Category Archives: engine

Making the Abstract Concrete


During Engineering Week at the end of February, the Creative Automata Lab hosted an onslaught of visitors of all ages. We showed several projects representing the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey relationship, a mechanical integrator using simulated sand, and the use of force feedback in embodied interactions with the distributive law of algebra. A video was produced from the projects, and students are interviewed for their perspectives. The video can be seen by using this link or by clicking on the photo of the ATEC Building shown above.

The Disappearing Trick of HiTech



We couldn't do without technology. It shapes our lives and makes them better for the most part. And yet, we must look at what is lost as much as we celebrate what is gained. Thankfully, what is lost often comes back later. Let's take the example of Vannevar Bush's differential analyzer - a real gem of a machine, whose purpose was to solve differential equations. And yet, it is how it solved them which made all the difference (pun intended). Here is a photo of the wheel and disc integrator from the MIT museum. This column is too short to discuss how it works, but once you see it, integration becomes child's play. It makes sense.  At the top of that web page, there is a prophetic quote from Warren Weaver (of the Shannon-Weaver communication model) about exactly what was lost in the way of understanding once the analyzer was decommissioned and faster equipment took center stage. Something gained; something lost. And yet, we now have the technologies in human interaction to have our cake and eat it too -- we do not have to give up on our human interfaces as we make progress toward faster processing speeds with smaller components.

Choo-Choo Charlie was a [Software] Engineer


When I was a kid in Pennsylvania, we lived for many years right next to a railroad track, which ran behind my back yard. The trains on that particular track were infrequent, but we'd go down to the tracks and then wave and shout at the engineer in the caboose. He'd toot his horn. Trains, rails, and rail yards, where trains are stored and come together, are information flows--that is how a computer scientist sees them: information moving around, being processed, being controlled. That is how we see everything--admittedly somewhat of an unusual way of seeing. There are numerous information controls and structures such queues when train cars move through stations, and stacks when a train reaches a terminus at the rail yard, and the locomotive may need to be attached to the other end. A "stack" is a mental concept. Stacks implemented in written software are ways of reifying the stack concept using typography--seeing it with the naked eye. Trains at rail yards are another way of seeing stacks. The train's behavior is not a visualization of a stack. It is a stack. As much as anything else is one. Then, there are the track switches, merging, selection, sorting - just about everything you need to make a data flow computer. If we can observe trains as information then we can use this as a metaphor to recreate data flow in the image of trains. The trains, or slight simplifications of them, become models for computation--creative automata.


Da Vinci's Cam Hammer




This is Da Vinci's design for a cam-driven hammer. Here is a model that I built out of wood using a hand Dremel tool, glue, and wood from this kit. The hammer can be also interpreted as an information machine, and there are ways of using this as an analog model to investigate mathematical and computing principles. We can ask system theoretic questions and pose challenges: (1) How would you use Da Vinci's hammer to capture the concept of number? (2) Define the states, state space, inputs, events, and outputs for this mechanism. (3) What is the cause-effect chain of the machine? (4)  Map the continuum of state space to make it a finite state machine. (5) Is there a control loop in this machine? If so, what are the beginning and ending loop values? (6) Define a mathematical function being dynamically represented, and (7) define the mechanical advantage using the lever concept. Answering these questions and addresses the resulting challenges can be more interesting than having students move alphabetic symbols around, plus they can learn a little bit about history.

Music Box Thing


What is it? Looks like a hair comb and a strange cylinder with small bumps. This is a 3D printed music box. I've been thinking quite a lot lately about 3D printing ever since I opened up my lab to show posters and research last Thursday, and then realized that everyone was, instead, taking a bee-line to our 2 Makerbot 3D printers. "Is this the room where the 3d printers are?" Sure! Why not? It seems that there is a new 3D printer company on KickStarter every day. So, clearly, this represents a technology that is only going to get better and cheaper. Lots of things can be fabricated with a 3D printer, including the music box. Our interest is a bit beyond music, though, to the point where we are looking at objects like the music box and thinking about how we can use these quick-print objects for math and computing education. There are many possibilities -- people are drawn towards the tangible, the touchable, and that which can be forged immediately from plastic. I am reminded of a toy when I was young, where we had a kit for making plastic insects. What ever happened to it?


