Showing posts with label clockwork. Show all posts
Showing posts with label clockwork. Show all posts

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mechanics for Pure Aesthetics

As it turns out, I just signed the contract for my novel, Songs for a Machine Age, which will come out next November from Hadley Rille Books. This is a good thing, a nice thing, and it makes me happy.

However, in the process of all this, I've been having to think where the premise for this book comes from. Like all things such as this, there are layers of influence; and my love of the 18th century and its pointless, beautiful machines, created solely for the pleasure of their existence, has been around so long that I can't put a finger on it; but I think the place where I can start for the influences of this book came from a robotics class I took for educators.

It began with training us how to use the robotics kit that we were being given, in the hopes (I think) that we would buy it and use it and it would become the Next Big Thing. The people teaching us were deeply involved in First Robotics, a big, expensive robotics competition for high school students. They started the workshop with how to build things, how to use the tools at hand, and how the various available parts worked. We all built the same thing, a little remote-controlled car, and experimented with the various parts.

My experimentation was to put two large wheels and two small wheels on my car, the sizes being diagonal to each other, so the car could not ever have four wheels on the ground at once. This meant that when I changed directions, the car would rock back and forth in a very interesting way. I wanted to build a tower on top with moving parts so that the moving bits would sway or swing as the car rocked.

However, the robotics people thought I was odd. They went on to do a series of task-based design assignments; we were supposed to find creative ways to pick something up and move it to a targeted area, or follow a line, or push a ball somewhere without losing it.

I came away from this event totally fascinated with the difference between their way of thinking and my own. I wanted to do robotics so I could build interesting things that were beautiful and could move; they thought robotics were about, well, industry. Building a car. Moving a thing from here to there.


The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that machines, in our modern world, are all about tasks, about work, about doing things for us. They are our slaves, our brawn, extensions of us; but they don't do the fun stuff. They do the work. We give them assigned tasks. They were birthed from the can-do attitude of the 19th century, not the Cartesian ideals of the 18th century. Instead of "how can we reproduce, or enlarge upon, the miracles of nature," it was "how can we increase our productivity so that we might subjugate nature, overcome the laws of physics, and make things easier for ourselves?"

What happened to the idea that machines might be agents of miracle? True, computers and their ilk do many miraculous tasks, and enrich our lives with music, video and the like; but we are still listening to and watching canned people, not enjoying the machines for the sake of themselves. We are not looking at the idealistic side of it; we are simply wanting good bandwidth. One of the only places in common culture where the workings of the machine are considered, are prized, is in the world of robotics. And in robotics, at least in the traditional venues, they care mainly for tasks.


Except for Burning Man, and Maker Faire, and, in its purest form, Steampunk. Except for some areas of the art world. In other words, people who like to make stuff, and arty people who like to find out how things work. People who like their machinery tactile, silly, creative. Why should we only purchase goods made in factories? Why shouldn't we create our own devices? Why shouldn't we hack the manufactured goods and turn them into something beautiful and divine and oh-so-ours? Bring the beauty back into our lives?

Automaton Caterpillar, probably by Henri Maillardet

Before I wrote Songs for a Machine Age, I hadn't thought clearly about all of this. What I actually said to myself was, I want to write about a place where the only machines in the whole culture (with a very few exceptions, like flour mills) are entirely aesthetic. A place where machines are honored, admired, and used only for the celebration of religious festivals. I began to write Neddeth's Bed, to find out what that place was like, and as it progressed, I began to think more deeply about this place: how did the culture get this way? Did they just naturally not think of the practical applications of machines? Or did something happen in their history?

What if, for example, the Industrial Revolution never happened? Or, even better, what if something went so awry with the Industrial Revolution that a country rose up against it and threw out the whole idea of manufacturing, reshaping their culture to be entirely based around making things with one's own two hands? And what if the need for technology, for cool devices and complex machinery is regulated by a class of people who were educated entirely for the purpose of making beautiful machines, who are experts on the bad old days -- drilled in the horrors of manufacturing -- so that it won't happen again?

