I.Creation of a Mad Scientist,
Dr. Messmore, MD.
By Peter Meder, St. Petersburg, Florida
I have had various careers in my working life: Model maker and Special Effects Designer for television commercials; Special Projects Manager at an advertising agency; and self-employed artist/automata maker -- specializing in the design and creation of animated mechanical figures. Most people envision a Christmas window display or antique mechanical doll when they hear the word "automaton", both being appropriate if staying within the confines of traditional thought. Today's technical advances with robotics and servo electronics have opened the possibilities of a modern form of automata far from the clockwork mechanisms of the past.
Creating an automaton demands copious amounts of time and patience. Although the degree of complexity varies depending on the movement desired, it often takes a year or more to develop each new mechanical sculpture. Because the figure's armature must work with the mechanism, each alteration in design requires disassembling and reassembling the automata. This may ultimately happen hundreds of times before a figure is completed. It is a tedious, time-consuming operation requiring patience, engineering skills and the re-machining of many parts. Once perfected, the automaton mechanism may be used as a prototype for other figures. However, only the exterior image (fabrics, paint, etc.) may be altered. Changing the movement, even slightly, would require a new mechanism and more time.
For the last few years, I have been experimenting with servo electronics to move figurative sculptures in a lifelike manner. I have been using a computer program called Visual Servo Automation, which allows me to define a wide range of motion and duration for each servo movement, then save each motion in the computer and replay it any number of times. The servomotors, programmed at different forward and reverse speeds, alone or in unison, create the effect of an animatronic figure. By having the ability to program the automaton's movements, I can work out the motions and finesse the mechanical design before machining the parts, which saves a considerable amount of time. Moreover, I will be able to change the movements of the prototype without completely redesigning the mechanism, giving creative freedom without technical limitations. Presently the programmable Automaton requires a computer to run the programmed motions. While this is effective for educational purposes, demonstrating the basics of automata movements and how mechanical devices work, it is not a saleable piece of art.
The completion of this project has enabled me to take the programmable automata to another level -- utilizing the electronic data to design a cam driven mechanism which is entirely mechanical. I will be able to output the servo movements saved by the computer to a cam cutter which will cut a master cam disk in the shape required to duplicate each movement (kind of like an electronic pantograph). Having a master cam disk for each movement will allow me to easily recreate the same automaton, or change the movement entirely. The ultimate goal is to have the automaton operate independently of the computer, evolving from an educational tool to an art object desired by collectors of automata.