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Wire Automata Toys

12
Jan/12

This month, we are exploring toys for the first month of our open:MAKE series. One of our favorite types of homemade toys are moving sculptures called automata. Over the past year or two we have made automata out of cardboard, metal, and wood and have gleaned inspiration from the masters at the cabaret mechanical theater.

This time around, we have been focusing on making automata out of copper wire. To show some simple ways to make interesting motions, Ryoko built some jigs to show visitors a technique to build simple frames. She also made some beautiful inspirational examples of ways the motions can be translated into characters or scenes. Last week, we brought out some soldering irons, wire cutters and jewelers' pliers and let some older kids create their own moving toys.

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We had six or seven visitors who all came away with unique designs for their automata. Each of them spent about an hour and a half working on both the mechanism and the character or object that moved on the top. To me, the wire automata provides a richer experience than the tried and true cardboard automata, because while the participants are working on the step-by-step process of building the crank, cams, and housing, they are also building confidence with new tools. It's always amazing to see the quick progress that people make in the short time period after being introduced to a soldering iron. It worked well because by the time the visitors were getting ready to make more complex or individualized pieces, they had already got comfortable bending wire and using solder on more straightforward parts. I was really impressed by the imagination and creativity of each person as they began to map on a character to the movement of the wire shaft. One girl made an especially cool automata with a dog wagging its tail on top.

We'll keep working to create interesting movements and ways to make it more intuitive and fun to build these toys. And over the next few weeks and at the Open:MAKE toys event on January 21st we'll help visitors to the tinkering studio make more of these whimsical contraptions.

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