I still haven't finished Neddeth's Bed. Songs for a Machine Age came from the questions I had while writing Neddeth, and grew into a fun adventure novel, with all of the above questions as background. But the layers of understanding, like so many things, went on from there, and now I'm working on the next layer down, the reason why their revolution happened. What could possibly change a culture so much? I had to find out, so I am writing it; and it is definitely not a fun adventure novel. So if you need me, I'll be in the basement, peeling the onion of my world -- and rooting around in all the machine-parts.

...and... if you want to see some machines that distinctly remind me of some of the Festival Devices I imagined in Songs, check these out:

Such amazing attention to detail! Seriously, it's extraordinary how every tiny piece of these devices are carefully crafted. Just exactly like I imagine the devices in the book. Now if this artist only made things that were ambulatory...!

More on U-Ram Choe

Odd bonus: Interesting blog post about Descartes and automata.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Clockwork in the Cold

Swiss-y Stuff, part 2

While the Val-de-Travers has so much to offer by way of absinthe history, it is also in these same Jura mountains where some of the finest clockmaking was done in the history of Europe.

I have a theory (heh-hem) about why the Swiss became such excellent clock-makers, and why it became so much of an industry in a country where the population is sparsely scattered and relatively isolated.

Thanks to AndreJenny

My theory (heh-hem) goes like this: imagine living in a place where you are trapped, indeed kept in idleness, for seven months or more of the year. Imagine your whole family in one very large house with three-foot-thick walls, often with the barn attached on the side or even above the family dwelling, filled with cows and hay, keeping you warm. Imagine how much you tire of each others' company, and how difficult it is to get to the other houses in your village when the wind is howling outside.

Imagine that you have time on your hands. The weather is crazy cold, and you have horrible cabin fever. You have a meticulous mind, keeping things clean and organized; and you are thinking of time, because time is something one counts when one is stuck inside all winter. Plus, where are you going to get income for the winter? Traditionally, farmers and village folk make things in the dark and snowy months, which they sell to bring in a little for those necessities which can't be stored away in the fall.

Now, if you learned how to make clocks - which was a craze in those days, everyone was buying them - think how interesting it would be, losing yourself in that small and meticulous world of rhythm and movement, of calculation and hand-eye coordination, a small world unto itself. Think how large and comfortable your house would appear when you'd been spending hours working in your little world. And, if your family and your regular work got too tiresome, you had that secret place of concentration - of communion, even - to return to.

I'd be willing to bet that the clock industry slowed down considerably during the summer months, when people were busy trying to get their houses in order, the weather is warm and everyone's outside working. But (heh-hem) this is simply my theory.

La Chaux-de-Fonds is famous for its MuséeInternational d'Horlogerie. The architect Le Corbusier was born here (and unfortunately much of the newer architecture seems to reflect this fact). The museum has a pretty good timeline for their collection on their website, color-coded for different types of clocks, with different technologies listed across the top. Very interesting (with some excellent examples, such as the rather graphic little watch from 1820 with the tiny animated picture of Jupiter seducing Callisto, accompanied by "an air of mechanical music").

The Cartier factory outside La Chaux-de-Fonds. I found it really strange, the industry in this part of Switzerland. All the famous, super-luxury watch people seem to be based here, but the factories are small and ineffably Swiss, with clean modern exteriors and usually sandwiched into a small village or out in a field somewhere, like this one is.

In Le Locle, a small town whose charm had clearly been substantially supplimented by the prosperity of its three-hundred-year-old watch industry, we went to see their lesser-known Musée d'Horlogerie before theoretically heading on to the big one in La Chaux-de-Fonds - which we never got to, because the things in this small museum, housed in an old chateau, were amazing, and the people were gracious and forthcoming.

First of all, before you even get into the museum there is a small room in the garden with a replica of ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī's Elephant Clock, done complete to every detail, and using al-Jazari's technology. There is a nice document explaining the technology, which is essentially a hollow hemisphere with a hole in the bottom, which gradually fills with water, tripping a falling ball which in turn lifts the hemisphere out of the water. It's very ingenious, and thrilling to see something of al-Jazira's in the flesh, so to speak.

