A trip to the Exploratorium,
as Visiting Artist, 3/2-16, 2003:
I was invited to spend two
weeks at my favorite place in the world (no exaggeration). This is a
quick posting of some of the things I got a chance to work on, and the
wonderful people I worked with.
The view, upon arrival.
One of the first things I
set to work on was the construction of a sand plotter, identical to
the one I have at the Science Museum of Minnesota. I had shipped the
electromechanical guts, but had to improvise the frame from available
Since fine garnet sand is
used in many of the Exploratorium exhibits, I grabbed some and tried
it. An interesting (and in my view, unwelcome) feature is that it is
contaminated with iron:
We tried it on the floor,
and although a few visitors could not resist touching the sand, it survived
reasonably well. Prior to my departure, Karen and Mike helped me move
it into the Production Studio (a small building housed within the exhibit
space), where Sisyphus' daily toil will be visible to visitors through
A few days into my stay,
I had the opportunity to give an informal talk to the staff, during
lunch. After the "brown bag" (in which I showed images from
my site) some of the staff who work at "Exhibit Services"
(where Exploratorium exhibits are built for "export" to other
science museums) invited me to look at their new CNC router table. After
seeing the rig (3 axis, servo driven, 4' x 8' capacity) I asked for
permission to see if I could generate true 3D tool paths for it. They
had not yet tried this, since most of the time they are cutting 2D paths
in panels. Instead of the usual "well, maybe" or just plain
"no" -- they said "sure!" The next day I had a test
path ready. With lots of help from a very cool group of staff we succeeded
in showing that it works:
A few days later, after writing
more elaborate LISP routines in AutoCAD, we were able to cut this surface
I could happily spend two
weeks just doing this!
Emu egg engraving:
One of my favorite demonstrations
of do-it-yourself CNC involves plotting on eggs. I shipped out one of
my high-resolution "ovagraphs" and was plotting on chicken
eggs within two days of my arrival. But I had never attached a Dremel
to this machine, and figured this was a good time to try it. I had bought
three emu eggs on eBay ($5 a piece) and thought that the natural dark
green surface would be perfect. I quickly attached a flexible shaft
to the Dremel, and affixed it to my "pen axis." It took some
coaxing to get an acceptable pen up/down response, but eventually I
decided to just go for it:
Do-it-yourself CNC heaven:
Several months prior to the
trip, as I was thinking of the activities I might want to try, one that
I favored was to build a large XY table for the shop's plasma torch.
But no one seemed especially interested in this (and some were perhaps
a bit hostile to the idea). And so I tucked this fantasy away in the
"hopefully someday" heap (already pretty crowded). But while
I was doing one of my favorite things-- junk hunting-- I discovered
an unbelievable cache of high quality linear motion components in various
Exploratorium storage areas. This was made all the more amazing by the
truly surreal space known as "the rotunda." The Exploratorium
resides in the remnants of buildings built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific
International Exposition. Called "The Palace of Fine Arts,"
it looks like a Greco-Roman Temple:
The Exploratorium stores
materials in a few of the "legs" of this domed structure.
Here, Charles (one of the talented exhibit developers at the Exploratorium)
is opening up a "leg," and the view inside:
After retrieving some choice
components, and swapping out the servo motors for steppers (also found
in the rotunda), Charles and I were able to construct a 3-axis table,
with usable travels of ~4'x5' with 3" of Z:
Not bad for one day's work!
It will be fun to see what the Explo staff does with this thing.
Although I was in perhaps
the most beautiful city on earth, there was not much time to get out.
Karen and Mike, two wonderful educators at the Exploratorium and the
people responsible for arranging my trip, invited me to their home in
Napa during the middle Sunday of my trip. Charles and his wife Dena
drove me up and we went for a great hike:
To Karen, Mike, Charles,
Dena, and all the phenomenal staff I met and got a chance to share ideas
with at the Exploratorium-- I can't thank you enough.