You might not have heard of Theo (pronounced Tay-o) Jansen. But it’s likely you’ve heard of his creations, the Strandbeests — or at least seen the crawling, leggy, wind-powered mechanical figures around the web. But you still probably haven’t heard their whole backstory.
I spoke with Jansen on the event of his first exhibit in Boston, at the Peabody Essex Museum. (It began on September 19 and runs until January 3, and is actually in nearby Salem.) He talked, not just about his creations, and what they do, and why, but about the way they have evolved, and continue to evolve.
Jansen’s transformation into a Strandbeest creator has been documented before. He came up with the idea while writing a column for a Dutch newspaper in 1990. The goal was to build a wind-powered walker that would kick up sand as it moved, causing it to be deposited in berms and thus protecting The Netherlands from sea level rise. Some years later, he followed through on a promise he made therein: That he would devote one year to the effort. Now it’s 2015, and he has (so far) devoted several decades to his animals, as he calls them. (“It’s still going on,” he says. “It really got out of hand.”)
But since then, the project has developed sort of a life of its own, thanks to many Makers around the world who have emulated and modified the design. Izzy Swan built a version he can ride on, powered by a 20V drill. The Walking Pod, which attended Maker Faire Bay Area 2015, featured a beest-like leg system. And there are several Strandbeest kits available from the Maker Shed.
Jansen’s invention has captured a lot of imaginations, acting with a kind of real-life virality. “I put all my secrets on my website. Since then, lots of other people got infected with the idea,” he says. “You could say that I am the worst victim of that.”
Makers aren’t just copying it, they’re innovating new versions, new ways to use it. And whether he expected it or not, that plays right into Jansen’s original idea for the walkers.
All along there has been a different underlying concept, dating back before he first wrote about it, that the beests should — must — evolve. Jansen references Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker as inspiration, and wrote a program to simulate those theories, which produced for him the ideal design for the legs. That was what he published.
Ever since, Jansen has built one or more new iterations each summer, named with a number (this year’s last was #38). He’s solved problems like destructive sand in the joints and the tendency for the feet to get buried in the sand. They’re all made out of thin PVC, a restriction that he sees not as an impediment to creativity, but a boon to it, and a way to drive the evolution forward.
“It turns out that it enlarged the number of possibilities,” he says. “I wake up every morning with an ingenious idea, go to the studio, and try to work on it. The tubes always protest — they don’t want to do what I want to do, and so that way they push me to other ways.”
The next day he wakes up with another idea, based on what he learned. At the end of the summer, he declares that year’s crop extinct.
“In the beginning, it was indeed that I wanted the animals to build up dunes,” says Jansen. “But in the process, I got more interested in … evolution theory, and I was forgetting about saving the country by building up the dunes. So that aspect of the beest got moved to the background, and I got more into wanting to discover the secrets of life.”
“I would like to leave a new species before I leave the planet,” he says. “I’m working on a new animal for humanity … and the animal has to survive on its own. And of course this is not the case yet, because I have to nurse them all the time.”
But in this, Jansen is wrong. He has introduced a new animal, and that animal will survive long after he’s gone, thanks to the reaction of wonder and inspiration it creates in those who see it, and to the Makers who build their own versions, perpetuating its evolution.
Video courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum