Machines That Play

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Kinetic Sculpture with a Twist (and a Spin)

Ping! Bounce. The ball rises and falls, making its circuit through a maze of whimsical tracks, jiggle boards and loop-the-loops that produce bell and chime sounds and imagery.

Incrediball Stanford kinetic sculpture

Painter, sculptor and one of the first American origami masters, George Rhoads is the genius behind the audiokinetic ball machines that have delighted thousands in museums, airports, universities, hospitals and public spaces around the world. From the small, wall mounted versions to pieces like Newton’s Daydream (below), which stands 36 feet tall, each ball machine is a testament to how math, physics, engineering and the laws of motion can create art. Like visual jazz, there’s an ultimate vision at work, allowing a looseness and freedom in the details.

Newtons Daydream kinetic sculpture

In the late 1950s, Rhoads (pictured below, right) made his very first ball machine. People paid a dime to drop a ball and watch it roll down tracks, bouncing and jumping, ringing bells along the way. He made a quick $50 and realized he was onto something.

George Rhoads (bottom right) examines one of his sculptures

By 2007, he had made ball machines for hundreds of public spaces around the world, as well as for some of the wealthiest private art collectors. While varying in size and levels of complexity, his ball machines have always been about meaningful interactivity— turn a knob and release balls all at once in a loop the loop or use a wheel to change a ball’s pathway deciding which balls ascend or descend.

Din Don kinetic sculpture in Kobe Japan

In 1991, the artist Joe O’Connell was designing science museum exhibits that were fabricated by Bob McGuire— Rhoads’ partner and fabricator at the time. The serendipitous meeting eventually led Rhoads to select O’Connell and his team at Creative Machines to continue his tradition of artwork. The team of artists and designers make large-scale interactive and kinetic sculptures.

There was no better team to shape the continuing evolution of ball machine sculptures. Since then, the 77,000 sq. foot compound and headquarters found off the dusty backroads of Tucson, Arizona, have fabricated eleven large custom pieces and twenty-seven limited editions.

Sound Machine kinetic sculpture

“We have fallen in love with the essence and magic of the sculptures,” says Adan Banuelos, lead designer of ball machines at Creative Machines.

“The essence of the artwork is unchanged, but the restructuring of the roles to produce these sculptures has changed the conversation about the future of the artform,” he says.

kinetic sculpture Summer Fantasy Detail

When ball machines were first introduced, they demystified technology. Rhoads once said, “Machines are interesting to everybody, but people usually don’t understand them because, as in a gasoline engine, the fun part goes on inside the cylinder. So I’ve restricted myself to mechanisms that you can see and understand quickly.”

Banuelos works with sketches that Rhoads mails to Creative Machines. “They’re always loose; all hand drawn,” he says. With Rhoads as his frequent muse and confidant, Banuelos and his team are adding new features and using modern computer modeling to pave new directions, which is what Rhodes would be doing if he was as actively involved as he was 50 years ago. It’s a legacy that spans two generations.

Adan Banuelos working on new kinetic sculpture

“Modern technology is allowing us to create more efficient and self driven pieces which are better suited for public spaces, he says. “The sculptures are now produced with programmable timers, higher quality motors, bearings, UV resistant plastics, LEDs, so that the sculptures influence and magnify space. We plan to incorporate social networking, Virtual Reality, and even cell phone interaction.

What if someone can interact with mechanisms in a sculpture located in New York City while sitting on his/her couch in California?  Or maybe a client can experience the bustle of the fabrication shop during the production of a large ball machine?

Archimedean Excogitation kinetic sculpture

“Now with a new generation raised with cell phones and tablets from infancy, the magical and mechanical nostalgia in our work will embody aspects of life and nature that no other person or product can recreate,” says Banuelos.

Maybe, in the distant future, ball machines will remind us how we once used to play.


This guest post is by Hilary Stunda of Creative Machines, Inc.

Click here to download the Official Creative Machines Ball Machine Brochure

All images provided by Creative Machines, Inc.

  1. Incrediball Journey through Stanford Campus is a new Ball Machine Sculpture located at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. The balls travel through this custom machine and give viewers the opportunity to experience Stanford University Campus in an entirely new way. As visitors watch, the ball travels along the track, passing many of the artistic, academic, historical and memorable places on the campus, reimagined as small ball machine devices and models.
  2. Newton’s Daydream is a monumental audiokinetic ball sculpture at Clark Planetarium. It uses two sizes of balls so that viewers below can see the action at the top. The large vertical space allows for some exciting movement, as balls roll down spirals and staircases and fly through mid-air on their journey. The piece contains approximately 300’ of track meandering around seven illuminated spheres, and includes devices like the Orrery, Climber, Wraparound, and the Spinner. This sculpture features an interactive wheel where visitors can affect the pathway of the balls in which balls climb up and roll down in a chaotic fashion.
  3. George Rhoads (bottom right) examines one of his sculptures.
  4. Din Don was created by George Rhoads at Rock Stream Studios in Ithaca, New York in 1992. The sculpture was designed to be larger than life, reaching high up to the atrium near a walkway on the second floor. In 2016, Creative Machines took on the major restoration of the monumental machine; the restoration was completed in the summer of 2017 and the massive sculpture was reinstalled in the Kobe Harborland Shopping Center located in Kobe, Japan.
  5. Sound Machine is an audio-kinetic ball machine sculpture created for MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation. Living up to its name, Sound Machine features a variety of sound producing elements that attract visitors’ attention. Some of these devices include bells, a cymbal, wooden blocks, and a xylophone. The ball machine sculpture is composed of two sections that visitors can walk through; this gives visitors the change to gain a unique view, similar to what they would see if they were inside any other ball machine. Sound Machine also provides visitors with the opportunity to manipulate the track through interaction. This can happen 2 ways: by spinning a handwheel or turning a knob. Lastly, Sound Machine features 3 electronic light columns that give this ball machine a modern look.
  6. Summer Fantasy is one rendition of our Limited Edition ball machines series. This is a series of 100 ball machine sculptures. There are 50 machines in a warm color palette (Summer Fantasy) and 50 machines in a cool color palette (Winter Fantasy). Each sculpture is built and thoroughly tested by Creative Machines and then numbered, signed, and dated by the original artist, George Rhoads. The piece includes devices such as Randomizing Pendulums, a Hammer Chime, a Bounce & Catch, and 2 Hammer Bells.
  7. Adan Banuelos, lead designer of ball machines at Creative Machines, works diligently thinking up innovative concepts for new sculptures.
  8. Visitors to the Museum of Science in Boston, MA admire Archimedean Excogitation, a dynamic ball machine sculpture exploring the theme of “a new way of seeing.” The sculpture uses visual and kinetic elements to explore how we see and offers new ways of looking at the world. This machine includes nearly thirty moving or sound-producing devices with two different ball sizes featuring billiard balls in the bottom section and small bowling balls in the top. Rising nearly thirty feet into the air, viewers enjoy the sculpture from the ground as balls and devices dance in front of them and over their heads.

Love these machines that play? Be sure to check out these kinetic sculptures created by other artists.

Thanks for sharing our love of sculpture!
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