January 4, 2007

Eames Solar Toy Does Nothing, And Very Well

The Solar Do-Nothing Machine by Ray & Charles Eames

While researching Richard McGuire's The Solar Toy, I stumbled across The Solar Do-Nothing Machine by Ray and Charles Eames. They created it in the late 1950's for Alcoa, who was just launching a Forecast Collection, a series of artist- and designer-commissioned products that embodied America's glorious aluminum future.

The Solar Do-Nothing Machine was meant to be a toy that "does nothing." Or as Alcoa's Oscar Shefler [not Schefler, it turns out. sorry. -ed.] wrote, "there is little pertinence in asking what the toy is supposed to do. it is not supposed to do. it is supposed to be. its whole function is in its being." Charles Eames' interest was in play as an experience, an encounter, a mental exercise of discovery and emerging awareness: "We now have a moment in time which is very precious; but this is valid only if the toy does nothing."

The Machine sure does nothing beautifully. It's a tabletopful of gorgeously milled aluminum [duh] spindles topped by a multi-colored array of pinwheels and windmills. It's all set in motion by a web of tiny rubber belts connected to wheels and camshafts. Some pieces look anodized and manufactured, while others look handmade, with matte paint and raw-cut edges, like it just grew, a dad's whimsical project that consumed a series of late nights and weekends--and took over their dining room table for the better part of a year. [Or am I just projecting?]

There's a two-and-change minute film of the Machine, shot in 1957 and edited together in 1991 by the Eameses' daughter Lucia, on Vol. 6 of the Films of Charles & Ray Eames, and it's a lot of fun. [The image above is a still from the film.] It's hard to grasp the toy's entirety in a single image, but watching the film, I might suggest they rename it The Solar Awesomely Efficient Abstracted Filmmaking Machine.

small_world_facade83_wiki.jpgUnfortunately, TSD-NM never made it out of the prototype stage. It exists only in the footage, and in Alcoa's ads and promo materials. Oh, and on the cover of some bachelor pad LP, go figure. But it lives on in spirit on Mary Blair's facade of the Small World ride at Disneyland, which made me send off for information on how to become an Imagineer when I was seven.

If anyone decides to recreate The Solar Do-Nothing Machine yourself, please make two.

See the Do-Nothing Machine film still, closeup, and album cover on flickr. [flickr]
The rest of the Vol. 6 DVD is kind of a grab bag, to say the least. The how-to-assemble-a-Herman Miller sofa movie hit home last night, though. [amazon]
The Alcoa quotes come from artist Steve Roden's excellent blog, Airform Archives [airformarchives]


I suppose it's a bit late to say so, but that should be Oscar Shefler. We left the c on Ellis Island.


Are you related to the person in this article? Do you know where the solar do nothing machine might be?

It is not in the Eames family archives and I am having trouble finding someone at Alcoa with an interest in responding.


Ric Keefer

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