Organum Hydraulicum


Athanasius Kircher was a 17th century German jesuit scholar who produced many publications on machinery. One of them, Musurgia Universalis, was written in 1650 and described ways of creating automatic music. The machine shown above, a water organ, is from Book 9 of that work. Water and air are introduced at the right side into a vessel termed a camera aeolis. The rate of water flow introduces a displacement of air which exits into the vertical pipes comprising the musical organ. The control of which notes are produced, and when, is achieved through barrel rotation.  The water not only displaces air for the organ, but also drives the barrel. The barrel has protrusions that interact with the keys as the levers interact with the protrusions. There is a separate mechanism shown in the upper left of the illustration.


Dream Models


I recall first seeing this image in a science museum - the Boston Museum of Science if I recall, in their wonderful Model Section. The image is Fritz Kahn's mechanical model of digestion. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a special exhibit celebrating the different views and perspectives of the body in an exhibit called Dream Anatomy. This design belongs to the history of automata, and adds some new twists in its detailed anatomical representation. Fritz Kahn, the designer, produced a variety of creative infographics for  the relationship of man to machine-- "Maschine Mensch"

The Art of Machines


Machines as art. It seems a bit odd to ponder it in today's world. But, that is because as a society, we have lost touch with the past. It is only very recently in our history that we have come to associate art with art museums and with the business of buying and selling art for outrageous prices. The Greek word techné, meaning "skill" or "craft" in modern parlance, originally captured art's meaning. Artists were craftspeople, and through their intense labor, they made beautiful objects of enduring cultural and historical value. Now, we have fine art. What does that mean? As pointed out in the fine art Wiki, "The separation of arts and crafts that exists in Europe and the United States is not shared by other cultures." So, there is an apparent schism between those who produce something useful and those who, according to the Wiki, produce something that "has been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness..." The problem with fine art and this division is that it doesn't mesh well with our society as it presently exists. I am not suggesting an end to art museums---they serve an invaluable purpose in preserving culture and, more importantly, in guiding people in how to perceive. However, we need to bring back the concept of artisan, craft, and utility as natural extensions to how we define art, so that fine art does not represent the sole authority on "art." Due to technology, we live in world where "making" and "sensing" are made infinitely possible through inventions such as 3D printing, computer-aided design, games, and virtual reality. The time is ripe to slowly erode this pointless distinction between that which is done only for itself and that which may be useful. I find the Computer History Museum's Lesson Plan "Perceptions of Technology: Its Hidden Art and Beauty" both timely and appropriate. We are all artists now.

A New Trivium and Quadrivium


Representations of automata bring together the arts with technology, and computing with modeling and simulation. A broader topic is the structure of the academy (i.e., our present system of education) and how this system supports areas such as automata. George Bugliarello, former president of Sigma Xi and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, wrote a very good article on what sometimes divides us and what might help unite us as we improve integration of the arts and humanities with engineering. I particularly like this passage:

"Recently, with structural art—e.g., the view of a bridge also as a work of art (Billington)—and with the growing commercial importance of aesthetics in automobiles and other functional artifacts, the time is ripe in engineering for a renewed appreciation of aesthetics. Unfortunately, in the required curriculum of our engineering schools, not a single course deals with taste, aesthetics or style. Neither, for that matter, do arts curricula focus on the kinship of art and engineering as modifiers of nature. The consequence is, much too often, human-made environments with no emotional impact, that can benumb, rather than inspire."

Automata are, after all, machines whether they are made out of virtual or physical materials. They can be beautiful works of art regardless of their capacity to play a functional, utilitarian role.