Sunday, April 29, 2012

Interview with Automaton Maker, Dug North

I caught up with Dug North, Automaton maker, for this exciting interview. Check it out.  Haven't read the article on automatons?  Click here

You are obviously a very smart individual and could have used your Science degree for other things, so why the Automata?
I have always loved making things with my hands.  My automata involve a little bit of everything that interests me: history, engineering, magic, tools, woodworking, carving, diverse types of fabrication, art, and humor.  I love combining all of these things to make one thing. For me, an automaton is the perfect project.

During my research I discovered that it was usually the early clock makers who made these automatons.  Is it basically run like a clock?  Can you explain the mechanics of the Automata?  How it works?

As clock and watch-making became more widespread several hundred years ago, more people owned their own clocks and watches. Clock-making as a profession also became more common. Some of these clock-makers would make automata to show off their mechanical skill and advertise their services.

These early automata were wind-up spring driven mechanisms, just like many of clocks of that time. So the source of power was pretty much the same as a clock. The automata were different from clocks in that they typically performed a complicated action for a short time, while clocks performed a more basic action -- showing the time -- over a period of days or weeks between windings. 

Automata of this sort are different from clocks mainly in their use of cams and linkages. Cams are funny shaped wheels that attach to various parts of the automaton via connections called linkages. When the automaton is performing, these cams rotate. The funny shaped edge of the cam transfers motion to the linkage. This motion is then transferred to the appropriate part of the automaton figure.

Where do you get your inspiration for your pieces?

Ideas come from everywhere. Sometimes I start with an effect I would like to produce, like a magic trick. Then I ask myself, "Now, what kind of mechanism could do that?"  Other times, I learn about a new mechanism I would like to try out. In this case I ask myself, "How could I use the motion of this mechanism to animate a figure or scene?" I also do commissioned pieces for people who will request a certain type of automaton based on their interests.

Are all your automatons original or will you duplicate them? If not why?

So far, all of my automata have all been one-of-a-kind originals. The reason for this is that by the time I finish an automaton, I have become captivated by some new idea. I am usually so excited about the new idea that I start working on it right away.  I do plan to make duplicates of some of my automata -- or what are called 'limited editions'. Limited editions are small, numbered batches of the same piece, anywhere from a two to twenty or more.

Is there a particular material that works better for your pieces?

Historically, automata mechanisms have been made from metal. Metal is a good material for machines because it is hard and stable. Automata figures have often been made from wood, ceramics, papier-mâché , and fabric.  I choose to use wood and brass, because I like both materials and I like how the two materials look together. This is an artistic choice more than anything else.  Some woods are good for carving because they are free of knots and are easy to carve. Other woods are good for mechanical parts because they are fairly hard and do not expand and contract very much.

Which one is your favorite piece? Why?

My piece called Machini the Marvel performing 'The Study of Levitations' is my favorite so far. I like this one the best because there are so many things that move -- the figure's head, eyes, arm, and all of the items on the desk. The automaton really does perform a trick because there are no visible connections to the things on the desk that move. They seem to move on their own. Magic!

Is the automata of today considered more of an art, toy, or magic?

Automata have long been associated with magic and have often depicted magicians. Likewise, many mechanical toys were derived from more complicated automata. The type that I make are known as 'Contemporary Automata'.  They are very much like complicated wooden toys, but because they take so long to make and are rather delicate, they do not usually end up belonging to children.  You could say that automata of today are toys for grown-ups or toys for art-lovers.

So you hand carve each piece?  Can you take us through the process from concept to finish?

I do carve all of the figures of my automata. The figure carving process is something like this:

~ Research the type of figure to carve in books, magazines, sculptures, and real life
~ Draw sketches of the figure from several angles -- the front, the side, and back
~ Transfer the drawing to a block of wood of the right size
~ Cut out the outlines of the figure using a saw that is good at cutting curved shapes
~ Use a power rotary tool to begin to refine the figure's shape
~ Use a variety of hand carving tools to make the fine details of the finished carving
~ Seal, stain, and/or paint the figure

On average how long does it take to complete an automaton?

Many of my automata take several hundred hours to make. Most of this time is spent figuring out how to make the mechanism work and deciding how everything should look.

Is there anything else you would like to add for our young readers?

