Monday, March 26, 2007

Glorious, Magical Orreries

‘Orrery,’ defined:
“...a mechanical device that illustrates the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the solar system in heliocentric model. They are typically driven by a large clockwork mechanism with a globe representing the Sun at the center, and with a planet at the end of each of the arms.”
- Wikipedia

Orreries first caught my imagination while reading that fine book, Little, Big, by John Crowley:

”The moon was silver. The sun was gold, or at least gold-plated. Mercury was a mirrored globe - mirrored with mercury, of course. Saturn was heavy enough to be lead...The orrery, brass-bound and oak-cased, was one of those turn-of-the-century scientific instruments that couldn’t have been more solidly rational, material, engineered: a patented universe, made of rods and balls, meshing gears and electroplated springs.

“Then why couldn’t Smoky understand it?

“...[He] had come to understand the basic principle of clockwork, upon which all those ingenuities were based: that a motive force - a falling weight, a wound spring - was prevented by an escapement from expending all its energy at once, and made to pay it out in ticks and tocks...The difficulty, the maddening difficulty, about Edgewood’s orrery was that Smoky couldn’t discover a motive force that made it go around.”

...And of course, nothing is driving it, it just goes on moving, through some magical force, unwinding with the ticks and tocks of the story.

(I thought I was the only one who knew about this book until I read a mention of it by Neil Gaiman once, which made me feel somewhat redeemed. A lovely book, by the way.)

But I digress.

There are still loads of wonderful orreries out there in museums and (probably) very rich people’s homes. The name comes from Charles Boyle, who was the 4th Earl of Orrery, for whom one was made in the early 1700’s.

But - check this out - orreries, or something like them, go back to antiquity. A thing called The Antikythera mechanism ”is believed by many to be an ancient mechanical analog computer (as opposed to most computers today which are digital computers) designed to calculate astronomical positions.”

Look at this picture, below - is this deserving to be in the Cabinet, or what?

And by the way, I’m in love with Carlo G. Croce, a retired (or nearly) marine engineer who has a website in Italian and English. Mr. Croce is a clockwork-loving person who went to Greenwich...well, let’s hear it in his words:
“During my last holiday in England I paid a visit to the Greenwich Observatory Museum, where I saw a couple of orreries. Having no camera with me, I tried to fix their design in my mind. Back home I realized I could remember very little about their construction. Wishing to built an orrery my first step was to make a drawing.
I found a visit to the local public library very helpful in finding out what really happens above our heads. After many calculations I was able to fix the number of teeth for each wheels of every train.”

Mr. Croce's creation

Mr. Croce’s website, The Home of Antique Clocks, is a fine example of someone who loves what they do - he has links to pictures and descriptions of each one of his tools, in case you want to go home and make an orrery yourself. But his love is evident in the quality of his constructions, which are truly beautiful. Take a look at the Orrery page, and his wonderful Astrarium - and my favorite, the “wheels cutters” page, where we get to see things through his eyes for a moment.

These are magical devices, in the extreme. I’ve gone on long enough, but if you want to pursue this on your own, here are a few interesting links:

- John Gleave, Orrery Maker: a maker of modern orreries
- Paul Kellar’s orreries, based on James Ferguson's designs (circa 1763), hosted on Sherwood’s Astronomical Supply website.

(Special thanks to the unknown David Wilkinson, of the Fitzwilliam Music Society, Cambridge, for his pics of the Whipple Science Museum, for which I am indebted.

Clockwork insects

I just found these while clicking around, and can't believe how marvelous (in the original sense) they are. Talk about magical realism!

Here's what Mike Libby, the creator, says:

"One day I found a dead intact beetle. I then located an old wristwatch, thinking of how the beetle also operated and looked like a little mechanical device and so decided to combine the two. After some time dissecting the beetle and outfitting it with watch parts and gears, I had a convincing little cybernetic sculpture. I soon made many more with other found insects and have been exploring and developing the theme ever since."
(quote courtesy of

You can buy his creations on his Insect Lab website, which is beautifully laid out to display his spiders, butterflies, cicadas, dragonflies, beetles, bees and wasps, all with their own bit of mechanical elaboration.

While we're on bugs, check out this amazing short movie by Wladyslaw Starewicz, made in 1912. Starewicz was a Pole living in Russia who made several stop-action animations, but this is his best, proving that in many places animation has a long history of not being for kids.

