LED lights shine on the eyes, making them gleam.
A making team
Plaisted, the video game computer code writer, is a good example of a maker who has benefited from interaction with others.
For the last two years, he has been a member of the Gardiner Area High School Iron Tigers Robotics Club, which each year builds a robot to participate in an international competition sponsored by FIRST Robotics, a group that organizes high school robot competitions. His father, Marc Plaisted, is an adviser for the club and this year his younger sister Deanna also joined.
On Saturday, eight team members will travel to Lewiston to show off their robot, a four-foot-tall machine they built themselves that can maneuver around a court and fire plastic discs at a target.
Aaron Basford, the lead mentor for the team, said the program has brought together students who wouldn’t otherwise interact, and who can pool their natural talents to make something better than any of them could do on their own.
“My team is a pretty good mix,” he said. “I’ve got kids that we would call shop kids. I’ve also got kids who are taking all honors science classes. We get to see those two groups come together when normally they wouldn’t.”
This year, Basford said, art students will also participate by improving the look of the robot.
Plaisted said his experiences with the team and at the fair are part of preparing for a career in computer programming, which he hopes to study at the University of Southern Maine next year.
The maker movement is filled with enthusiasm for learning, sharing and inventing new ideas, which is part of what makes maker fairs so appealing.
There’s nothing new about the creative urge, said Paul Seed, another mentor for the Gardiner robotics team.
“People have been pretty creative for a long time,” he said. “Think of da Vinci. Think of paintings on cave walls.”
The difference is that, these days, ideas are easier to come by and easier to implement. Technology is cheaper and more advanced. Many of the old obstacles have come down, allowing people to step up.
And while digital communication has allowed for dramatic growth in exchanging information, the process is still improved when it takes place in the real world, he said.
“You take an idea and through your will and your energy and your perseverance, you create a physical thing that you can touch and show to other people,” Seed said. “It’s amazing.”
When makers meet, they sometimes find the similarities between projects that are, on the surface, wildly different.
When Lemieux heard about Schott’s knitting machine, he immediately saw a connection to the computer technology that powers his suit.
“That’s like new-school, old-school,” he said. “I like that.”
Lemieux understood that Schott’s machine, a long metal bed of needles the same shape and size as a keyboard, is actually a primitive computer.
The knitting machine operates by reading information from punchcards, the same kind of punchcards that were invented for use in the textile industry in 1725, and which later became the basis of all early 20th century computing, most famously at IBM.
Without Schott’s punchcards, it might not have been possible to invent the computer circuits in the microcontrollers that allow Lemieux to flick a switch and activate a voice modulator, changing his voice into that of Iron Man.
Exchanging ideas, appreciating each others’ work, and learning how to make their next improbable idea a reality, the makers at the Faire will continue their efforts to shape Maine’s future.
“It’s like life,” Seed said. “It isn’t a destination. It’s that journey. It’s the fun of building the machine.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287