This week has been pretty unbelievable: I was invited to the White House, to meet President Obama. That's right. The White House, the President of the United States of America.
In an official proclamation the President declared the 18th of June, 2014 to be the national Day of Making to encourage invention, innovation, and hopefully the economic growth and social benefits that these things bring. To go along with this proclamation he hosted a very small Maker Faire at the White House. A very limited number of guests were invited to present their projects to the President, and the Electric Giraffe was one of them.
The timing was incredibly tight - Lindz only found out 9 days prior to the event, and I only had 4 days! Getting a ton of robotic giraffe from San Diego to Washington DC is no trivial matter, the farthest he has ever travelled before is San Francisco to the Bay Area Maker Faire. Washington DC is over 2,500 from San Deigo, so a plan of action was required. A shipping container was hastily ordered, the giraffe was bundled into it, and sent on its way on the back of a lorry across the entire width of the USA.
My journey began at 5am on Tuesday: I drove the two hours to the airport, arriving in plenty of time for my flight. When I checked in they must have already allocated most of the seats as they put me in /premium/ economy - an extra 5 inches of leg room. I looked it up, and this would normally have cost an extra $100! I was very pleased to find out that the seat had its own power socket, so I plugged in my laptop and spent the next 8 hours watching Doctor Who while I crossed the Atlantic. I arrived in Washington mid-afternoon. Upon stepping out of the station I was hit by a wall of heat - it was 35 degrees (95 Fahrenheit) and 70% humidity, making the air feel thick and wet. Upon talking to some other people, this was apparently extreme even for Washington. Lindz took me to the Hilton Garden hotel where his dad Ron was already waiting, and we crashed for a couple of hours before meeting up with some of the Maker Faire folks that were also staying in the same hotel - Sherry, Dale, Louise and many more. We had a great time and stayed up later than we probably should have given the early start we had to have the next morning...
After a night spent mostly trying to find a sleeping position where there wasn't a spring digging into my ribs (a fruitless pursuit) we rose at 5am to fetch the giraffe from its holding bay. The giraffe had been delivered on time and in one piece to a holding warehouse owned by the Smithsonian museum. The staff there had apparently been delighted by its arrival, and Lindz was more than happy to tell them all about it and send them home with some t-shirts. We were very grateful to them for giving us a place to unload and store the giraffe. We loaded the giraffe onto the back of a tow truck, and after some debate about low bridges we headed towards the White House. The ride was extremely tense as we were stuck in traffic and very worried that we would miss the deadline for entering - we had phone calls along the way telling us to hurry up, but the traffic was solid and there was nothing we could do. After a nail-biting 40 minutes or so we arrived at a small car park a little way away from the White House, where we were given a brief inspection by the security forces. The police checked our ID and then a secret service agent arrived in a large SUV. He gave the giraffe a very brief check and then escorted us to the White House entrance - flashing lights and all. We were even told to run red lights rather than be separated from our escort. At the main entrance we had our ID checked again and the vehicles searched by a sniffer dog, then we were escorted through another security checkpoint, again having our credentials checked, to arrive on the main lawn of the White House. Security was extremely tight, as you might imagine. We had to be escorted by a guard at all times, and there were snipers on the roof keeping overwatch. We hurridly set up the giraffe, reattaching the head and making sure everything worked before motoring up the hill and parking outside the rose garden, just to the side of the main entrance of the White House.
The giraffe attracted a lot of attention from the White House staff, all of them taking photos while Lindz explained about its operation. The White House media staff strapped a small camera to the giraffe's neck which was used for live streaming the event. Once everything was set up we had time to go inside the White House itself and view some of the other projects. As you would expect, the White House was amazing on the inside, immaculately kept and filled with period artefacts.
Eventually word came that the president was on his way. We took our post by the giraffe while all everybody else was cleared from the area. With only a few minutes to go I was approached and told that there was a problem with my paperwork - I had somehow been overlooked, and did not have authorization to appear on camera with the president. Apparently a more detailed background check has to be done if you are going to appear on camera next to him, someone had forgotten to do mine, and so I had to be escorted away to the holding area. I was bitterly disappointed, as was Lindz. After all the excitement of being told I was going to meet him, the very expensive flight across the Atlantic, all the fuss and tribulations of getting everything ready on time - to have my chance snatched away at the last moment was heartbreaking. Nothing could be done about it, so I just had to go inside to sit and wait while Lindz spoke to the president on his own. I didn't even find out what was said until I watched it on the news a day or two later.
I was sent to wait in the conference room where the president was to give his speech. The staff seemed to like playing musical chairs - I was moved from my seat four times. One of the people sitting next to me was moved five times. I didn't really mind though because it was a long wait and the moving gave me a chance to talk to a variety of people. I spoke to the gentleman from France that had brought a 3D printed rendition of the audio waveform of one of the president's speeches, and a lady who was turning libraries into maker spaces. (Other folks I met included Bill Nye the Science Guy, the mayor of Rockford Illinois, the White House science advisor, and many more whom I fail to recall...) My final seat put me in the front row, at the far right of the room.
The president's speech was engaging, although his joke about dropping the trailing 'e' from Maker Faire didn't seem to go down too well with the crowd. He spoke of the importance of innovation to invigorate the manufacturing sector, and how new technology such as 3D printing was bringing the possibility of product design and prototyping to a wide audience. I didn't know this at the time, but apparently it is traditional that the President shakes hands with the people in the front row of the audience following a speech. Someone must have pulled some strings to place me there after the disappointment of being pulled out of the interview at the last moment, and so as soon as the speech was over the President came straight over to me, we said hello and shook hands. It may have been a brief encounter, but still - I would never have imagined that one day I would be invited to the White House to meet the President of the United States of America.
Once the president departed all that remained for us was to pack up the giraffe and leave. Security was tight even on exit - the guard at the gate had to phone his superiour just to allow us to leave! Tired and hungry, we made our way back to the hotel to meet up with the other makers for a meal. On the way there we heard police sirens behind us and were rapidly overtaken by a fast moving convoy of police cars in the lead, then a large black vehicle with state flags on the bonnet, followed by a menacing black SUV at the rear. This was very likely the president on his way to his next engagement. The black SUV in the rear was very likely one of the special secret service vehicles which have a mechanism in the back that allows the roof to open and a minigun on a 360 degree track to pop up out of it. We had a good dinner with our fellow makers, eventually heading to the W hotel and up to the very top floor, which contains an open air bar. Despite it being around midnight it was still very hot, and in the humid air we got to watch a lightning show over Washington in the darkness.
The following day we had to fly home, however our flights were in the afternoon so we had the morning to ourselves. We decided to walk over to the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, past the Washington Monument on the way. The white stone needle sits at one end of a long park, opposite the Capitol building. It was much larger than we expected - often when you are used to seeing a structure on television it can seem smaller when viewed in real life, but this was quite the opposite. The Smithsonian was absolutely packed with priceless and unique artefacts - prototype aircraft, space capsules, satellites and rockets. Every single corner contained something unique and intriguing - for anyone interested in aviation or space travel, it is definitely a place worth visiting. We stayed as long as time would permit, then took a ride on a rickshaw back to the hotel to collect our things and then headed to the airport. We said our goodbyes, still in disbelief at the events of the previous day, and parted ways. My flight back was uneventful, although unfortunately Lindz and Ron had their flight cancelled due to bad weather at the destination.
Thus ended my trip to meet the 'leader of the free world', President Barack Obama. In viewing the media coverage after the event it became clear that the giraffe had stolen the show, and we are very proud to have been given this opportunity and recognition.