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New automata activity development: Cranky Contraptions

New automata activity development: Cranky Contraptions

We have been prototyping a new automata activity called “Cranky Contraptions” using simple materials such as wooden blocks, wire, and foamies. Now that it’s been about a month that we have been testing the activity with the visitors, I wanted to take a moment to share about this new activity, how it all started, and what people have been making.

What is Cranky Contraption?
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Cranky contraptions are a type of moving toys that utilize a 'crank slider' motion mechanism. They have a little crank handle and each of these samples in the photo creates a different motion when you crank it: some goes Up & Down, or side-to-side, some swings or flaps, and so on. You can see how each motion example works in the video below.

How Cranky Contraption has been developed:
For a long time, we have been making automata in the Tinkering Studio with many different materials. Using cardboard is our classic way of making automata, but we’ve also tried making one entirely from food, trash, wire, and wood. While we enjoy different materials for making automata, we have always considered how to shorten the time spent making the frame so that visitors can quickly get to the point where they can tinker with mechanisms and animate the sculpture.

The first big hint came from a twitter feed: A clothespin automata! This gave us the idea to use a familiar object, such as a clothespin, as a frame for the mechanism so people can quickly start making the animated sculpture. We also liked that it lets people experiment with lever and linkage-based mechanisms which have more possibilities than the spinning cams or the up & down cams that people use in cardboard automata.

However, after trying it out for a couple of days in the Tinkering Studio, we found that it was not so easy especially for children to bend wire precisely around such tiny clothespins. The scale needed to be larger. Also, using clothespins without taking advantage of their open/closing function was counter intuitive for people to understand what this was about.

Another big hint came from Carlos Zapata’s automata. He is an artist in residence and spent two weeks with us during the Curious Contraption show. He was using a 1x1 wooden block with a hole as a frame to build the crank mechanism. We liked the size, it looked much more manageable especially for young children. The day after we saw this, we started using wooden blocks instead of clothespins. This was an improvement, but we still had a problem(?) to solve. We were looping the end of the wire around the crank to joint with the vertical rod: most children found this too difficult to do.

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The next big hint came from another artist in residence, Hernán Lira. He threaded a piece of cork on the crank shaft loosely enough that it could spin, and then tied the vertical rod to the cork. The simple solution inspired us to experiment with the substitution for the cork. We tried it with a piece of foamie (just because it was around) and simply poked the wire into the foam. It worked.

Thanks to those two breakthrough, we were able to lower the threshold of this activity. Providing a wooden block as a frame made it much quicker for people to get started, and the technique of using a piece of foamie for the crank slider joint made it easier for people to get to the point where they can tinker with the motion mechanism. As a result, they spend longer time working on the mechanism (very short time on making the frame), and they focus more on tweaking the motion mechanism to animate the sculptures.

The last thing to figure out was how to make a guide that goes on top of the block to hold the vertical rod. For that, we have been experimenting with three different ways of making the guide: wire, popsicle stick, and thin foamie strip.

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They all do the same job: to hold the vertical wire straight up. For the popsicle stick one (photo in the middle), we provide a good hole punch "Crop-A-Dile" so people can make a clean hole without breaking the popsicle stick. The thin foamie strip (photo on the right) would be good if you are working with young children. Making a wire loop with a plier is a little bit tricky (photo on the left), but we've created a "loop making jig" so the job can be done in a few seconds.

Loop making jig: Put the wire end in the tiny hole and wrap the wire around the rod. Take it out. You got a loop!

And here is our short instruction video about how to make the most basic Cranky Contraption mechanism.

What people have been making:
It's been a month since we started this activity on the floor. The video below is showing the varieties of Cranky Contraptions that visitors to the Tinkering Studio made so far. It is amazing to see so many different motion mechanisms that a crank slider mechanism can produce. We are also really impressed to see the personal expressions and narrative elements that people pour in their contraptions. All in all, what excites me the most is that people spend more time on figuring out how the mechanism works, tweaking the motion, animating their own sculpture, and very little time on making the frame.

How to do it for yourself:
Here is a little handout that we have created so you can try it out in your own educational setting. As I said, this activity is still on our prototyping stage (so it is a "draft"), and I'm looking forward to further development. We are interested to hear your feedback about this new idea, and we are so excited and curious to see where you take this idea!