When I was a kid I had an Erector set, Size 8 ½, and learned how to build mechanical projects the hard way. There were no step-by-step instructions, no snap together parts, no video tutorials, just a bunch of really cool drawings and 169 nuts and bolts. I couldn’t wait to build the awesome projects in the manual like the motorized Bascule Bridge.
Nowadays the sets are gone from the stores, but fortunately dozens of them are available on eBay at very reasonable prices. Many of them need a little TLC but others have been tucked away in closets for over 50 years and are as good as new.
Several months ago I bought the same set I had as a youngster and decided to build the ultimate project, The Giant Ferris Wheel. The originalbelt that drove the wheel was made of string and tended to slip so I re-engineered the drive system to use a modern cog belt. Sweet! No slipping, just a steady rotation of the giant wheel at 5 RPM.
As I watched it go round and round I felt something was missing. Music! Amazingly, I already had a triggerable MP3 board from SparkFun in my parts drawer so I added it to the baseboard. It was a snap to find carnival music on the internet and load it into the player. The sound made all the difference. It was just like I was walking down the midway.
Next came the lights. At Radio Shack I found some programmable LED strips and secured them around the circumference and spokes. The strips needed a microcontroller to run them so I added an Arduino Micro to send the serial data. I had fun generating a number of sketches that produced spectacular patterns of rotating lights.
Last of all, I just had to include a ticket dispenser, loading ramp, cute little characters to ride in the cars, a neat lever to control the motor and the obligatory Erector set tin building.
The bottom line is this. It was great to revisit the various parts and pieces of the old Erector sets and to add modern accoutrements such as an Arduino and MP3 player. It challenged me to tackle new areas that I had not explored before and the end result was very satisfying.
This project came to Make too late to be included in the latest issue, Volume 41: Best Toys For Makers. We really enjoyed it though and thought you would too! If enjoyed this, you’re going to love this issue, which can be purchased at your local book store as well as online through the Maker Shed.