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Behold, the 'Hamster Powered Hamster Drawing Machine'

Neil Mendoza’s latest invention is a drawing machine powered by the mechanical energy of a hamster.

by DJ Pangburn
06 July 2016, 8:45pm

Images courtesy the artist

Lately, quirky tinkerer Neil Mendoza’s curious contraptions have had both biological and technological features. In Eggsistential Angst, for instance, Mendoza combined a pendulum with an egg. In his latest work, Hamster Powered Hamster Drawing Machine, Mendoza creates, well, exactly what the project title indicates: a hamster powered hamster drawing machine.

Like any good traditional hamster contraption, the critter enters a wheel and begins running, thus providing the mechanical energy needed to power the drawing machine. Through a system of cams, a mechanical arm and pencil draw a hamster inside a wheel. Mendoza tells The Creators Project that this work started because of a fascination with cam-based drawing machines.

“We’ve become so accustomed to storing data invisibly on computer hardware that we forget how awesome the ability to encode and decode complex data is,” says Mendoza. “In a cam-based machine, all that information and how it is decoded is clearly on display. There’s something magical about watching the process of this seemingly random shaped object producing something that looks like it’s been hand-drawn.”

After playing around with software to create cams that could encode drawings, Mendoza brought the hamsters into the picture. They seemed like the next piece of the puzzle, if only because they were, as he says, underrepresented in the art world.

Mendoza’s hamster drawing is encoded in two large wooden cams. The cam generation software consists of a physics simulation of the drawing machine, which Mendoza wrote in openFrameworks (C++) using the ofxBox2d add-on for physics. After exporting the vector files, Mendoza had them CNC milled out of plywood.

To encode the drawing on the inside of the cams instead of on the outside, Mendoza needed a central axis. This was a bit of an engineering challenge, but he accomplished this by milling two aluminium circles with a groove in each for a roller chain to sit in. The sandwiched chain then sits on three sprockets around the edges of the back part of machine. Mendoza then milled the drawing arms from aluminium with pockets for laser-cut acrylic inserts.

The hamster gets displayed on a small LCD screen connected to a Raspberry Pi hidden behind the screen. The Raspberry Pi controls the drawing machine’s speed by running the openFrameworks software that sends ASCII commands to an Applied Motion STM23IP-3EE stepper motor over ethernet. (The stepper motor is connected to the drawing part of the machine with sprockets and roller chain.)

“One machine in particular that inspired me was created in the 18th century by Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, with help from his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot,” says Mendoza. “It’s called The Writer and is one of the most complex surviving automata. It appears to be a young child sitting in front of a desk holding a goose feather quill.”

“When in operation, he writes a text up to 40 letters long, inking the quill from time to time, including a shake of the wrist to prevent ink from spilling,” he adds. “His eyes follow the text being written, and his head moves when he takes some ink. One of the really remarkable things about it is that the text he writes is programmable. Even though the child is only the size of a small doll, all of the cam-based mechanics to achieve this are hidden inside of him. Some consider this automaton to be one of the first examples of a programmable computer.”

While Hamster Powered Hamster Drawing Machine isn’t an automaton of the same order, it’s still plenty nifty and fun to watch. Perhaps because the hamster has absolutely no clue it is creating art in its perpetual quest to run the wheel to exhaustion.

Hamster Powered Hamster Drawing Machine from Neil Mendoza on Vimeo.

Hamster Powered Hamster Drawing Machine is currently on display at Young Projects Gallery in Los Angeles until August 19th, along with all the drawings it produces. Click here to see more of Neil Mendoza’s work.

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