Recommended Book on Clocks

My friend Rhabyt recommended this book: Clocks and Culture: 1300-1700, written by Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor at UC Berkeley. It's a small but comprehensive history, told with enthusiasm. Rhabyt says it's great.

Here's a description:

"How did a time-keeping device affect the growth of crafts guilds and the scientific research that led to the Industrial Revolution? Clocks and Culture is a brief history of the changes wrought by and on Europe over four hundred years due to technological advances in timekeeping and the rise of a time-aware culture."

Can't wait to read it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Modern Automata

There's a number of really interesting modern automata I've seen around. A little off-topic, but interesting as an evolution from the fine and elegant automata of the Enlightenment...

Chomick and Meder create slightly creepy automata (below) with wonderful mechanisms.

And then there's Cabaret Mechanical Theater, in the UK, with some really lovely stuff for sale.

Lastly, look at this little interview with Ernie Fosselius, maker of hand-cranked, carved wooden automa (see below), courtesy of David Pescovitz (of Make: magazine's blog), via Rocketboom. These are marvelous little creations he keeps in a moving "theater" which he shares with high school students. Ernie also gives credit to one of my favorite institutions, the Musee Mechanique in San Francisco.

Clocks as the Devil

(interior of rare lantern clock c.1700 by Thomas Shilling of Boughton - exterior below)

A brief history of clocks:
(Caution: takes awhile to get to the point, but might be interesting along the way!)

The earliest clocks were water clocks built by the Chinese, and later, the Europeans; but they depended too much on physical geography and the caprices of water supply.

(Town clock in Auxerre, France)
The Rennaissance idea of having a town clock, run by weights, changed the overall time paradigm of people’s lives, in that they moved from a daily time division (ie: sun-up to midday to sun-down) to an hourly one. Suddenly the day was divided into twenty-four little slices.

Now imagine what it meant when clocks came inside the house. Manufactury became more refined and cheaper - became an industry rather than, or as well as, a craft - and suddenly anyone with enough money could keep time in their own house. This was a charming diversion, a conversation piece, but with a side-effect: the twenty-four little slices became thirty-six little slices, and so on, down to the present day with our atomic clocks and those clocks that count hundredths of a second.

And somewhere along the way, someone had the brilliant idea of timing their workers by the clock. Now I ask you, who lives under a greater tyranny of time: those people with the town clock, watching the hours? Or we modern folk, delayed by the natural events of life, and marked as “late” because we arrive two minutes after the mark on the clock claims we should be there?

In the old world, the daily-time one, there was a sense of the world being under constant adjustment. The days got longer, and there was more time to work. The days got shorter, people stayed in their homes and slept, or made things (or made babies). With the clock regulating how we worked, things like night shifts came into being. The world ceased to flow in a natural way. The conversation between nature and the man-made world began to peter out.

So: are clocks the devil? Have they offered us some fruit of knowledge that has turned us out of our easy ignorance? Has consciousness of time taken magic out of the world?

There is an interesting essay based on a talk given by John H. Lienhard on the nature of power (in both senses of the word). Below an interesting discussion of the history of the steam engine, he talks about how for two millenia after the invention of the first self-regulating device, no one took it any further:

“Now consider something about feedback -- about the self-regulation of machines: When we let go of the knob, we relinquish control. For the totalitarian mind that's a very uncomfortable thing to do.”

In light of this, he has some interesting things to say about the invention of the clock:

”The mechanical clock had no feedback features whatsoever. Its accuracy depended entirely on getting everything absolutely right at the start.
The orderly mechanical clock diverted the medieval imagination. Clockwork, with its wheels and gears, became the new metaphor for God's creation. God had ordered the planets just like clockwork, they said. He wound them up and set them in motion.
So the last vestige of self-regulation evaporated. We embraced the concept of clockwork, and by the year 1700 we'd stretched that concept to its limit.”

Thus begin the seeds of what came to be modern scientific thinking: determinist (everything being a matter of cause-and-effect); reductionist (looking at things as much in isolation as possible, disregarding big-picture ideas for those that are provable); and, in the long run, lacking in wonder. Oh, sure, scientists will tell you that the reason they love science is the sense of wonder, the finding out; but for the rest of us, to whom the world is constantly being defined, explained, diagrammed and delineated, there is indeed something lacking.

Look at the way kids amble along, looking at things, ordering the world into their own system, their own cosmology. They are not constrained by time (just watch parents trying to hurry them along to be on time for school or to get in the car for the next errand). They do not have their world defined for them yet.

