A wheeled contraption pours aquarium sand onto the ground, scribing precise lines of poetry with a funnel that rolls back and forth across a gantry. It wheels forward dutifully as onlookers take care not to stomp out the pristine letters it leaves behind. Follow the words far enough backward, though, and they begins to smudge and scatter.
The Dutch say “Wie schrijft, die blijft,” or, “those who write are those who stay.” Dutch artist Gijs van Bon brings a temporal twist to the idiom with his Skryf Sandwriter robot — it’s outlived everything it’s ever written.
Van Bon uses a simple program that reads text letter by letter and feeds it to an industrial CNC controller, translating each letter into the plotter’s movement. The x, y, and z axes that control the mechanics of the Skryf are based on a CNC milling machine. It’s driven by stepper motors, which van Bon chose because they are “cheapest, easiest, and have the best torque.”
Van Bon brought the first of his three Skryfs to Maker Faire Bay Area this year. One of its siblings has no gantry; instead it uses an arm that can rotate within a 2-meter diameter (pictured above). The movements of the Skryfs are slow and methodical, but they have quite an appetite. Van Bon says he has to feed the robot roughly 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds) of sand over a four-hour period.
The Skryfs have written in over 10 languages, including Korean, Lithuanian, and Swedish, although van Bon says he’s especially fond of Arabic. No matter what they’re writing, van Bon says he hopes the Skryfs speak to people of the “transient, ephemeral nature of our being.” Such things truly transcend language.