Design Thoughts

David's First Kinetic Sculpture

David and I collected lots of video footage of his early work while preparing for his TEDx talk. We promised to start sharing some of it on the blog and this post is a first in that series.  It makes all the sense to start at the beginning.  

B.W. Cornwallis is David's very first wall-mounted kinetic sculpture. It was designed and built back in 1975. David was trying to answer the question that people always asked of his human-powered gadget Xylo. "But can you make it run longer?"

His first experiment to do so had been a behemoth of a design called Albert. Albert was a great learning exercise, and it worked, but it was huge, free-standing and lacked grace.  The design break-through came when David started using the wall for support and B.W. is the first of a long series of wall-mounted, weight driven, kinetic sculptures.

B. W. is very much a sculpture of a mechanism, as were all of David's first experiments.  He worked to develop imaginative designs using simplified escapement theory. Very basically, a falling weight attached to a string provides energy to the sculpture while the sculpture itself regulates the fall of the weight.  

The rolling wheel shifts the balance of the mechanism, releasing the catch on the cog. The weight starts to fall, this turns the cog causing the cog to change angle of the ramp mechanism the rolling wheel is on. The mechanism then catches the cog, preventing further fall of the weight. The wheel continues rolling shifting balance again and the cycle repeats. This basic concept powers all of David's weight and spring driven sculptures. It is easier to see in B.W.  

B. W Cornwallis was first shown at a small Connecticut craft fair and sold almost immediately, along with Inventor Released and Serendipity. David had made one of each (he really didn't expect that they would sell!) and he went back to his workshop to build additional copies. He couldn't get B. W. to work again.  He quickly learned to always keep a working prototype of all his work to be able to refer back to it. 

B.W. was not a very reliable design and David quickly moved on to better concepts. The next year, the original B.W. buyers returned and said it no longer worked. David offered a trade for any new designs because he really wanted his first design back. We still have the original B.W. Cornwallis and unpacked it after 35 years to video tape it. David set it up and with a minimum of tweaking, he got it working again for this video.

It was excitement all over again. It worked! It is a great piece of history!

Making Things Move • A Book for Artists


Yesterday I received one of those emails from Amazon suggesting products I might be interested in. There was a link to this book by Dustyn Roberts.

Making Things Move • DIY Mechanisms for Inventors, Hobbyists and Artists

How did this not cross my radar earlier and Oh My! How knowledgable Amazon is becoming.  

Dustyn Roberts teaches a course at NYU called "Mechanism and Things that Move" in the Interactive Telecommunications Department.  She explains in a video on Amazon that the course is for artists that have no engineering or mechanical back ground but want to make sculptures that move. Not only has she created this written resource, she has also started a blog site to support the book.  It includes a resource area to assist you in completing the various projects included in the book.  

David and I are very excited to see this book. Nearly everyday David receives emails from folks all over the globe wanting help in creating kinetic sculptures. David has tried through this blog and his website to share some of his knowledge and to provide resources for others that want to create. He strongly encourages other to experiment, play, observe motion. It was through those activities that David gained the understanding of motion required to create new ideas. Through the years David has come to realize that being a skilled kinetic sculptor doesn't guarantee that you will also be a skilled teacher. Although David is pleased to have so many take inspiration from is work, at this point in his career he doesn't have enough time to both be a kinetic sculptor and learn to be an effective teacher. He doesn't rule that out in the future.  But right now he is busy designing, building, and creating.  

If you are inspired to make things move, please visit David's links page. There is a plethora of resources to help you get started. And now I have added one more, Making Things Move by Dustyn Roberts.

David at work...


David has been extremely busy over the past few weeks. He has been building the first full group of Silver Song kinetic sculptures, continuously plowing snow on our driveways, and working on a commission piece.  The large commission piece is for a private collector in Missouri and it has reached the operational stage which is always exciting. Soon David will be showing a video of it in motion. But for now here is still photo of David tinkering. I snapped this earlier this week when he need some help in the placement of the sculpture.


 This is a critical part of building every sculpture he creates and the portion that is impossible to explain.  He is always watching the sculpture - looking for little oddities, a wheel moving too slowly, a odd jerk, a clank, lack of balance. These are subtle things and hard for others to see.  It is David's attention to all these occurrences during the tinkering phase that makes a huge difference in the essence of the motion when done.

Here is another quick shot, this one from today after an additional 16 inches of snow. It is impacting studio time for sure!

The Flexible Sculpture Vacation

For years Marji and I have discussed the large outdoor sculptures we'd like to build. We never had the time. Last year, as we were discussing vacation plans Marji suggested taking a week off, staying home, no "real" work allowed, and building a sculpture. It was one of our best vacations. We decided to turn it into an annual tradition.


We spent the past year collecting and discussing ideas. A few months ago I worked up some 3D sketches with my new favorite 3D program Strata Design 3D. We showed the drawings to our kids and others, made many changes and arrived at a "plan." I put plan in quotes because one of the best parts of this collaborative project are the changes that happen as we start actually building the piece and have to "think on our feet."

The original inspiration was a photo of a sculpture by Elias Wakan.  We liked the geometric feel of the sculpture and the way it moved in 3D space and connected back to itself.

We decided to try something like it using 3 inch plastic pipe rather than wood. This was mainly for practical reasons. The pipe is relatively cheap and easy to work but also is impervious to weather elements. We were thinking large in scale and definitely an outdoor sculpture. We also thought plastic pipe would add some flexibility so we could define long curves - more on that in a minute.

The final concept was quite different from the original inspiration as you can see in this animation.

It includes about 120 segments, each 12 inches long bolted together side to side but offset by 1 inch.

Our daughter Karen volunteered to join us on vacation and help with assembly. Work progressed nicely. I designed jigs for cutting and drilling the segments. It was important that the holes lined up precisely and for the most part they did. We assembled 6 foot segments in the shop and then moved to the yard for final assembly. Almost immediately we realized that these were far more flexible than planned. We all realized that in fact this was a wonderful feature, not a problem at all. A new sculpture concept was formed.

We joined all the segments into a 35 foot long chain and started playing as you can see in the video below

The final form for now is shown in the photo series on Flickr. In reality the beauty of this piece is in its flexibility. We can rearrange it on the hillside whenever.  I'm sure we'll see lots of variations as time goes by.


The Beginning....Zylo

Several sculptures and drawings that Marji made during her years as a student at Rhode Island School of Design started me thinking about wooden machines as sculptures. Here's a video showing some of her works and one of my first attempts at a moving piece c.1975.

 For more information on the history of Wood That Works and spring driven kinetic sculpture visit this link.