The University Record, April 9, 2001

Project designs blend Goldberg, da Vinci

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Shaun Jackson (right), associate professor of art, watches as Sana Hong prepares her design to be tested. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
Challenged to design a contraption that would turn on a light switch using only materials and techniques familiar to 16th-century artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, student teams from the School of Art and Design began researching what was rather unfamiliar territory for them.

“These students have grown up in an era where the machine age is past,” says Shaun Jackson, associate professor of art. “They live in a virtual world. They are products of the information age, so for them, even rudimentary mechanics is problematic.”

The student projects suggest the work of Rube Goldberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, sculptor and author. After abandoning his father’s wishes that he become an engineer, Goldberg drew cartoons of “inventions” that resulted in more difficult ways to achieve easy results. His cartoons were, he said, “symbols of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results.” And this became the goal for Jackson’s class. But Jackson added one caveat—these absurdly connected machines could utilize only those materials known to and used by da Vinci. Well, Jackson did waffle just a little and allowed rubber bands.

With a prescribed amount of basswood, wire and rods, the student teams began working with mechanisms available in the 16th century. Their imaginations took them to cotton string, fire, fabric, water, rocks, fishing line, matches, ball bearings, leather thongs and paper, and visits to local craft stores.

The result was a series of successful contraptions that did turn on the lights. From a sailboat carved from basswood and a balancing “thing” named George, to a catapult and a wagon with wheels, the teams perhaps did what college students would have done even in da Vinci’s time. They stayed up until the wee hours completing and perfecting their mechanical light switch thing-a-ma-bobs.