Besides all the many, many beautiful clocks - engraved clocks, carved clocks, enameled or guilded or caged clocks - there was a whole room devoted to automata. Not large automata; small ones, from doll-sized dancers who whirl across the floor to a perfect foot-high old women who walks carefully on her own two feet with help from her cane, to tiny birds no more than an inch long who pop out of a hand-mirror and sing with real whistles. There were watches there, too, with extremely tiny automata of dancers and musicians and so on, and my favorite was a pair of segmented enamel and gold caterpillars, only slightly larger than life-sized, which hump their way very realistically along on whichever surface they are put.

Made by Francois Jurod in 2000 for La Semeuse coffee company.

The museum is known to be a gem, in that they house three very particular collections which contain some of the finest specimens of their kinds in the world. But some of their displays are temporary: on the bottom floor, for example, they had an exhibition of coffee technology - ancient machines for roasting and grinding, and a really great automaton of a Turk on a flying carpet pouring himself a cup of real (read: wet) coffee, which he then "drinks" so that his cup is empty again. The best part was the waving carpet, with its attendant, wonderful, mechanism.

On the top floor they had an almost overwhelming exhibit on the theory and nature of time and its measurement. Geological time, astronomical time, personal time (birth to death), the rise and fall of civilizations, chronological time such as calendars (perpetual calendars, lunar calendars, calendars from different cultures, etc.), almanacs, datebooks, and many more. There was an area devoted to "le temps approximatif": sundials, astrological instruments, and hourglasses. And then, of couse, the area with watches, gear-cutters, and precision watch-making tools, a compliment of the excellent display on the history of movements on the ground floor.

They have a really quite amazing film of the tiny automats all doing their stuff, one by one, in extreme closeup - worth seeing because then when you see the real thing you understand the amazing actions of their mechanisms. The film is interesting in its own right, and they sell it for 30 francs (about $20), but alas, they were out. They do accept money through the mail and will send you a copy if you do so - I will be getting a copy and I will try to post a sample so that you can see how great it is - I think they could do with the business.

Both towns, and indeed many small clock-making villages in between, are in the canton of Neuchâtel. The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, in the lovely city of Neuchâtel, houses the amazing Jaquet-Droz Automata. You can go see the automata anytime (there is an accompanying film in several languages), but they only demonstrate them the first Sunday every month - it is the same man you see in the videos (the Writer, the Artist, and the Organ Player) doing the demonstration, and he will answer questions happily if you are willing to ask in French.

They are truly as wonderful as I had heard, and I was lucky enough to stumble on a special demonstration outside the usual time. The writer wrote, the artist drew, the man showed us their insides, and the organ-player played her tunes, her wooden fingers actually pressing the keys on her specially-made organ. Most wonderfully, my elder daughter and I sneaked back for a last look at the three pseudopeople and were astonished to find the organ-player sitting in the dimness breathing and tipping her head, long after the demonstration was over, the lights turned off, and everyone had gone home. Apparently her breathing and head movements are natural effects of the mainspring being allowed to wind down so that it doesn't stay tight all the time and lose its...well, springiness.

So we sat there in the dark and watched her eyes gleam slightly as she shifted in her seat, her chest rising and falling, silent and companionable. We kept her company for as long as we could, and then we went home to France.


The organ player

The Writer

The inner workings of the Writer - a true early computer.

The Artist, who actually blows away the pencil crumbs...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

San Marco Clock Tower, Venice

Ed. note: I have been meaning to post about this. Pardon my clockwork geeking below; if you are uninterested in technical details it is still worth checking out the photos!

While in Venice, I found out accidentally about the little-known tour of the beautiful clock tower on the Piazza San Marco. Everyone is so busy going into the Basilica or up the Campanile they don't look much at the clock tower; but it's a beautiful thing, marking not only the hours but the date, moon phase and astrological time.

The clock is remarkable: aside from the mechanism, there is a ball painted half gold and half blue, which by its orientation in the clock face will describe the face of the moon. A track circling the outside allows a group of four figures (the three Magi and a trumpeting angel) to pass in front of the figure of the Virgin (this only happens on two festivals a year now, see below). As they do so, the Angel raises its trumpet and its wings, and the Magi bow and move one arm in salute.

At the top of the tower, two larger-than-life shepherds (known as the Moors because of their patina) swing their hammers hourly at the great bell. They are beautifully put together (and vastly anatomically correct), their fleeces hiding the fact that they are segmented at the waist.

