Automatons

Rapunzel’s Bird

Rapunzel’s Bird

As an assignment for a class I am taking on early childhood technology and makerspaces, I had to design and create a solution to a problem for a fairy tale character.  This assignment gave me an opportunity to tackle a project I’ve been thinking about for a while.  Two of my favorite artists are Arthur Ganson and Paul Spooner.  Their work was the inspiration for this design.

Arthur Ganson’s work can be seen at the MIT Museum on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge and I was lucky enough to see an exhibit of Paul Spooner’s work (as well as other automaton artists) at the Exploratorium in San Francisco this December.  Here are some videos of them talking about their work.  Prepare to smile.

Arthur Ganson  https://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_ganson_makes_moving_sculpture

MIT Museum https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qeaP6LmS64

Paul Spooner at Exploratorium https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi1R5qty660

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3QEY0yW4Fw

Over Christmas break I read a book called Cabaret Mechanical Movement (PDF) by Gary Alexander and Aidan Lawrence Onn.  The book was invaluable in helping me understand how the mechanisms of simple machines work.

My idea is a magical flying bird owned by Rapunzel.  It swoops down to the window of the tower to visit her everyday.  Finally she climbs on its back and carries her away to her true love.  Honestly, I couldn’t care less about Rapunzel, but I really enjoyed this challenge.

I started with an empty Clementine box, three different sized dowel rods, a wooden spool, a few scraps of wood, a few screws, a sheet of Yupo, some thin copper wire, rod couplings, E6000, Tacky Glue, and some white wool fleece.

bird-materials

The tools I used were a framing saw, a hand drill with different bits, hole saw (for drilling doorknob holes), needlenose pliers, scissors, ruler, and a needle-felting tool.  

Before starting out, I drew a sketch of how I thought it would all go together.  This was very helpful, even though I made several changes along the way.

bird-sketch

I cut five little disks of wood off the end of the larger dowel rod and sanded them flat.  Then I drilled off-center holes in four of them.  These are the cams.  I drilled a center hole in the last one to act as a bearing for the axle.  I drilled holes in the sides of the Clementine box and slid the smaller dowel rod through it to create the axle.  The cams went onto the axle before the end of the dowel exited the other side of the box.  

cams

I drilled a tiny hole in one of the axle and threaded a piece of copper wire through it to keep the axle from slipping back through.  I secured this with a ceramic bead.

bead-holder

I used a hole saw to cut a ¾” thick disk of plywood to support the crank that would turn the axle.  I drilled a hole in the center of this for the end of the axle and an off-center hole for the crank.  I glued a bit of dowel rod into the off-center hole and pull the wooden spool on it for the handle of the crank.

crank-handle

I spaced out the cams and glued them in place on the axle.  Then I drilled holes down through the top of the Clementine box lined up with where the cams were.  I cut four 3” pieces of the small dowel rod to fit into each of the holes and act as followers (they follow the shape of the cam as it turns).  They slid up and down easily in the holes, but I found that they would slip off one side of a cam and get stuck instead of riding smoothly around the perimeter of the cam.  First I tried sanding the dowel pieces so the ends were rounded instead of cut off bluntly.  This helped a bit, but I found that when I turned the crank, the followers were very wobbly, so I drilled holes in two pieces of scrap wood and glued them to the inside of the Clementine box to act as bearings.  This made the cams move only up and down instead of side-to-side as well.  

cams-followers

I needle-felted the bird’s body, slit a hole in its belly, and mounted it on a six” piece of dowel rod.  I took a short piece of the larger dowel and drilled a hole in it to support the little dowel.  Then I glued it on top of the box.

I cut the wings out of notebook paper to try to get the size and shape the way I wanted it before cutting the Yupo.  I ended up making several different notebook paper wings before I was satisfied with their size in proportion to the bird’s body. Then I used the notebook paper template to cut the Yupo.

side-bird

I drilled a tiny hole in the top of each of the followers and glued in a piece of thin copper wire. I had to test several different times to get the placement and length of the support wires correct on the wings.  But something was still wrong.  When I turned the crank, the wings would go up on the followers, but they would not come back down.  After contemplating several solutions, I decided that gravity could help with the problem.  I went to Lowes and bought four 1” rod couplings.  I detached the wires from the wings and slid the couplings over them, then reattached the wings.  The couplings added just enough weight to pull the wings down after each turn.  

adding-weight-to-followersThe pictures and video below show the finished project.  My work on this ranged from the kitchen to the garage and back several times.  I had all the materials I needed close at hand, but only after first gathering them.  I didn’t anticipate the problem with the wings so that involved a trip to Lowes for the rod couplings.  

bird-automataWorking through this involved testing and re-adjusting at every stage.  Did the followers align with the cams? Did the axle turn the cams smoothly?   Why didn’t the followers drop after going up?  Were the wings simulating flapping of just moving around randomly?  I had to deal with issues of motion, torque, balance, friction, scale, and gravity as well as a few more I probably can’t even name.  Luckily I did not have to define any of them or solve any equations on paper because I could not do any of that.  I just messed around until it worked.  

Video  https://youtu.be/kshkSg40jfo

 

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Little Bees Automaton

This was my first attempt at making an automaton.  I chose to use wire to create a shaft, handle crank, and driving cranks.  The wire I used is very stiff tie wire used to connect rebar. The stiffness is good because it does not lose its shape, but it makes it hard to bend. I used a little cardboard box as the frame.

img_5324 

The followers were also made out of the wire.  I realized right away that the followers were slipping on the crank and would need to be stabilized.  I wrapped a thinner copper wire around the crank on each side of the areas where the followers were attached.  Then I tried to solder them to the tie wire, but it would not bond.  However the solder did stick to the copper and created enough of a block to keep the followers from slipping.  

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I added ceramic bearings on each side of the shaft and a ceramic bead to the crank handle.  

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My first figure was a cardboard man with jointed limbs.  When I turned the crank, he jiggled himself apart.  Disappointed, I put the automaton aside and got busy with some other things.  As often happens when I walk away from a project and let my mind rest, I got a new idea – needle felting.  I am much more comfortable with fibers than I am with cardboard.  

Two little needle felted bees would be just perfect for this project.  I needle felted two little yellow oval shapes.  Then I took a few strands of black yarn and added stripes and eyes.  I cut tiny white wings out of white felt and felted them onto the bee bodies.

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I used an awl and a little pair of shears to cut a slit in the bottom of each bee and stuck them on the top of the followers.

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A needle felted flower completed the project.  When the crank is turned the bees flutter over the flower.  Here is a video of the bees in action.

 

 

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