Theophany

Umerus in St Mary's
If you are a mechanical lifeform built of plastic electricity conduit, then God is a genial and ingenious Dutch gentleman named, most appropriately, Theo.

For nineteen years, artist-engineer Theo Jansen has been slowly evolving his walking Strandbeests made of piping. He brought Animalis Umerus to Shrewsbury for the Shift-Time Festival. Last weekend, he was demonstrating Umerus in the Quarry Park. Yesterday he gave us an illustrated talk in St Mary’s Church, where his beests have been on display for several days.

Theo explained how he started developing his series of creatures from a material that is cheap and easily available — Dutch children use offcuts of the sand-coloured plastic conduit for blowpipes. As Theo demonstrated, a twist of paper makes a good missile. Theo Jansen’s excellent and informative website, http://www.strandbeest.com, is well worth visiting and has a lot of videos, photos and essays about his creatures and his other creative work. (The TED talk video in particular, covers a great deal of the same material that he presented in St Mary’s yesterday.) So I’ll leave you to visit those links for yourself if you haven’t yet encountered the Strandbeests.

The Small Beest One or two things were made clear that I had not grasped from what I’d heard and seen online, or even from watching carefully in the Quarry Park. The first was the basic action of his creatures’ legs. The structure is something along the lines of a pantograph: the circular motion of a crankshaft at the top of the leg, passing through a two dimensional arrangement of twelve linked tubes, moves the point at the bottom of the leg in a complex motion – when Theo places a pencil where the foot normally goes, the shape is a loop with a flattened base. The relative lengths of the tubes that deform the circular crankshaft motion into the up-down-along stepping motion of the Strandbeest are what Theo calls his “Twelve Holy Numbers”, derived after months of computer evolution: using a program to try random combinations  and make further combinations of the most satisfactory until the best possible stepping action was reached. I’d been puzzling over this locomotion since I first saw Umerus, and watching the demonstration yesterday I suddenly ‘got it’ at last — and of course, like so many good, clever ideas, it is simple once you’ve seen it.

 But what else is going on in besides the walking action? Piston ‘muscles’ (one tube inside another) are a fairly obvious next step. That introduces a need for compressed air into the design. Umerus sports a long row of plastic lemonade bottles and a maze of flexible tubing to store the air and take it around to where it is needed. How to trigger the muscles is the next puzzle, and here Theo’s solution is very ingenious indeed. He has designed a simple switch — still made of his ubiqutous plastic conduit and tie-wraps. A flow of air at the signal pipe blocks the flow from the output pipe. He calls these switches ‘Liars’ as they do the opposite of what they are told. When three are connected together, suddenly there is a small dynamic system chattering noisily to itself as it pumps air around. Strandbeest detail 32From simple switches he has moved to more complex systems where combinations of Liars can make the beests respond to an obstruction, raise a sail to catch wind, sense water, count steps to calculate their position. Suddenly there is a simple brain at work, as well as muscles and nerves. And the beests are still evolving.

Theo Jansen hasn’t only made Strandbeests. He showed us video footage of a light-operated painting machine, early, computer-dwelling lifeforms and a wonderfully funny film of a student prank involving the release of a large ‘UFO’ over Delft causing considerable consternation in the city. And after the talk, he was happy to answer questions about his work.

Umerus, impressive though it is, has some design faults that Theo wants to correct in the next Strandbeest. With its complex uppper-parts, Umerus is a bit top-heavy and inclined to topple over, but a creature with two linked bodies should give more stability and allow one half to look after the other. There’s a major weakness in the crankshaft – it broke a few times while in the Quarry Park – and that needs a re-think. No doubt some more innovations will be being tested on the broad, windy beaches near Delft over the next few months. The God of the conduit creatures shows no sign of running out of ideas or enthusiasm, and enjoys passing on his delight and his discoveries to the rest of us. Long may he, and they, thrive!

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