Arthur Ganson’s “Machine with Concrete”

Craft & Design Workshop
Arthur Ganson’s “Machine with Concrete”

We have sung kinetic machine artist Arthur Ganson’s praises often and loudly here, before, but this particular work jumped out at me while I was combing for concrete-themed content. 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?

YouTube player

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.

50 thoughts on “Arthur Ganson’s “Machine with Concrete”

  1. hazardandy says:

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

  2. Michael O'Keefe says:

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

  3. carolina vallejo says:

    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. marcellenormand says:


    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 says:

    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 says:

    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. E.P. says:

    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:

  8. Pierce Nichols says:

    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 says:

    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.

    1. andres says:

      higher rpm causes more friction losses

    2. steve says:

      what I wonder is if it were made from much less malleable material and the final drive was welded, i.e if the integrity of the system was greater than the motors power how long would it take to freeze

  10. Sean Ragan says:

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

  11. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Things About Matthew Borgatti says:

    […] in a way I’ve never seen anyone pull off. Arthur makes moving stories out mechanical linkages. This sculpture pretty much sums it […]

  12. MAKE | 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Things About Matthew Borgatti says:

    […] a way I’ve never seen anyone pull off. Arthur makes moving stories out mechanical linkages. This sculpture pretty much sums it […]

  13. Following some links from Boing Boing, I came upon this | Contriving says:

    […] Arthur Ganson’s “Machine with Concrete” The gear train on Arthur Gansen’s sculpture is driven at 200 rpm, and after stepping down 12 times, turns at a rate of less than one revolution per two trillion years. The final gear is embedded i…… […]

  14. DJBudSonic says:

    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.

  15. Machine with Concrete | Decorator Pattern says:

    […] Link. […]

  16. Dave Hinman says:

    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:

  17. Uma escultura cinética que não se move, e é genial « Meio Bit says:

    […] Fonte: GP […]

  18. Keith Rome (@keith_rome) says:

    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 :)

    1. Pooya says:

      By that time they can replicate one in the replicator ;)

  19. Jeshua Lacock’s (3D) Printed Machine with Concrete - 3D Printing Industry says:

    […] Source: Thingiverse, Make: […]

  20. David Schweizer says:

    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.

  21. Reasons to care: In honor of Scott Aaronson | Windows On Theory says:

    […] exponential and infinite. An example we give in the book is Arthur Ganson’s kinetic sculpture Machine with Concrete.  It’s composed of a sequence of 12 gears, each rotating 50 times slower than the previous […]

  22. sim76 says:

    This machine is indeed at the MIT museum. It’s amazing. When I saw it there I just stared at it for about 10 minutes!

  23. Larry says:

    The first gear shaft and journal will ware out before the end rotation.

  24. - Awassa Marketing says:

    […] to a piece in Make, the input shaft spins at 200 rpm, which is reduced by gearing down to 1 revolution every 2 […]

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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 My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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