MAKING THE EXPLORATORIUM CLOCK
The old Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts
Exploratorium which opened in 1969, was the very first
‘Science Centre’ full of interactive exhibits. It still has its
wonderful exhibits, but now is also an art, science and education
research institute. In 2013 it’s moved to a new home, one of San
Fransisco’s piers. I am part of an Exploratorium group called ‘The
Tinkering studio’ which encourages using tools and making things. The
clock was a commission to decorate a column in the centre of the new
tinkering studio area, on the theme of ‘people making things’
My column in the pier building
anything permanent for the Exploratorium is a daunting prospect because
the standard is so amazingly high. When I’m there I normally work on
temporary stuff which doesn’t have the same responsibility. I started
with the idea of lots of small automata cartoon characters ‘making’
something big. The space around my column suited the shape of a huge
vintage American road sign. I made a model while I was visiting in
spring 2012 and everyone seemed to like it, but they couldn’t agree
the wording on the sign. In retrospect, I can see the problem was that
no other section of the new Exploratorium has an enormous sign, but at
the time it was a bit frustrating.
By the beginning of August 2012, when I
should have been starting work, the wording issue still hadn’t been
resolved and I still hadn’t finished my previous project, an arcade
game about the Somali pirates which had been dogged by bad luck. By the
end of August I had started to think of the cartoon people working on
numbers instead of letters and this is how it became a clock. Sitting on
a train (where I often have my better ideas) I realised the numbers
could swing out to form a dial. I made a new model when I got home and
decided the idea was practical.
mocked up part of the column and tower structure, made a prototype
number two and then started trying different styles for the cartoon
characters. I invited Paul Spooner to come and help design the mechanisms and
we spent a wonderful week trying ideas out. Paul is a good friend, but
we had never actually spent time making things together before. We had a
great time and learnt lots of tricks from each other.
Even though I initially
wanted to make the characters 3D, 2D fitted
the available spaces better. Also, the 2D plywood characters looked as if they
had been laser cut, even though they were actually just cut on a bandsaw.
This suited the Exploratorium as they use laser cutters a lot. I never
had a detailed overall master plan, I just drew cartoons characters
straight on the plywood to suit the mechanisms Paul and I had made.
Column and tower mock
An early trial character made of aluminium
the time Paul left, I had much more confidence in the whole project.
So I went to Rayman, a Far Eastern music shop in London, and
bought an enormous Chinese gong for £1,000. There wasn’t really the
budget to buy it, but I’ve wanted to make a clock with one for a long
working on the previous roadsign design I had asked Mike whether the cartoon
characters should be construction workers or Exploratorium visitors and he
said a mixture of both. At the time I thought this was a typical woolly
West Coast response, but I came round to the idea. I couldn’t draw the
visitors with hard hats or they would look like construction workers. This
makes it all much more anarchic, and the UK is now so obsessed about
health and safety it was satisfying to break the spirit of our rules.
|After a couple more weeks I had an almost complete set of
characters, mechanisms and numbers. It was then time to build the tower. I
was still dithering about the width and depth an hour before we
started. I finally opted for the largest of the three options, very
fortunate because it later became clear that everything couldn’t have
fitted if I’d made it any smaller. With the tower sections in the
workshop, progress fitting the numbers went well. I could have worked out
all the pivot points using CAD, but it was much more satisfying drawing it
with classic Euclidian geometry. Once all the numbers were swinging out, I
thought they were a bit boring so I spent an afternoon making the number
three swivel upright as it swung out. I liked the effect, so then I had to
think up extra pivoting mechanisms for the other numbers.
The number pivots got quite complicated
The top half of the tower in my workshop
Most of the clocks I’ve made have been outdoors so
the steel had to be galvanised but for an indoor clock I wanted a raw
steel finish. ‘Renaissance wax polish’ was a lucky find, super quick
to apply without dismantling anything. It’s used by museums for ancient
metalwork and by armourers for battle re-enactment armour.
I had decided to use an electric clock escapement as
there wasn’t enough time to make a mechanical one or to test it for long
enough. I had hoped to use a synchronous motor (a simple sort of stepper motor
whose speed is fixed by the alternating cycles of the mains) but buying
one the right spec began to seem impossible so I tried a stepper motor
instead. Stepper motors are straightforward but their electronics are not.
I almost gave up on the idea completely because the expensive UK driver
board I’d bought wasn’t stable. Out of curiosity I’d also bought a
cheap Ebay board for £28 from Hong Kong. I had spent so much time
fiddling with the first board that I gave the cheap one a try, and it
worked perfectly first time and has continued to keep time ever since.
|Despite the good progress in October and November, panic
started to set in because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything much
in December. I had another job installing gates for the tiger enclosure at
London Zoo, was speaking at an anthropology conference in Paris, and there
was also Christmas, which is a big event in the UK when everything shuts
down for two weeks. Somehow I
found a few days to assemble the sections of the clock in my neighbour’s
barn. Once Christmas was over, I returned to work and connected everything
together. It finally all went on test (performing every three minutes, 24
hours a day) at the beginning of January.
The main problem I had during its test was the oil impregnated bronze bushes running dry and scoring the
shafts. If you heat up an oil impregnated bush, an amazing amount of oil
comes out, but I think there must be a capillary effect to feed it to the
surface which needs priming. I replaced the shafts with really expensive
induction hardened ones, and added oil and grease.
I just had time to make one final mechanism and
character, the boy with the tape measure. It was hard finding the space to
fit him in, but I was delighted when he ended up closely admiring the
welder girl’s bottom (ass for readers in the US). So the clock not only
ignores health and safety it now also has a minor element of political
||Shipping something like this to the US is not
straightforward. Having been told the crates had arrived in Oakland, I
flew out only to find they weren't there. Though my UK agent was
efficient, the US end is contracted to US shipping companies and
sub-contractors. We got endless conflicting reports and the crates
finally turned up at San Fransisco airport, ten days late with one badly
damaged. From the shape of the hole, the gong had obviously shot though
the half inch thick plywood. The only way I can think it could have done
this is if it had been in a truck which had crashed. I think they
finally got embarrassed by our constant phone calls and flew it the last
leg of the journey.
||From the size of the hole in the crate, I was
convinced vital parts had fallen out, but they hadn't. The top of the crate was stoved in
very close to the glass, it was amazing it was intact. Fortunately the packer, (Keiser packing,
Gorleston) had done a brilliant job and there was only minor damage. I
was then lucky to have a brilliant rigger to help me erect the clock round
the column , we did it all in just 5 hours. It was a huge relief that it
fitted, the dimensions were tight.
I then ran the clock on test again
and sadly had the same problem that I'd had in the UK. The oilite bushes
shafts started to run stiff, obviously my hardened shafts had not
solved the problem. My return date was fixed, so I left slightly
unsatisfied, but I had been training Nicole (who works at the
Exploratorium) and she will have to take ownership of it, so she will fit the new roller bearings.
For me this problem
rather overshadowed the fact that people obviously liked the
clock. A group of journallists being shown round even clapped when the
gong bonged - I've never heard of lournallists clapping, perhaps they
less cynical than in the UK, where we call them hacks .
installation was covered in greater detail on the tinkering studio's