Fantastic Fairgrounds Marble Machine Elements

Over the past couple years we’ve been collaborating with our friends at Cabaret Mechanical Theater to help support tinkering extensions to their traveling exhibitions. We built a mechanical signage element for the curious contraptions show, trained education staff and led large scale public automata workshops in connection with shows in Albuquerque, Bentonville and the UK.


For their newest exhibiton that recently opened at Tullie House in Carlisle UK, themed around Fantastic Fairground Factory, we created a marble machines environment that fit with the imaginative theme.


The centerpiece of the exhibit was a “helter skelter ball run” a sort of slide that spirals around a tall tower commonly found in UK faires. Within this context, we wanted to create an experience that could allow younger kids to play around with balls and tracks on different scale near the traditional marble machines wall.


Initially we prototyped the idea of cutting out a 2D tower, drilling big holes and wrapping flexible vinyl tubing through the flat surface to create a corkscrew path.

That didn’t really give us the desired effect so we moved to mocking up a few different tower designs first using cardboard and tape and then making a mini version out of thin plywood. We thought that design would be a little more impactful for the exhibit and would also provide a more sturdy base.


One we settled on the design, we had to do some serious math to calculate the angles of the boards, the length of the tracks (getting longer as they spiraled around the tower) and the spacing of the bolts that held them to the sides of the tower.


It was quite tricky to get the right angles to make the tower both six sided and tilted a bit toward the center. We got the pieces cut and figured out a plan to put everything together with brackets and bolts.


For the finishing touch, we added a topper piece that completed the helter skelter look and could also be a spot to hold the extra balls. We also added a blue wood stain to the tracks and topper for a bit of color.

Over the course of the project we got to explore so many nice woodworking fixes and jigs along the way to make everything come together (and also be able to come apart for shipping). When we finally got the entire tower put together it was really gratifying to see the balls spiral down the tracks.


At the same time that we were working on the helter skelter tower, we created a set of materials for visitors to build their own marble machine in the exbition. We based the designs off of the parts from the Tinkering Studio set but added a bit of color with wood stain to give a subtle nod to the fairground theme.


We packed up all of the parts in a homemade crate and sent it out to the new exhibition at Tullie House in Carlisle, England. In the meantime the crew from Cabaret assembled the pegboard wall, figured out an astroturf floor and got some cool orange bins for the materials. CMT installed the exhibition and the helter skelter tower and marble machine fort joined the collection of wooden automata as well as new hands on exhibits including a puppet show, spaceship, mechanism explainers and more.


Small scale tinkering environments like these are a great first step for art and history museums interested in creating more playful hands-on experiences. With the time tested activity prompt, clearly delineated space and sturdy materials, staff can practice care and facilitation of more open ended projects.

It’s important to us that these exhibits and environments show a balance between robust museums quality exhibits while still having a homemade look and feel. It will be fun to continue to explore more interactive elements that give learners of all ages the chance to make and tinker alongside the collection of inspiring automata examples that show the high ceilings for blending art science and technology.