The clock was created by clockmaker Gian Carlo Rainieri in 1499. Rainieri then moved into the tower and was paid to keep the clock running and accurate. When he died a number of people of varying skill levels succeeded him, and after two hundred and fifty years the clock was in bad shape. So in 1752 Bartolomeo Ferracina, a reknown clockmaker, was hired to refurbish the clock.

"He actually made a completely new movement. The old mechanism and the original astronomical dial were given to him in part payment. The new movement, although modified, remains until the present day. It has four trains, in a peculiar cruciform pattern, one for the time, two for the hour strike by the Moors and one for the special 132-blow strike mechanism which will be described later. On the upper floor of the tower, above the main movement, there is a separate mechanism for the Magi's carousel." (from Antica Orologeria Famberlan, and excellent page with everything you might want to know about the mechanism's history).

Curiously, the pendulum was lengthened twice, and became long enough that it necessarily hung down into the next floor. This meant that the temperatori, living in the tower below the clock mechanism, had the pendulum moving across his living room at all times. Here is a picture from the 1950s:

The climb through the tower is "not recommended for pregnant women or people suffering from claustrophobia" as the stairs are narrow and get narrower as you go up. Personally, I was impressed with their very Enlightenment look:

In 1857 more repairs were required, and Giovanni Doria, the temperatore of the time, made a careful survey of the necessary repairs to both building and mechanism. While they were at it, the Venetians decided they wanted a luminous display on it so that the time could be read at night. So Luigi De Lucia (appropriately named) designed the two wheels that displayed lamp-lit numerals in the windows that the Magi had once come through. The light shone out through glass-covered cutouts in the metal wheels.

When I was there, I noticed a strange whirring clunk that happened every five minutes; this was the minute wheel regulator going off, and the wheel doing its turn to the next display panel. It was quite extraordinary to be privy to this mechanism, as it's very beautiful from the inside:

Note the triangular frames hanging from the ceiling. These have small, strong metal hooks on them which are hooked onto the number-wheels, allowing them to be easily disengaged and drawn backwards into the room for those days during Ascension when the Magi are once again attached to their wheel (on the floor) and allowed to parade past Mary.

There are two faces to the clock, both driven by the same movement: one of them, elaborate and decorative, faces the Doge's Palace and the Piazza San Marco, for the Doge to look at (and presumably all the Senators and so on who ran the government from the Palace). The other one was for the regular people, who lived outside the square; this one was very simple, though still elegant.

Nowadays, the clock is driven by "weights" which are actually wheels on bicycle-type chains, pulled or lifted daily by electric motors. This was based on a decision not to rely on a temperatore to pull the weights down each day and wind the movement. It is the only part of the 1750's mechanism which has been completely modernized.

I was intrigued and impressed as I followed our guide, not only because it's the kind of thing most of us dream of - living in a tower with a bunch of clockwork - but because so much of the place was designed with beauty and functionality hand-in-hand. I do love the Enlightenment and Victorian eras' penchant for lovely design! Here, for example, is the top floor, before you climb to the rooftop where the bell-ringers stand:

Or this rooftop structure which tops the spiral stairs and keeps them watertight:

I mean, really! Captain Nemo, where are you??

One of the best parts of this tour was being taken out onto the roof to see the high-Rennaissance Moors, who look about double life-size. It was so great to get up close and see the difference in their faces and poses, and understand, finally, not only how the pivot at their waists were so beautifully disguised, but to have the mechanism explained: inside their legs is a rod which turns each of them; if you look at the main clock mechanism (above) you will see a large wheel with notches in it. If you look closely, you may see that there is one notch, followed by two notches, followed by three, and so on: the wheel is actually a great cam, which moves the bell-ringers to ring the appropriate number of times.

There are two of these cams, one on each side of the clock mechanism, to drive the two Moors.

Also, if you notice there is a double cable going up to a small hammer on the edge of the bell. This was put there as part of the 1752 mechanism; at midnight every night, every blow to the bell by the Moors is relived via this little hammer: 132 blows. Whether this is a sort of "rewind" feature, or a "design feature" (or some combination of the two), I have not yet discovered.

