Fantastic Machines

at the Museum of Science and Industry, through December 1997

Inventors, Visionaries, and

Science Fictions

at the Aron Packer Gallery, through March 23

By Mark Swartz

Being an art and culture guy I’m a natural-born Luddite, instinctively taking a dim view of the glorification of technology normally attempted by the Museum of Science and Industry. However, “Fantastic Machines” offers a glimpse into one element of the grand narrative of technological progress that appeals to me: the figure of the solitary inventor during the machine age.

For most of this century the inventor of machines led a life parallel to the artist’s despite the separate cultures that produced them. Single-mindedness, eccentricity, and the need to translate mental images into physical objects characterized both the inventor and the artist. Both were likely to feel misunderstood, to fear having their ideas ripped off, and, except for a few lucky ones, to wind up poor and forgotten. “Fantastic Machines” briefly revives some of these forgotten figures–if not their names, then the products of their creative and quixotic imaginations.

The Psychograph and the Ring Roller Reducer are the two most bizarre inventions on display at the museum. Produced in the 1930s, the Psychograph is a contraption comprising a wire helmet, a seat, and a highly polished wooden box that issued a printed sheet detailing the subject’s personality, measured by means of the onetime science of phrenology. Though it was produced long after phrenology was discredited by the scientific establishment, the machine drew tens of thousands during the Century of Progress International Exposition. Whether it was the art of design or the art of marketing that made the Psychograph such a hit I don’t know, but it is one intriguing-looking invention.

The Ring Roller Reducer supposedly trimmed the waistline of the person who stepped into it–by brutalizing her waist. It required the user to stand on a platform where her torso was surrounded with metal and little rollers ran up and down her waistline. Its inventor must have seen human flesh the way an artist sees clay. He (I think it’s safe to assume the inventor was male) belongs in the same category as certain 20th-century painters, including Picasso, de Kooning, and Yves Klein, who also reconfigured or exploited the human anatomy in ways that might be construed as pathological, or at least idiosyncratic.

The Vintage Car of the Future, represented by both a drawing and a life-size model behind glass, is a marvelous-looking satire of the ethos of the luxury automobile, from the designer of Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, Rowland Emett–who also satirizes the typical inventor. The deadpan language of the drawing’s captions contradicts the humble materials the car is made of. Its “antipollution unit” consists of an atomizer that sprays perfume. Another device roasts hot dogs over the car’s engine.

As cultural background the museum has provided two critiques of the machine age. One is a three-dimensional, life-size rendering of a Rube Goldberg cartoon from the early 1930s (recently commemorated by the U.S. Post Office in its “Comic Strip Classics” stamp series) that features Goldberg’s inventor alter ego, Professor Butts. This elaborate contrivance, to be worn on the head while dining, relies on a live bird, a clock, a skyrocket, and a sickle to activate a mechanical napkin that wipes the user’s mouth. The other is a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), in which he borrowed–and perfected–Goldberg’s notion that machines needlessly complicate life. In the clip Chaplin, playing a worker on a Ford-style assembly line, tries out a new invention, a feeding machine that would free his hands to continue labor during meals–if only the automatic napkin could be made to stop battering the diner.

Although “Fantastic Machines” is in a public educational setting and “Inventors, Visionaries, and Science Fictions” is in an art gallery, Aron Packer, many of their pieces are interchangeable. And for me the two exhibits enriched each other, parts of one complementing parts of the other. The jerry-built kinetic sculptures of Kenn Coplan, with his Closet of Self-Discovery Instruments, and of Iris Adler, with her Electronic Audio-Visual Heart and Brain Machines, represent intersections of machine and body that are more humane than they are in the Psychograph and the Ring Roller Reducer. Coplan incorporates nude black-and-white photographs of himself in gizmos handmade from evocative discarded materials. When you crank the handle of one untitled piece and peer through the sawed-off kaleidoscope, Coplan’s naked body appears illuminated in the viewfinder; meanwhile an antique meter measures the microamperes you’re generating. Adler builds sculptures of hearts and brains that perform little tricks by means of rudimentary electric circuitry. In a piece titled #12, latex-gloved hands hold both ends of an arrow, which pierces a heart, which rotates to reveal two skulls. It isn’t hard to imagine that Adler’s work has grown out of a traumatic medical experience.

L.C. Spooner’s patent drawings act as a foil to the whole of “Fantastic Machines,” and in particular they speak to Rube Goldberg, an engineer by training who preferred lampooning machines to designing them. Until further research is done, Spooner is known only as an eccentric who lived in or around the Illinois towns of Decatur, Palmyra, and Blue Moon, an inventor who obsessively sketched perpetual-motion machines, the grail of every inventor (at least until artificial intelligence assumed that role). Judging from the dates on his drawings, Spooner was active at about the same time Goldberg was questioning the excesses of the machine age. But these drawings, which Aron Packer found pasted into a book of fabric samples, reveal a true believer in the possibilities of the machine. Intricate sketches of an Invalid Chair and an Air Ship that runs like a train through the sky, as well as a Self-Propelling Wheelbarrow and an Automatic Self-Propelling Corn Planter, reveal Spooner’s willingness to solve all life’s problems with automation. Numerous sketches depict adjacent rings that evidently were meant to drive a self-propelling motor; some of them include partially illegible script: “The question then is if the reciprocal compulsion of A + B…that it overcomes the forces…with such a margin of power.”

While they don’t show exceptional drafting skills or even coherent thought, these documents excite a lot of curiosity about their creator and put a human face on what Goldberg was reacting against. Patent drawings have the same relationship to inventions that sketches have to finished works of art. In Spooner’s case the drawings are all we have, and almost certainly–since they represent machines that are literally fantastic–all there ever was. But they left me wishing I could see one of his masterpieces with my own eyes and dreaming that one might turn up under a tarp in a forgotten Decatur shed.