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Automata & Reconsidering Materials

Automata & Reconsidering Materials

The wonderful world of automata is filled with humor and whimsy, but when it comes to making one yourself for the first time it can seem a little scary. Our advice is to 'go for it' ~ don't fret too much, take the leap and just try making one. You'll be able to really start tinkering once you get that first one out of the way.  Whether it’s the cardboard variety we make in the Tinkering Studio or you decide to jump into using found materials, you’re in for a mechanical adventure. Try thinking as expansively as possible about the type of materials you could build with.

Here are a few examples meant to spark ideas:
A teacher came up with the idea to use milk cartons instead of cardboard boxes since those were plentiful at her school.

How about an automata made of wire? In Africa children and adults make toys called Galimotos that are mechanical in nature and seem like a cousin to automata to us.  They're activated by a push instead of a turn of a crank.  There is a wonderful children's book called Galimoto with a story of a young boy who makes his own toys.  


Artist Alexander Calder, well known for his large-scale mobiles and sculpture, created a tiny "mechanized sculpture" in 1929 called Goldfish Bowl that we'd call an automata.  Lyrical and lightweight compared to some of his other work. Wire may seem like a departure for Calder but over his lifetime he made several pieces using this simplest of material. Three years prior to creating Goldfish Bowl he made one of our favorite mechanical marvels, Calder’s Circus, complete with articulated animals and performers.  If you haven't seen the film before, you're in for a treat.

Calder's Circus is part of the Whitney's permanent collection - if you're near NYC try to see this show that runs through October.

You could also consider upcycled materials – UK automata artist, Keith Newstead, made this Frog entirely from plastic scrap found in the recycling bin. He has even made automata from items that washed up on a beach near his home.

Building a ship in a bottle is one thing, but fitting a functional mechanism inside of one is a lot harder than it looks. Helpful hint: we poked holes in the bottle using the hot tip of a soldering iron.
Automata in a Bottle

Here's a collection of 3 video clips showing wire automata made by visitors to the Tinkering Studio.  The "helping hands" set-up below is a work-around solution for dealing with teeny tiny wires in need of soldering.  It also happens to be a useful technique that's fun to master!


If you're feeling particularly hungry for a mechanical adventure, why not try making automata out of stale food?  We've never found more perfect cams than these ginger cookies (or biscuits as Sarah Alexander, of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, called them). They're strong enough to use a hand drill on and have enough "tooth" to spin other cames with precision.  The mini rice cakes have to be really old in order for this to work. 

What the fork?Back Scratcher for a Chili PepperGinger-biscuit cams & Goldfish


Have fun with this idea & show us what you end up making - include the hashtag #tinkeringMOOC so others working on making automata can enjoy your efforts!