Perhaps this is why there is such an interest in Steampunk, Clockpunk, and other milieu of that ilk: it gives rein to the imagination, it allows us alternate physics, alternate geographies; it frees us from the constraints of science and the clock’s tyranny.

I, for one, would like to continue to be an explorer of the universe. I would like to bring clocks back to their very best state: that of conversation-piece, automata, a magical example of the marvels of intellect and skill. Onward! Or perhaps, Backward, and then Onward!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dinosaurs in a House with Wonderful Stairs

If you ever have a chance to go to Lyme Regis - on the south coast of England - and see the Philpot museum, please do. It is a museum of fossils, but also partly about Mary Anning, the 12-year-old girl who, in 1811, discovered the first known full-sized dinosaur skeleton. She was ridiculed for her "eccentric" urge to uncover the thing, spending her time day after day on the seashore, getting grubby and wet, digging up her "Sea Dragon." Now we know it as an ichthyosaur.

This was in a time when most people still thought that fossils were "stony objects [which grew] within the earth to resemble living things." (wikipedia, History of Paleontology)

Besides, the Museum is housed in a wonderful, indescribable old residence with incredible nooks and corners, odd stairs and domes, in that lovely Georgian style. For example, look at these amazing stairs, built in front of a window:

I love fun architecture.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Manifesto

(above: Cabinets of Curiosities, a book with photos by Patrick Maurles)

We’ll start with this.

Early in the Age of Enlightenment, a time of curiosity and ignorance, where the occultism and alchemy of the Rennaissance are melting slowly into the rigid structures of modern science, where reason is overtaking superstition, but the magical thinking bleeds into everything. Magic and science are harder to define, and the world is a chaotic place, which philosophers and scientists strive to categorize. Their categorization wanders into asthetic considerations - after all, we are traveling through the Baroque period - and becomes an art form in itself.
What we have here is a Cabinet of Curiosities, a place where things of interest are set out, in possibly bizarre, possibly fetishistic presentation, for perusal by the discerning, who understand that presentation, and scientific interest, are all a form of magic.

What we have is:

Automaton (singular) is defined as: "A mechanism having its motive power so concealed that it appears to move spontaneously." The term is generally applied to mechanical human or animal figures which move by clockwork motivation.

For example:

This amazing bird can be found here, where you can hear a recording of its song.

The author of the site, Ray Bates, is an antiquarian horologist in Vermont, and has this description of the bird:
Singing bird box: a small decorative box, often of wood, silver, or, in this case gold, about four inches long and containing a musical mechanism driven by a mainspring which on release of a catch activates multiple cams and levers which accompany the tiny bird which appears from under the lid, producing through a small bellows and variable pitch pipe a remarkably realistic bird song, the bird rotating and flapping its wings, lifting its tail, and turning its head while moving its beak. At the end of the bird song sequence the bird suddenly disappears into the box, the lid closing over it as though it did not exist.

Clocks and Clockwork, in any form, of course.

The Cabinet of Curiosities, the Chamber of Curiosities, where Nature was examined in all its minuteness and symmetry. These began at the end of the Renaissance, or the beginning the Age of Reason, which is sometimes thought of as the early part of the Enlightenment:
Wunderkabinett and Wunderkammer - A Wunderkabinett is most literally a "cabinet of wonders," and a Wunderkammer is a "chamber of wonders," exhibition spaces in which miscellaneous curiosities — odd and wondrous rarities — brought together for private contemplation and pleasure. These words are German, but they are also used by speakers and writers of English because so many of the earliest (16th century) and best examples have been German. The objects on display in these storage/display spaces were marvels of nature.
If some or all of the objects were art, then they were more likely to be called Kunstkabinetts and Kunstkammern instead. These precursors of the museum were developments from the Renaissance. The museum, on the other hand, was a creation of the Enlightenment.
The plural of Wunderkammer is Wunderkammern.

- From Artlex, the Artist’s dictionary

I always think of Reliquaries as precursors to the Wunderkammer, and because they are so amazing, I may just include them, though they are not really very Reasonable or Enlightened.

Weird Science and Medicine, which relies only partly on scientific ideas; the rest is hocus-pocus of the most marvelous kind.

...The point is the attitude. The objects and ideas from this time depended on a uniquely baroque sense of decoration and presentation, a sense of the strangeness and vastness of the universe (a fascination which diminished as the boundaries of the world became closer and more defined), a time during which the class systems in their most defined and reprehensible forms allowed ever more elaborate and arcane systems of leisure and intellectual advancement.