Stone: The Festival for Alpha-Geeks and Inventors

A lumbering, 17-foot-tall mechanical giraffe waltzed elegantly through crowds of awed onlookers at the San Mateo, Calif. fairgrounds last weekend. The beast weighed 1700 pounds, sported plasma globes for ears and blinking LED lights for eyes and shuffled its wheeled feet to an electronic beat as its creator, San Diego fire alarm technician Lindsay Lawlor, operated the controls on his creation's back. "My day job bores me," he explained. "Every day after work I went home and worked on this. It was the grand experiment."

Lawlor's electric giraffe was entirely in its element at the first Maker Faire, a celebration of tinkerers, garage hobbyists and gearheads of all stripes, staged last weekend by the Silicon Valley-based magazine "Make," a do-it-yourself (DIY) bible for folks with lots of time, creative energy and leftover electronics. The frenetic two day event featured more than 100 exhibitors and workshops in everything from telescope building to mushroom growing. It demonstrated that all the mind-numbing entertainment and mass-manufactured consumer products of the last few decades haven't killed off the age-old human instinct-to open things up and see what's inside. "Make" attempts to inspire readers with clever mechanical recipes: how to build a light-seeking robot from an old computer mouse, or how to construct a cat-feeder from an old VCR. It's good clean geek fun for hardware hackers, or "makers," as the magazine respectfully calls them, and fits nicely inside a growing DIY movement that includes online phenomena like blogging, photo-sharing and podcasting. Fair sponsors included big companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, Best Buy's "Geek Squad" and Lego, which presented a huge model train installation built entirely from the famous plastic bricks. But it was the lone, passionate inventors who dominated the show. One participant, a "Make" contributor from Burbank who went by the name "Mr. Jalopy," showed off his Frankensteinian mechanical mashups, including an old radio boombox with a small television screen nestled inside one speaker. His coolest project, "Megagiant Wood iPod," fuses Apple's digital music player with an old Farnsworth radio/phonograph cabinet, which allows him digitize songs from old records. The neatest part: the radio buttons on the old machine actually control the iPod. "If the technology is not there to do what you need, you have to make it yourself," Mr. Jalopy explained, neatly encapsulating the maker credo. "No experience of buying a product compares with building what you need. It's insanely rewarding." The projects at the Maker Faire were wildly diverse: buzzing Tesla electric coils, bicycles that cut grass as you pedal and unicycles that balance themselves. I talked to John Guy, an electrical engineer from San Jose, Calif. who built a subwoofer into an ottoman. Amal Graafstra, who implanted radio frequency identification chips in his hands and can open up the front door lock to his house simply by waving his arms in front of it. Shawna Peterson, a glass artist from Oakland, Calif. turns old neon signs into art and demonstrated at the Faire by bending neon tubes with a portable blowtorch, which burned at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. And Kim Pedersen talked about the working, 299-foot monorail he has built in his back yard in Fremont, Calif. He runs an organization called the Monorail Society, which lobbies for renewed attention for the environmentally friendly transportation system. "I am the monorail movement in the U.S.," he says. Hands-on classes throughout the weekend got kids and adults involved. In one corner of the fairgrounds, visitors were encouraged to help themselves to old electronics, open them up and see how they work. Elsewhere, attendees were taught how to make kites, water rockets, video game dance-pads and to dissect wind-up mechanical frogs. One parent told me he couldn't get his young son to leave the car that morning; that afternoon, he couldn't get him to leave the faire. Apple computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, one of the gods of the DIY movement, was engrossed in one of the geekiest activities at the event: Playing "Segway Polo" with the Bay Area Segway Enthusiasts Group. Woz explained during a break that back when he was building the first Apple computer, electronics components were easy to find and hardware hobbyists met regularly to talk about their creations. Then Woz unleashed the personal computer revolution and inadvertently scattered the garage-tinkerers-many of whom migrated back into their houses and eventually into the software business where they worked on code instead of machinery. For the last 20 years, mechanical hobbyists have been quiet, or at least quieter than usual. Until now. Tim O'Reilly, whose company O'Reilly Media Inc. publishes "Make," says that a few years ago he started seeing more postings on Web bulletin boards about transforming computers and other high-tech gear for purposes other than the one originally intended. The hobbyists were reasserting themselves. At the same time, discarded electronics were everywhere. People wanted to do something with all their obsolete gear. "Make" was launched in March 2005 to awaken those sublimated, age-old impulses to understand how things work. "The alpha-male geek current has always been there," O'Reilly says. "We go through waves where it comes to the surface." O'Reilly's comments, and the entire passion-infused weekend, got me thinking of the old gearhead fixations of my late grandfather. For nearly his entire adult life, Morris Stone woke at five in the morning and sequestered himself in his basement, where he built model trolleys. The electric trains, each an accurate rendition of a trolley he had ridden early in his career as a greeting card salesman, ran through a two-room wonderland of train tracks and miniature villages. By the end of his life, my grandfather had lovingly hand-crafted 325 electric trolley cars. Today, the yellow trolley from the Miami Beach Railway Co. sits on a mantle in my house. Like the hobbyists at the Maker Faire, my grandfather built what he saw in the world, mixing his recollection of the past and vision of the future. Last century, mechanical hobbyists were devoted to automobiles and electric trains. This century, they dote on robots, jet packs and lumbering giraffes. My grandfather would have loved the Maker Faire