Yes! A great way to get started is to make paper automaton.  There are several well-known automata artists that offer books and kits for making them. Paper automata require only a few common tools: scissors, ruler, hobby knife, cutting pad, white glue, and maybe some adult supervision.  And don't think that because it is made of paper that it will be simple or crude. You can make wonderful automata from paper and cardboard!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fun Facts Friday

We’ve probably all seen some form of animatronics. It may have been bright and festive, like a happy snowman waving on a passing float. Or perhaps it was downright scary, like the shark that suddenly lunges out of the water on an amusement park ride. But whether they bring a smile or an eek, we still know their jerky movements and frozen gazes are fake.

Or are they?

What if a metal fly could buzz around the room and return to his makers hand? Or a mechanical duck was so life-like it actually fooled the real ones? Or how about clockwork boys that could write stories or draw pictures? Would they still seem so unreal?

These early forms of animatronics were called, automatons (aw-tom-uh-tuhns). Once set in motion, these complex ‘toys’ took on a life of their own. What’s their secret? Even though they were powered by a simple turn of a key, inside was an elaborate set up of springs, driving gears, ratchet wheels and axles. Something like a clock. In fact, it was usually clock-makers or inventors who constructed them.


One of the earliest forms of automaton was made in the late 1400's by a German inventor by the name of Karel Grod. Grod was often invited to royal banquets and it was there that he would release his small invention, the metal fly.

This pesky bug would flit across the room, buzz around the guests at the long dining table and finally return to Grod. A few years later, Grod went on to invent a life-size, mechanical eagle that could be seen flying around the town.


In 1739, a man by the name of Jacques de Vaucanson invented perhaps the most famous automaton. Simply known as, ‘The Duck,’ this mechanical bird had over 400 moving parts in each wing alone. These intricate workings allowed it to flap it’s wings up and down. But that’s not all. The Duck was also known for its quacking and even looked like it was breathing. However, it’s most extraordinary feat was perhaps its ability to ‘digest’ grain. It would eat the food have a drink then proceed to poop out a greenish pellet.

Since the original duck has disappeared, these mechanical abilities still remain a mystery today.


Two of the most fantastic, mechanical figures ever constructed were by Jean-Pierre Droz, a watch-maker, and his son Henri-Louis.

The Writer,’ a full-size boy seated at a desk was created by Jean-Pierre. This boy-bot would dip his pen in a bottle of ink, tap off the excess and begin to write a story. The sentences were always clear and correct and the hand moved to the beginning of each new line.

Jean-Pierre learned well from his father and created his own automaton. Titled the ‘Designer,’ this mechanical boy was much more advanced than his father’s. Designed to sketch pictures, this automaton paused to examine its work, corrected errors and even blew the eraser dust from the page.

This mechanical artist was so good King Louis XVI of France even posed for a portrait. After the automaton was finished with the kings picture, it put down the pencil and waved his hand to present its work. So impressed with his find, King Louis demonstrated it in England and had the Designer draw portraits of the English royalty as well.

Automatons are still being designed and made today. In fact, you may remember the hit movie, Hugo, he was an automaton. For more information and fun, check out my interview with automaton maker, Dug North, on Sunday May 29th.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Totally True Tuesday

When many people gather together it's called a crowd, or a group or maybe even a mob, but when like animals gather together their names can be quite interesting. Read the list of animal groups below and be sure to pay attention to those itialized words (that's the group name). But beware, you may just find yourself in a chowder!

~ When many mice are together they are a mischief.

~ Too many porcupines cause a prickle.

~ A clutter of cats can be a comfort, even in a chowder.

~ A litter of puppies will leave you with a puddle.

~ When bats fly they cause a cloud.

~ A cartload of monkeys will be troop and a barrel of fun.

~ A study of owls will cause a stare and be filled with wisdom.

~ Squadron of pelicans is sure to be a scoop.

~ A cast of crabs may end up in a bushel, while their friends the clam lie in their bed.

~ Instead of flowers, how about a bouquet of pleasant pheasants?

~ A company of parrots will most certainly cause pandemonium.

And all these animals together? It would be a zoopendous amount of fun!

Can You Guess?

Now that you've learned about animal groups, try to guess what a gathering of giraffe's are called?

Hint; when giraffe's are together it's the same name as the famous Eiffel...?

If you guessed tower you're right!

For more fun facts and wonderful stories, be sure to check out knowonder at;

Friday, April 20, 2012

Fun Facts Friday - The Sound Feelers

Have you ever heard thunder rumble so loudly you could actually feel it? If so, you’ve experienced what many creatures use as a means of hearing.

