When you visit Benicia Makerspace, you’ll ring a doorbell made with eight repurposed floppy disks that are signaled to play Mario Brothers and other theme songs. The brain of the invention is Raspberry Pi, a credit card sized computer that is programmed to signal the disks to make music. It’s the perfect example of technology, engineering and art combined to create something for practical use. That’s what “makers” do.
As the maker movement sweeps the globe, Benicia Makerspace is making its mark. The nonprofit organization, now located in the school district’s retired primary school building, is like a community shop where inventors, entrepreneurs, and tinkerers can explore new ideas using state of the art equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters, routers, and more. You will find makers creating anything from robotics to needlepoint or e-bikes. And what ties them together is the spirit of trying, experimenting, playing, and collaborating.
It began with a dream and a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 by Nicci Nunes, a science teacher at Liberty High school. “I wanted a place for my kids and I to tinker, and I was just crazy enough to decide to do it.” When her first attempts fell through, Nunes didn’t give up. Instead, she posted on Meetup.com, where she got responses from makers from across the Bay Area. An early supporter was Aaron Newcomb, a Benician and Silicon Valley marketing professional who started taking apart his toys at the age of eight. Now he serves as the board president of the Benicia Makerspace, along with four other board members.
Makerspaces don’t usually pop up in small towns like ours, but it turns out Benicia is the ideal location because of its thriving industrial and artistic communities—two bedrocks of the movement. And, it helps that city officials are supportive. When Benicia Makerspace exhibited recently in San Mateo, they joined peers from larger cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tokyo and beyond.
The groundswell of makerspaces worldwide has grown from four in 2007 to more than 1,750 today. Makers are becoming part of the culture at libraries, universities, hospitals—and corporations are taking note. Current technology like 3D printers and Adafruit electronics are making it easier for makers to break new ground. MakerBot now makes more affordable 3D printers that can turn plastic and metal into everything from prosthetics to food (although it looks like mush).
“Makers are very much an open source, a helping culture. They don’t keep secrets. What makes us most happy is inspiring someone else to try to make something work,” says Nunes.
This spirit brings us back to a time when there was great pride in craftsmanship, and woodshop and metal shop were popular school electives. “What we’ve lost is that spirit coming out of WWII into the 1960s, when people were doing things themselves,” says Newcomb. “In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, that disappeared and people started buying things and throwing them away. Now there’s also an environmental aspect,” he continues. “We can’t afford to throw everything away. We need to find ways to repurpose things.”
A growing number of people are ringing Benicia Makerspace’s repurposed doorbell these days. With 230 members on Meetup.com, the organization now hosts bi-weekly Monday night open houses, and hopes to secure a more accessible industrial space soon. In collaboration with the Benicia Public Library, the group hosts first Wednesday workshops on topics such as learning to solder, or building your own pinball and video games.
In March, Benicia Makerspace hosted its first Mini Maker Faire at Benicia Middle School that had some 1,250 visitors from throughout the Bay Area. The President and CEO of Maker Media Inc, Dale Dougherty, who founded the Mini Maker Faire, was the keynote speaker. He says the events “reinvent the county fair from pigs and pies to rockets and robots…I wanted to create an environment to spark the imagination for everyone—especially children. That’s where they decide they can do it.”
“In making, failure is a good thing,” says Nunes. “If something doesn’t work, you don’t throw it away, you work it out. If you’re having trouble making something, it’s not the end. It’s the beginning.”