This essay about my machines and how I work was
commissioned to accompany an exhibition called ĎRube Goldbergís
Ghostí in Chicago (feb 2013).
Rube Goldberg is not well known in the UK, he was a US cartoonist who drew
contraptions with chain reactions, similar to Heath Robinson in the UK.
Iíve made things since I was a small child. Aged
about seven, I found my most satisfying machines were ones that made
people laugh. 55 years on, nothing much has changed. Like Rube Goldberg, I
studied engineering and then became a cartoonist. I must have enjoyed
engineering more than Goldberg, because I always wanted to actually make
my machines, rather than just draw them.
Today, my main business is running a small amusement
arcade on a seaside pier in the UK (The Under The Pier Show, Southwold
Pier). Itís unusual because all the machines are home-made, mostly by
me. I feel very lucky to have it. Anytime I can go down to the pier and
see people enjoying using my machines and having a good time. This keeps
me working, encouraging me to make the next machine.
Then at the end of each week I empty the coins. They
are so heavy I canít lift them all Ė it feels like real money. And it
really is a wonderful way to live Ė no schmoozing with people in power,
no layers of bureaucracy to navigate, no cheques from stupid projects that
should never have been funded anyway, and no exaggerating the truth to get
Goldbergís machines are always described as useless
and my machines are too. But they both made us enough money to live off,
which is quite useful. Also making people laugh is useful, a lot more
beneficial than many Ďseriousí advances in technology like yet another
new computer operating system. My aunt Lis, who is very religious,
describes my arcade as my ministry.
People often ask me where my ideas come from. Iím
entertained by the absurdities of modern world and particularly enjoy
media hysteria because itís so silly and yet everyone takes it so
seriously. For example, ĎWhack a Bankerí came from the financial
crash. Sometimes the ideas are more personal Ė ĎMicrobreakí came
from arguing with my wife about a proposed holiday.
But I think initial Ďconceptsí or ideas are
always over-rated. My starting points are usually quite simple Ė the fun
and skill is in the making. Once Iíve started any machine I get
completely absorbed in the research, and today Google images and Youtube
make research such fun. So over the months in workshop any initial basic
idea, however bad, gets constantly embellished and usually turns out OK.
What I love is the physical process of making a
machine. Itís partly drawing - not pretty drawings but drawing as a way
of thinking through problems. This gets better and better as I get older,
with more experience to feed in. The making process also involves lots of
prototypes Ė there are many problems drawings can never solve. This is
where is vital to have good stores, not only to have the parts to try
something, but also to jog the memory for possible alternative solutions.
Stores are a physical version of a memory map.
When the stores fail the internet takes over.
Delivery in a small country like the UK is speedy so almost anything I
need arrives the next day. For expensive parts there are always cheaper
alternatives on Ebay. Since the advent of the internet I often feel like a
child in a sweet shop, I literally have the world at my fingertips.
I also feel as if I have limitless territory.
Todayís world is full of machines with amazing software and simple
physical interfaces, but very few machines are the other way round.
Physical, electromechanical machines with a bit of software wizardry like
the ones I make remain largely unexplored territory.
Personally, I donít think of my arcade as
Ďcontemporary artí, more as popular entertainment. I donít see
myself as an artist, more as a mix of showman, cartoonist and inventor.
Rube Goldberg is also usually referred to as a cartoonist or inventor
rather than as an artist.
One difference is that cartoons arenít generally
subtle, itís important that everyone understands the joke. In the same
way my machines arenít subtle, the arcade depends on everyone enjoying
them. Goldbergís cartoons and my machines are in the tradition of
popular art, which is separate from fine art, particularly in Europe. The
fine art tradition looks down on anything that is Ďobviousí,
preferring high concepts, profundity and layers of meaning.
Another difference is that my machines canít ever
be fragile or dangerous. I enjoy watching kinetic art machines that are
scary or only just work but they really are fine art and itís not what I
do. I spend 90% of my time solving conventional engineering problems,
making my machines reliable and safe. I love doing it, nothing better than
a juicy technical problem to work at. I never feel the need to do Soduko.
But I donít think people generally would consider spending days avoiding
a finger trap on a machine as art, even though the process is just as
But the main difference is that at heart I am an
engineer Ė Iím not sure about Goldberg. I do occasionally get excited
about a piece of contemporary art, but never as much as by technology. The
most exciting place Iíve ever visited in my life is a steel works. When
I go to London, I walk round the city building sites rather than going to
exhibitions. I particularly adore cranes, I wish I had one permanently
sitting outside my workshop.
To me, technology is far more fundamental than art or
science. It goes back much further (prehistoric man - the tool user) and
it has arguably shaped our brains. At the same time that the first apes
started walking on two legs 4 million years ago our brains started to grow
amazingly rapidly, they are now 3-4 times bigger. To some extent this
rapid brain growth must have been stimulated by having free hands, the
enormous potential for hand-eye-brain co-ordination and hence the
development of tools.
It certainly feels as if my hands are part of my
brain. Sometimes when Iím distracted, it almost feels as if they take
over and make things without any obvious conscious thought. I also get a
bit crazy if I donít make anything for a few days. Iím not bothered if
its artistic or not, Iím equally happy mending things or doing
conventional engineering jobs.
Making anything is difficult, and its particularly
hard particularly things that move. In retrospect I know I spent the first
half of my life making things badly. I just wasnít good enough at it to
make a living, which is why I ended up drawing cartoons. I donít
understand why I none the less persevered so doggedly but the long
learning process finally now gives me great satisfaction from my work.
Despite the high amount of skill involved, working
with the hands was equated with low paid work until recently. But today
the world has changed and low pay work is in catering or call centres.
Thereís new respect for practical skills which is seen in the Maker
movement (Make magazine and Maker faires etc). Iím delighted to see the
movement grow, and feel proud to be a maker. Its much more relevant to me
than whether Iím an artist or not.
My arcade machines donít easily fit in any
category of commerce or art, and I always used to think that I didnít
fit any profession or career path. But reading through what Iíve just
written, I realise that I have gradually turned into a classic eccentric
inventor. I even have the classic symptom of an eccentric in that I think
of myself as normal, but donít quite understand why others donít see
the world like I do. It is reassuring though that Iím not completely
alone, being in the company of Goldberg and others. And being a mad
inventor is actually really good fun, I would recommend it to anyone.