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We have sung kinetic machine artist Arthur Ganson’s praises often and loudly, here, before, but this particular work jumped out at me today while I was combing for concrete-themed stuff.  Machine with Concrete is a gear train consisting of twelve pairs of worms and gears, each of which reduces the rotational velocity of the system by 1/50.  The input shaft is constantly driven at 200 rpm, and the output shaft thus turns at (1/50)12 of that speed, at which rate, Ganson writes, “it will take well over two trillion years before the final gear makes but one turn.”

The punchline, of course, is that the final gear is embedded in a block of solid concrete.

I haven’t been able to figure out where Machine with Concrete currently lives; many of Ganson’s works are at the MIT Museum, but I couldn’t find any definitive information about this one, and would be glad to hear from anyone who knows.

Wherever its home, I wonder about its duty cycle: Has it been running continuously since completion? If it’s in a museum, is it only run during museum hours? And though it’s easy to calculate how long it will take the final gear to turn a given distance, a more interesting question, to me, is a bit trickier: How long until it sticks? And, given that each 50-fold reduction in speed is also a 50-fold gain in torque, will it stick at all, or just slowly grind through the concrete?

Update: As of April 17, 2013, Machine with Concrete is on indefinite loan to the Exploratorium, and is currently on view.  My understanding is that it still belongs to Ganson himself.  Thanks to tipster Adam Ringel and to Jericha Senyak at the Exploratorium.

Arthur Ganson Kinetic Sculpture

Sean Michael Ragan

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c’t – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.


25 Responses to Arthur Ganson's "Machine with Concrete"

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  1. hazardandy on said:

    I saw it a few years ago in the MIT Museum.

  2. Unless it’s moved recently, this is at the MIT Museum.

  3. carolina vallejo on said:

    I saw it in the Ars Electronica Museum in Linz a few years ago, but it may have been there only for a special exhibition.

  4. Wow.

    I suspect that the incredible torque at the end of the gear train will mean it will shear the concrete after **** some time **** !!

  5. kinderdm on said:

    I’m thinking with all that torque its just as likely to slowly deform the metal gears over time, and eventually break them free of their mounts, as it is to grind through the concrete.

  6. Fredicvs Maximvs on said:

    Arrgh! If only the resolution were clearer, we could read the duty cycle of the motor off of the nameplate!

    I ordered a DVD from Mr. Ganson several years ago, and he emailed me to ask where I’d heard of him. Seemed very down-to-Earth and friendly, to me. I imagine he’d be happy to answer your questions if you asked him nicely… :-D

    I’m pretty sure I once saw his Machine With 23 Scraps of Paper at OMSI here in Portland OR. Surprisingly beautiful piece of work. I wonder if it’s still here…

  7. It’s at the MIT Museum,. Just saw it this weekend. If I’m not mistaken there were a couple more pieces there than I remember last time I went. BTW, there are lots of events going on at the museum and all over Cambridge this month as part of the Cambridge Science Festival: http://tinyurl.com/cowdbxa

  8. The steel is stronger than the concrete, so eventually it will grind through. The steel is more flexible, so the shaft will twist ever so slightly until the concrete begins to fracture.

  9. JohnZapps on said:

    OK, I know this seems a stupid question, but why not stick a low power but ridiculously high-rpm motor like the unit from a Dyson vac on there? 200w @ 100,000 rpm I think.

    As I understand it “rpm” almost seems unappreciated(*) in the HP equation, in that any arbitrarily high rpm seems to allow for absurdly low energy expended to achieve very “substantial” work in reasonable periods of time if given a similar gear-train.

    Admittedly HP isn’t increased during the multiplication of torque but aren’t fly-wheels and clutches the answer to that- assuming I’m not a genius, why isn’t this done?

    (*) = It’s not even a variable in the basic equation. Weird. Higher rpm is analogous to manufacturing more time. OK, now it seems silly.

  10. Sean Ragan on said:

    Thanks, all you visitors to the MIT museum who chimed in to help on this post!

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  14. DJBudSonic on said:

    The torque at the embedded end is so great that if that last shaft is keyed into the concrete in any way it will tear the concrete apart before it binds.

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  16. Dave Hinman on said:

    I’m a volunteer at the MIT Museum. We have many Ganson pieces on exhibit, but this specific one is not. We have been showing (at least for the 2.5 years I’ve been there) a similar piece called The Big Bang: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kb4J_uGdo9I

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  18. I’m betting that without somewhat regular maintenance and a sealed inert gas chamber to hold it, the lubricants will deteriorate and fail, and slow frictional wear on the drive components will cause it to freeze up or start slipping long before then. Plus, the motor itself will almost certainly fail within a few decades – or at most within a few hundred years. And the future curators will have a heck of a time finding a replacement motor :)

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  20. David Schweizer on said:

    I saw it last night at the Exploratorium, at their new location at Pier 15 in San Francisco. I don’t recall seeing it at the old location; perhaps it was in storage.

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