Marble machines

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Categories: Design

15 April 2016


When you think about some of the great feats of modern engineering, it is unlikely that the image that springs to mind contains marbles. Surprisingly however, the small glass stones that have absorbed countless childhood hours have gone on to inspire engineers to create some of the most mesmerising and intricate contraptions to have graced the internet.

The concept of marble machines has been around for decades, and the marble run, or rolling ball sculpture, has grown into an art form, with the kinetic sculptures featuring multiple overlaid tracks, switches and even musical instruments triggered by a trail of moving marbles.

The machines themselves are complicated and essentially useless, save for as toys, providing a hypnotizing cycle of marbles around a track. The process becomes even more mesmerising where tinkerers and makers have added in electrical circuits, making reloading the run completely automated.

Tulio Laanen is an art and design student at Fontys School of Fine and Performing Arts, where he is bringing together science, design and mechanics to create his own range of marble machines. As well as creating automated machines in his spare time, Laanen has also developed a series of 3D printed marble runs, which can be downloaded and printed on regular 3D printers.

When printed, the parts fit together almost seamlessly, with a hand wound corkscrew pushing the marbles to the top of the run, where they can drop down one of four different paths. Since hosting the design online, Tulio has seen his marble run downloaded more than 8500 times.

To see more of Tulio’s work, check out his website, or visit his YouTube channel.

Over in the United States, a young stuntman and woodworker has created a much more elaborate and interactive marble run, based on the same basic form as Tulio’s 3D printed sculptures.

Standing at around 8 feet tall by twelve feet wide and taking over three years to build so far, Ben Tardif’s Marble Mountain is a colossal structure, carrying 60 marbles a minute via a corkscrew lift to begin their hectic descent. Along the 32 different paths that marbles can take, highlights include a replica of San Francisco’s iconic, winding Lombard Street, complete with waiting cable car; a winter sports themed section featuring a ski jump and bobsleigh run; a very miniature miniature-golf course and matching sized bowling alley; and a tiny scaled theme park, equipped with a Disney-inspired fairy tale castle and traditional wooden roller-coaster.

Comprised of 25 individual modules built primarily from wood, Marble Mountain can be bolted together in a little under an hour, and has been painstakingly engineered to ensure the smooth cycle of marbles around the track. As well as the 11 foot corkscrew lift that runs through the centre of the mountain and continuously returns the 300 marbles to the summit, numerous escape hatches and back doors have been built in to rescue any marbles that have run out of momentum, and strategically redeposit them back on track.

To see each bit of the mountain in detail, head over to Ben’s Instagram account, or watch seven whole minutes of hypnotising marble movement below.

On a slightly more musical note, Swedish vibraphone player Martin Molin and his electronic folk band, Wintergatan, have created a musical Rube Goldberg machine, incorporating a vibraphone, bass guitar and drum kit, and played using a stream of 2000 marbles.

To make music from the marbles, Molin has rigged up a clever set of hand cut, wooden cogs, connecting to a specially designed ‘programming wheel’. The wheel has two sides, one for controlling the vibraphone, and the other for controlling the bass and drums, and is made up of a series of holes and pegs corresponding to each instrument. As the wheel rotates, the pegs trigger a gate to open, and a marble will strike the desired note or percussion instrument.

To imitate drum beats, Molin has created his own ‘drums’ using contact microphones concealed within a felt coaster, that pick up the vibrations of touch as they are struck by a marble. Fitting in with the refreshingly low-tech feel of the machine, the snare drum sound effect is produced by placing a similar ‘drum’ coaster above a tray of basmati rice.

A collection of buckets and troughs collect the marbles at the bottom of the machine and feed them back into the pump to begin their cycle again.

To see Molin and his marble machine in action, watch the full video below.

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