I feel so lucky to have found this tour, which I found through an idle inquiry at the Tourist Information office at Piazza San Marco. Since then, I have tried to find the name of the place we bought our tickets, but every online source seems to try to sell them to you at great expense. It was (somewhat) cheaper in person - just enquire, as I did, and they will direct you to the nearby gallery where you can book a spot on a tour (and where there is a wonderful miniature of the tower and its mechanism). You must book it ahead of time, and show up early, as you are taken in a group over to the tower and let in the little door at the bottom (a curiously thrilling moment). When we went, it was a tour of two - my daughter and I had the place to ourselves.

I am hoping to get permission to go up in the clock in the cathedral at Strasbourg on our way through in ten days. Wish me luck!


Wikipedia, of course, has a bunch of information about the various restorations and attendant controversies.

I read the book Daughter of Venice with my daughter before going to Venice (heh), and it really put us in the mood - and filled in some details about Venetian history. It's about a girl living in 16th century Venice and is full of interesting details about what life was like for women and how families worked to keep their wealth. It describes some aspects of the governmental system of Venice and the kind of wrangling that was always going on. Great book! ...In the Young Adult section, like many good books, but readable by all ages, I think. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't discuss the clock tower in any detail.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Of Clockwork Trains and Faberge Eggs

Wonder is in the mind of the beholder, so it is always best to limit your visits to hobby sites. However, there is a great deal to be said for starting-points, and toy trains were my starting point when I began to think, today, about the craftsmanship of toys.

Clockwork train afficianados seem to like to make their own locomotives, and sometimes they get very creative with their mechanisms - and that is often quite interesting. Take, for example, Jeffery Young's decision to use an old Meccano* wind-up motor (from back when the cheap motors were wind-up and the expensive ones were electric) to power his locomotive, Windus:

The Meccano innards

The finished train car

Or Kevin Strong's wonderful Super-8 powered clockwork "thing":

For another thing, there is a long and historical gradient from the cheap wind-up toys of fun fairs and dime stores, stamped out of tin and painted or printed with colorful paints, through the kind of toys a genteel lad or lass might play with - porcelain dolls and actual steam-powered toy boats (like the one below from the estate of Ward Kimball, the Disney animator - which just sold for $71,500) and on upwards to toys of the rich and powerful.

I don't mean silly boring grown-up toys, like the ones Sharper Image used to sell, but real toys, made from precious materials such as gold and platinum, with encrustations of diamonds. The kinds of trinkets that Tsarinas or maharajas' sons might play with, in their off hours. Little things made by people like the Freres Rochat in Geneva in the early 1800s. Here are a few I found in several auction houses (here, here and here, for example) across the web:

Singing Canary Clock

Pearl encrusted gold and enamel pocketwatch with automata

Gold and enamel pistols with pearls and singing birds

The caption for this one reads, "Toward the end of the 17th century, it was a popular pastime to raise canary birds and teach them to sing. This fashion was the inspiration for the decorative objects using singing birds of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, of which this clock is an example. At first, the bird's song was provided by a serinette mechanism, as is the case here; later, the Jaquet-Droz were to invent the whistle with sliding piston, which allowed a much greater miniaturization and the imitation of true bird song. In this case, the bird sings popular tunes of the period."

The ultimate example of this kind of perfection, the miniaturization and delicate workmanship personified, is of course Faberge and his fabulous eggs. These masterpieces began as art pieces for the Tsar and his family, complete with function and whimsy, a celebration of the family's greatness; but by the early 1900's they included some of the finest and most delicate examples of hand-made automata to be found anywhere. One example is the famous Trans-Siberian Railway Egg which included a tiny, fully-functioning clockwork train made of gold and platinum, the ultimate expression of toy train delight. The train fits into the hen-sized egg in three pieces, and when assembled is no more than one foot (33 cm) long.

