The muffin cars, electric-powered vehicles built to resemble cupcakes, scoot around the open spaces of the San Mateo Event Center & Expo, a sprawling fairground about 20 miles south of San Francisco and, on this day, a million miles from normal.
Just inside the gates of the third annual Maker Faire, a converted fire engine belches an occasional explosive flare that sends a chest-pounding Pfoomp! throughout the fairground, startling bystanders over and over again. That contraption was made by folks from the Crucible, an industrial arts studio based in Oakland where people can take lessons in welding, blacksmithing and many, many other ways to play with heat and flame.
Nearby is the Swarm, a set of 30-inch cut-aluminum orbs that roll around on the grass, self-powered but guided by remote control. Children are playing keep-away with them.
But they are definitely not playing tag with Justin Gray’s fire sculptures around the corner. It could have something to do with the fact that they look like menacing tanks on clanking treads. Or it could be the way Robot Libby, the one that emits a horrifying turbine whine from a metallic ball bobbing on a heavy iron chain, spits gouts of multicolored flame. (As Mr. Gray manipulates the remote control, the machine mixes powders into the flame to change its color: strontium for red, copper for bluish green, steel powder for a fireworks effect.) Each burst sends a heat wave that rocks the onlookers back a step or two.
At first blush, then, this festival, sponsored by Make magazine, is a gathering place of pyromaniacs and noise junkies, the multiply pierced and the extensively tattooed. But wander awhile, and the showy surface gives way to a wondrous thing: the gathering of folks from all walks of life who blend science, technology, craft and art to make things both goofy and grand. (See images from the fair and listen to audio interviews with some participants.)