Motor attached to series of reduction gears - final gear fixed in concrete

One of Arthur Ganson's kinetic sculptures, shown above, is a motor that turns at 212 RPM. It's attached to a series of twelve 50-1 reduction gear couplings. The final gear is fixed in a block of concrete. If it were free to turn, it would make a complete revolution in about two trillion years.

Ganson gave a presentation at SALT in San Francisco last night. Here's Stewart Brand's recap, with links to videos of a few of his other mesmerizing sculptures:

As Ganson spoke, a tiny chair walked meditatively around and around on a rock on the right side of the stage, projected live onto a video screen. (Thinking Chair.) No part in any of his kinetic art pieces is superfluous, he pointed out; everything functions. The piece should be crystal clear and also completely ambiguous. That's what allows each viewer to create their own story.

He showed a video of "Machine with Concrete." On the left an electric motor drives a worm gear at 212 revolutions a minute. A sequence of twelve 50-to-1 gear reductions slows the rotation so far that the last gear, on the right, is set in concrete. It would take over two trillion years for that gear to rotate. "Intense activity on one end, quiet stillness on the other," Ganson said. "It's a duality I feel in my own being."

The next video, "Cory's Yellow Chair," showed a chair exploding into six pieces, which hover at a distance, then gently reassemble, and instantly explode again. Ganson said he wanted the chair pieces to explode at infinite speed, rest in stillness at the extreme, then reassemble gradually. The piece is stab at the question of "when is now?" Now is when the chair coalesces, but it doesn't last.

Some of Ganson's machines inspire people to sit and watch them for hours. "Machine With Oil" does nothing but drench itself with lubrication all day long. In "Margot's Other Cat" a soaring chair is set in random motion by an unsuspecting cat. The cat's motion is utterly determined; the chair has its own life.

During the Q&A, Alexander Rose asked the full-house audience how many of them of were makers of things. Ninety percent raised their hands in joy.

Arthur Ganson at SALT


  1. “If it were free to turn?” It might fall to pieces and crumble to dust long before it actually does move a measurable amount, but technically it is free to turn. That is some ridiculous torque for mere concrete to withstand.

  2. Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to find out about these events before they happen.

    You know, a kind of directory of wonderful things?

  3. Reminds me of a piece by Tim Hawkinson I saw in 2005, which worked on a somewhat similar principle. A small electric motor turned a wheel, which went through a couple of reduction gears and ended at a big wheel that was supposedly turning once every 100 years. Very cool.

  4. I wonder how long it would take for either the concrete to begin to give way. I assume, given the hypothetical of perpetual motion, that the motor wouldn’t burn out due to torque, right?

  5. I just heard a story from a member of my astronomy club who told us of an equatorial mount (the kind that track objects as the earth rotates) that use be in our observatories. Apparently a local handyman created the clock drive with a series of exposed gears that completely encircled the telescope mount. Starting with a 500rpm motor, then one gear slightly reduced from the next, until the final gear connected to the telescope that rotated exactly once every 24-hours.

  6. Love it! It’s amazing.

    It’s a like a machine that Satan is going to have waiting for Godless Engineers. Wound by hand not by motor, with final gear driving a chuck with drill bit which is slowly cutting through a wall made of diamond. Behind the clear wall is the ‘OFF’ button to the looping podcast of Cory reading one of his books.

  7. Hah! I made the lego version when I was a kid. Calculated it to a ratio of far in excess of a million to one, though I can’t remember it now.

  8. This is something astonishing.

    There are not many nights when, just before bed, I discover a totally new form of art.

    I’ve seen mechanical art before, but the machine as art!


    Thanks :)

  9. I have been an Arthur Ganson fan for years. I am so glad that he is being introduced to some folks who didn’t know him before. The videos are so well shot too. He reveals exactly what he wants to show when he wants to show it. The videos are amazing but seeing the pieces in person at the MIT museum is worth a special trip. It is a completely different experience because you are choosing what to look at when. Which changes everything. It is not better or worse just very different.

  10. It’s great to see Ganson’s work on BoingBoing. Been a fan of him for years.

    This is the first time I’ve ever seen “Yellow Chair”, though- wow. People can laugh at modern art and kinetic sculpture all they want (and believe me, I’ve seen plenty who have), but Yellow Chair is AMAZING. I’ve had that thought exactly many times- what if something exploded and reassembled over and over?

    I just want to sit in front of that, parts draped in black, ingest some “herbs”, and watch that chair explode and assemble forever. Wow!

  11. I have seen these in person at the MIT museum, and if I remember correctly it’s not a showing, but a full time exhibit. I certainly saw them there over the course of several years.

    They are really excellent, but there’s so much to like about the MIT museum. The pranks, the holograms, the strobe photography. I’m freaking out just thinking about it.

  12. Brilliant. It’s not a sheep carcass in a tank of formaldehyde, but I like it.

    The clock drive on a telescope mount would most likely be set to rotate once in one sidereal day (one apparent rotation of the stars) rather than once in one 24-hour day (one apparent rotation of the sun). A sidereal day is about four minutes shorter than a solar day.

  13. There is a device like this at the Hiroshima Museum. It is called the Peace Watch Tower. The gear train is vertical. The last gear is embedded in cement. The speed of the drive motor is variable. When there are tensions and problems in the world the motor spins faster. The goal is to achieve world peace (and stop the motor) before the device destroys itself.

    I found a video. Aren’t the intertubes great?

  14. One rev in 2 trillion years is slow compared to, say, bending India to make Himalayas. I say the concrete will just move out of the way of the final gear and flow in behind.

  15. “No part in any of his kinetic art pieces is superfluous, he pointed out; everything functions.”

    And that, my friends, should be the core principle of steampunk. It’s stunning when all the pipes and tubes and brass are functional parts of a re-imagined machine; alas, the other 90% of self-proclaimed steampunk appears to consist of the deeply sad practice of merely adding pseudo-Victorian geegawism to an already functional object.

  16. Yep, Steampunk is fake.

    Shame really, to even bring it into the conversation about this marvellous mechanical art.

  17. I think it’s worth noting that two trillion years is longer not just than the lifespan of the universe thus far, but longer than it’s total expected lifespan.

  18. The energy is all there; very little energy will be dissipated by the gears. Think of it as a very elaborate wind-up toy that can be wound up for a long time.

    Eventually, *something* will break. Possibly the concrete, or the stand that the motor is on, or even one of the gears. Basically whatever is weakest will break.

    From an engineering perspective, what makes this fascinating is that even if it’s run continuously until it breaks, it may never break within our lifetimes.

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