BLOG: Marvelous marble machines and music-makers

Mel Barber

I blame the board game Mouse Trap for my fascination with marbles and Rube Goldberg devices. Marbles, dominoes — the kinds of fun that require a complicated setup. Planning. Precision.


If GoldieBlox had been a thing back in my day (get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!), I'm pretty sure I'd have been an engineer instead of an English major. But here we are. And one of the most wonderful things about the Internet — aside from cat memes — is the way it helps makers and doers showcase their creations.

Marble machine makers got lots of attention heaped on them in early March thanks to the debut of the musical group Wintergatan's amazing marble-powered musical instrument. Think of how a player piano works, with the notes programmed in ahead of time and the notes striking as the instructions scroll past. This machine is custom-built to do something similar, but it mimics a variety of instruments. Cymbals. Guitar. Drums. Vibraphone.

It is nothing short of incredible. If you haven't watched it in action yet, stop reading and do that now:

Thousands of marbles follow their paths, cascading down to a rhythm set by those big, slow-turning wheels feeding the correct notes and the operator hand-cranking the machine into action. To really understand the action fueling the Wintergatan Marble Machine and all of its moving parts, watch the How It Works videos (parts one and two).

A note for other Lego fans who've seen the video — no, you're not imagining it. The programming wheel uses Lego Technic pieces.

As with many creators, Wintergatan's Martin Molin keenly feels the flaws in the machine. Whether writer, artist or builder, we can sympathize with his plight after having poured so much time into an experiment and despite the wild acclaim he's received for the accomplishment:

It's still too many things that could go wrong. ... I know I can make it work actually flawless. ... But it came to a point where I said I've spent a year on this now and I want to go out and play music live, and I want to make new songs, and I want to post much more new music instead of just building. So, I'm going to leave this machine now for a while, and I dream secretly about perfecting it. 

— Martin Molin, Wintergatan

For more on the marble machine, check out WIRED's fascinating interview with Molin.

On a much smaller scale, I had the good fortune to see several marble machines at this year's Pennsylvania Farm Show. The creations still have their place in mainstream society as children's toys and desk curiosities. Made by skilled carpenters and craftsmen, they're a joy to play with.

Some toys work entirely with the weight of the marbles, with slopes and gates adjusting the speed and direction. Others are closer to the Wintergatan machine, with a multitude of gears adding precision.

For a particularly complex one, I recommend watching Archimedis by Paul Grundbacher in action. It uses ancient technology — the Archimedes screw — to carry the marbles the same way farmers raised water to irrigate their fields thousands of years ago. These days, you might recognize the same design in your snow blower.

If you want to learn more about Archimedis and Grundbacher's other designs, you can see seven of his works and get some background notes on their creation at Woodgears.

The marble toys I saw at the farm show in Harrisburg were made by Lapp's Toys and Furniture of Lancaster County. In the photo below, the creator is demonstrating how a marble machine works for me. You know the drinking birds? Once you tip them, they keep drinking, right? This marble machine works on the same principle, with the lever arm the start of the action. Pull it and let it go, and it'll continue to bump against the cap keeping the marbles from dropping into the bin, releasing them one by one.

A craftsman of children's toys demonstrates the marble machine available from Lapp's Toys and Furniture in the woodworking booth at the 2016 Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Lapp's had two other marble machines on display at the state farm show. The Marble Flyer is a side-by-side race track that zigs and zags as the marbles run toward the bottom. The Marble Pyramid is the real monster, though — it stands more than 3 feet tall and sends the marbles down a chute to a whirlpool and a switching track. I love the addition of bells on both the flyer and the pyramid; the marbles chime the bells as they pass.

Lapp's Marble Pyramid is a joy to watch in action.

Did you play with marble machines as a kid? Do you still? I never pass up the chance.

If there's one thing geeks know, it's that you're never too old to have fun with engineering.