PBS has a really nice website describing the relationship Faberge and the Russian royal family, the pathos of a relationship based on doomed morals and private privilege. The Faberge eggs are the ultimate expression of this very intimate and curiously emotional response to a family's life:

"The jade Alexander Palace egg (1908) contains a perfect replica of their favorite royal residence in the country – only two and one half inches long. And sailing on the clear rock crystal sea of the Standart egg (1909), is a replica of their royal yacht – reproduced to the last detail – where many happy days were spent together. 'I think that was where Fabergé differed so much from all the other jewelers of the period,' adds author Lynette Proler. 'Where they were only interested in large gemstones, Carl Fabergé was interested in the ultimate effect that a piece would have, a lasting effect so that every time you looked at a particular object, you would have this great sense of sheer enjoyment and pleasure from it.'"

Like many people, I have a many-sided response to the eggs. They are so very beautiful, and the craftsmanship is lovely. And yet, what kind of people would commission these exquisite, insanely expensive trinkets when thousands of people in their country were near starvation? I look at the lifestyle of these people and I feel that push-pull so familiar to us all: I wonder what it would be like to live a life like that, full of rich beauties and luxurious houses in interesting places with your every wish taken care of; and yet I can't comprehend the kind of dream-world they must have been living in, fooling themselves about the divine rights of kings while the rest of the world marched on.

On one hand, there are the starving peasants who eventually rose up and murdered this family, with their beloved yacht and favorite houses and jeweled trinkets. They had enough reason to revolt, this is certain. On the other hand, I look at the extraordinary craftsmanship, the time put into it, the overwhelming quality of the materials, and I think how wonderful it is that there are times and places where free rein can be given to pursue an art form to its absolute utmost: to make things that are so exquisite, so intensely perfect, that people are still knocked over by them a hundred or more years later.

"At the stroke of the hour, a ruby-eyed rooster emerges crowing and flapping its wings from the top of the elaborately designed Cockerel egg (1900). Fabergé was known to have worked on the mechanism of the Peacock Clock in the Winter Palace, and his familiarity with that famous automaton no doubt inspired the creation of this egg.

'Fabergé, who had traveled a lot, had absorbed all the currents, the various artistic currents, in Paris, in Florence, in Dresden, in London,' says author Géza Von Habsburg. 'He could go back to this memory bank and select objects from it. For instance, the Bay Tree egg in the Forbes Magazine Collection is based on an 18th century mechanical orange tree, a French automaton, which was a fairly well-known object which Fabergé must have seen during his travels.

Other eggs that Fabergé made were based on objects he saw in the imperial treasury and used as prototypes for his first eggs.' The Bay Tree egg (1911) is laden with gemstone fruits set among carved jade leaves. Turning one of the fruits opens the top of the egg as the tiny bellows inside produce the sweet song of a feathered bird."

There is a weirdly fascinating article I read about a man raised in Soviet Russia who was so affected by a Faberge egg (curiously, the Trans-Siberian one, with the train) on a visit to the museum that he spent the rest of his life thinking about eggs - even down to learning to be a jeweler in a state school and working in a factory - before starting his own business as soon as it was allowed in the 1980s, making Faberge-type eggs which are now all the rage in Europe and America. The article's description of a six-year-old child, raised with the not-very-lovely sights and sounds of Soviet Russia, seeing these exquisitely-crafted, jewelled eggs for the first time, caught my imagination. He describes how he could not stop talking about them, and his parents, good soviets, were in a quandary as to how to discuss these objects which were essentially religious objects and to couch the discussion in terms which simply couldn't reconcile the obvious beauty, lavish care and spiritual elements inherent in the eggs with the simple, politically-driven language of communism.

And ultimately, that is what makes the eggs special, because rather than going for full-on bling, wowing us with big rocks and a sort of timeless and grandiose vision of "royalness", he went for emotion, an undeniable sensitivity of spirit. Under all the purity of quality, the miniaturization, the perfect, delicate craftsmanship, lay more than the desire to either simply glorify or make money off the royal family. And he took his time over it. Each piece or part was carefully carved, carefully set, carefully planned. It is no wonder that they have been so thoroughly loved.


More on Marklin toy boats, both clockwork and steam-powered.

Makers of toy trains through history, including very old German and Swiss companies.

Victoria and Albert Museum's Museum of Childhood has a section on mechanical toys.

A grade-school class who made their own "Faberge" eggs.

Faberge research site.

Another site with a collection of interesting Faberge eggs and info about each egg.

*aka Erector Set

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