Amazeum Automata Explorations

This past week I traveled to the Scott Family Amazeum, in Bentonville, Arkansas for my second maker residency. At the same time as the visit, a traveling exhibition from our friends at Cabaret Mechanical Theater, was on display at the museum, giving us some inspiration to explore different automata extensions.


I met with the team in the shop and we started exploring ways of going big by scaling up cardboard automata. We used large honeycomb cardboard sheets and PVC pipes in our initial explorations.

It was super fun to explore how to make everything stable by adding triangular gussets (and a lot of hot melt glue). As well, we went through a lot of rapid prototyping with Joel Gordon, formerly of the Innovation Hub and now the making and tinkering director at the Amazeum, to make helpful laser cut parts.

The next day we continued thinking about new automata extensions in the tinkering hub by seeing if we could incorporate digital elements like micro:bit and moto:bit into cardboard automata and cranky contraption activities.


We did another quick and dirty laser cut piece to connect the Fire the Inventor cardboard automata kit chopstick axle to micro:bit. And we prototyped a simple wooden frame and wire set up for cranky contraptions to connect the DAGU motors to the crank shafts.

It was fun to see how this idea could spark different technical and narrative elements. I built an alien themed automata to go with the ginat honeycomb cardboard mothership. We complexified the idea with a dual motor dancing penguin automata that added music from a little speaker.


Over the next three days, we had a repeat visitor to the tinkering hub. River, an eleven year old from Virginia, made some really remarkable creations to add to our collection of automata. It was fun to see his ideas complexify over each iteration.

As we developed a diverse collection of contraptions, we programmed them so that the microbit onboard light sensor could trigger the motion when arranged them under the spinning UFO atop the giant automata. 

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In addition to these small prototypes we also tried some experiments with the collaborative ensemble kit built by Steve Guy from Fire the Inventor that came as part of the Cabaret Mechanical Theater Curious Contraptions exhibit. The ensemble kit is a set of parts that allows people of all ages to build cam powered automata and then link them together.


We moved from the provided “toppers” for the collection to setting up craft materials for people to construct their own ideas on the frames that they assembled with the kit of parts. We suggested a loose circus theme and emphasized the theme with a couple laser cut tents/train cars and Calder’s circus playing in the background.

It was so awesome to see all the ideas that this activity develop over the course of the workshop. I loved how some people went way outside the box developing trapeze artists, using linkages and experimenting with background and foreground art.

And of course everyone was super excited to add their creations to the playful, colorful and collaborative installation. It was fun to see the mechanism grow over the course of the day until we used all thirty kits to make a huge automata parade.

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On the last day of the residency, I worked on documenting the experiments from the week and collecting all of the laser cut parts to share in future guides and resources.


For one final experiment that I worked on was another idea to remix Nicole’s bubble blowing arduino robot machine using miro:bit and moto:bit. I used the Fire the Inventor cam box kit (although cardboard probably wasn’t the best choice) to mount a DAGU motor with a fan blade attachment, two servo motors hot glued together and a small plastic container of bubble solution.

It was super fun to get to put this idea into practice as a jumping off point for future explorations. We’re looking forward to taking this spark of a design to the Figment Art festival in Oakland at the end of September.


All of these prototypes and workshops will come back to Amazeum at the beginning of October for the 5th annual Tinkerfest event. This museum wide celebration of making and tinkering in many forms will be another chance to work with the staff and visitors to explore automata, curious contraptions, computational tinkering and other new experiments.