Yesterday, my colleague and friend Josh Burker saw my work with automata, and upped me twice: he showed off two of his automata from a little while ago that made use of a 3D printer to replace parts from his cardboard originals; and his Cthulhu deserves an award of some kind. The ABWatt gold star, I think.
On the other hand, seeing that someone else had taken up this work, and had success with making it work, taught me two things. One, that I was right to think of this work as important to the success of a tinkering, or design, or maker curriculum; and two, that I wasn’t alone in thinking of this work as important. Still, as impressed as I was, I was also a little bit goaded. I tried a few things before realizing I was having better luck with my design turned sidewise. When I turned the axle that I thought of as vertical, I could get the horizontal wheels to move. But not the other way around. What happened if I shifted it, so the vertical became horizontal, and vice versa? Would it work?. I bet that it would.
And so it proved. With the frame flopped from Portrait to Landscape, the crown gear turned. And the newly horizontal wheel turned with it. Bingo. I needed to put in a bushing on the (new) bottom of the box to keep the new vertical axle from popping loose. But a simple cut-out arrow now points whichever way the crank turns it.
Woohoo. I’ve changed horizontal motion to vertical. Progress.
I’ll be honest—getting this much to work wasn’t an all-day affair. It was maybe a half-hour’s work, and a fair bit of thinkery and experimentation along the way . But it wasn’t a day of wasted productivity while I tinkered with a machine of weak materials and poorly positioned parts. No, I also built a stab-stitch book for proof of concept. As some of my readers know, I’m working on learning some book-binding skills.
It’s perhaps an odd thing, you might think, to go from mechanical automata tinkering to bookbinding and back again. But as I said a good while ago, paper prototyping is a design thinker’s mission-critical skill. If you can draw it in two dimensions, or build it in three, the materials don’t matter nearly as much as the design. Indeed, the design itself is the thing. Its the set of ideas, wrapped up in a physical form, which help connect the traveling and working hand to the eye and to the brain and thence to the cunning mind that works these problems out.
Yesterday, I also assembled a prototype of a box with a slide-in lid and a lift-out drawer. The box is too small, unfortunately. I’m going to have to build a new design, and make it both longer, and wider, and deeper. Part of me is reluctant to do so, of course. I felt like a lot of things fit very nicely into this box, without having to get all worked up about it. The top has a two-compartment tray that lifts out, and then three compartments underneath for the cauldrons and working tools of the druidic group of which I’m a member. I suppose, since I’m going to have to make the box bigger anyway, to make a little lift-out container of bottles or drawers for the relevant herbs and spices of our vegetable alchemy. It’s like the kavad, all over again, only this time it’s druidic tools and materials, instead of Hermetic images, astrological constellations, and an ever-increasing number of ways of connecting the human mind to symbols representing the complexity of the universe.
I also worked on a couple of paintings for that art show I’m holding in November. And there may have been some plantain gathering, for one of the tinctures I have to make for my druidic-grade work in the society. Because some of what I’m doing here is not about mechanics, or prototyping; it’s about what Gordon calls concurrent sigilization. Because while Ian says it’s about the magic, and Gordon suggests it’s about the results, for me it’s about the magic and the results. I care about the physical products, like the box and the tinctures and the paintings. But some of it is about the change of mind, the change of heart, that occurs when we make something that we care about; or that inspires others to care for the thing that we make.
By and large, today, we live in a world of industrially-made things. And what I’ve discovered from being a maker, whether a maker of medieval clothing that doesn’t fit, or the creation of a process designed to encourage more teachers to become makers, or learning to make mead or paper or metal or glass (have you thought about doing Thirty Days of Making this summer? Because you’re changing yourself, teachers, and ultimately your students, from objects of change to agents of change), transforms the way we think about the world. To make something handmade is to open yourself to how human technology and culture are as much shaped by the artifacts we produce, as the artifacts themselves are shaped by our culture.
Of course, for now I’m satisfied that the arrow turns. For my next trick, I have to see if I can figure out how to make the arrow point at or away from something else. Can this particular crank make two things happen in the same machine? That’s a battle for another day…. because right now this crank is tired.