The Martin Scorsese film Hugo did something fantastic: it gave life to a machine. The automaton featured in the film mirrored technology that really existed in the 18th and 19th century–a time when many machines were designed to look like people or perform human-like tasks. The beautiful workings of the drawing machine in Hugo inspired Apple engineer Andrew Carol to attempt a recreation of the automaton–only he used a decidedly modern medium: LEGO bricks! The result is an amazing, programmable machine that can write messages and draw pictures. All you have to do is turn the crank.
Carol says he was inspired to try his hand at creating an automaton as soon as he saw Hugo. Of course, the machine in the movie was fictional, so it could be infinitely complex and amazing without having to answer any questions of mechanics or physics. To create such an intricate machine in the real world, Carol had to face these challenges head on.
Fast Co. Design reports: “He mocked up a prototype mechanism that used Lego chains to move a pen over paper in two dimensions. ‘It proved the idea was workable, but I did not finish it. It sat that way for well over a year,’ he says. But in November of this year, Carol got the itch to finish his project. He spent ‘every weekend and the holiday week off’ tinkering with his machine, and had it working by Thanksgiving.”
“Most of these machines stored the program to control their movement using carefully cut cams,” Carol writes on his website. “A rod would trace the shape of the cam as the cam was rotated. The rise and fall of the rod as the cam rotated was translated into motion of the hand or other mechanism…Of course LEGO could not have cams designed to makes specific letters as part of its standard inventory so I required a new mechanism to store the pen stroke program.”
While undeniably awesome, one has to question WHY Carol would spend so much time building an antiquated machine using a material from the 21st century, only to accomplish a task that’s nearly obsolete–writing a message with a pen and paper.
“Part of the attraction is the puzzle solving aspect, but I would disagree that these are Rube Goldberg machines,” Carol told Fast Co. Design. “Rube Goldberg machines were intentionally designed to be overly complicated ways to solve simple problems. My machines are as simple as possible within the constraint of being purely mechanical and using Lego parts. In a certain sense, I’m trying to make machines as they might have rationally been approached in 1880 if Lego was more available than custom metal parts.”
Images and video via Andrew Carol