Not all animals and insects have normal ears, or a normal way of listening to the world around them.

Bats, bees and snakes are a few critters that rely of ‘sound-waves’ to hunt, navigate and avoid dangerous situations.


Did you know bees have ears? It’s called the Tympanum (tim-puh-nuh). This small organ has a hole with a thin membrane stretched across it, something like a drum. It’s located in the bee’s tiny abdomen and is considered the bee’s main "ear." As the bee moves its back-end up and down, this organ is able to "hear" vibrations in the air.
The bee’s feet and antennae also work as hearing. They’re so sensitive they can pick up the smallest vibration around them. This bee-vibe helps keep them safe from predators.

Stereo Sound Snake

Even though snakes don’t have outer ears that we can see, they do have fully developed inner ears. It's called the "cochlea" (kok-lee-uh). Bones and muscles in the snake’s lower jaw also connect to the inner ear. And just like the bee, this specially designed "ear" can pick up vibrations from the ground.

However, unlike other animals, the snake can unhinge its jaw one side at a time. This is thought to allow the snake to hear in stereo sound.

Bat Mega-Phone

Bats use ‘Echolocation’ to navigate the night skies. This is a type of sonar. The Leaf-Nosed Bat, as its name suggests, has a leaf-shaped structure in its nose that acts like a mega-phone. When the bat wants to locate something it emits a short "shout" (10-15 per second). It then listens for the echo-info coming back. The echolocation pulse only lasts a few thousandths of a second. However, the bats brain and ears are so highly tuned they can interpret the brief silences in between calls. This allows them to hunt, locate roosting crevices, and avoid bumping into things.

To learn more about the Sound Feelers, visit your local library, a museum, or the internet.  Visit knowonder magazine for more articles and fun stories at;

Wonder Words

~ Membrane - a skin-like structure that lines, connects, or covers a cell or part of the body
~ Cochlea - a Small bone filled with fluid that helps the snake hear by gathering sound.
~ Echolocation - the location of objects by reflected sound.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Totally True Tuesday

Spit, Goo and Honeypots…

Is this some kind of weird recipe? Or perhaps, it’s a silly joke? Not quite. These are all types of bugs.
And this is their way of protecting themselves.

Built Spit Tough

The Frog Hopper larva spits to protect itself. The bubbly froth is known as “cuckoo-spit” or “snake-spit.” This happens when the larvae blows air into a liquid from its anus.

This foamy-froth keeps the larvae from drying out. It hides them from predators. Plus, it tastes bitter and horrible so nothing wants to eat them.

 Bombs Away!

Ants are the termite’s worst enemy.

To stop the ants from attacking, some termites have exploding soldiers. These guys swell up and burst open to stop an invasion…and it works! The sticky, slimy goo covers the enemy, stopping them in their tracks.

Other termites have a special jaw. They just pick up the ant and fling it into the air.

A Tastey Snack?

Honey Pot Ants feed on nectar. But what do they do in the dry season when no nectar is available? They go to theirlivingwarehouses, also known as repletes (ri-pleets).

These special ants are constantly fed by the worker ants. They get so big they almost burst. But before this happens the hungry ants will feed from them – So nobody goes hungry. In fact, Aboriginal Tribes in Australia will raid these ant nests in search of Honey Pots. They pop these tasty ants into their mouths for a sweet treat.

Want to learn more? Visit your local library, the Internet or even an Insect Museum.

For more interesting facts and fun stories visit, knowonder ont he net at;

Friday, April 13, 2012

Fun Facts Friday - What Am I?

I float high up in the sky but I don’t have an engine. I carry people in my wicker basket and my very first flight I had a hen, a sheep and a duck onboard. When it was viewed as safe my first manned journey took place in Paris in the year of 1783.

What am I?

A Hot Air Balloon!

Up Up and Away

Hot air balloons are a neat way to travel – though you wouldn’t go very far. The balloon is powered by one to four propane burners that when ignited heat the balloon as it slowly rises into the sky. Hot air balloons can reach altitudes of 500 to 3000 feet above the ground and travel at various speeds. In fact, wind has a lot to do with the amount of speed you get once up in the sky – the windier the faster you’ll go. But the fun thing is, you can’t feel the wind when you’re in the balloon, so it’s like floating!

Most rides in a balloon last for about 1 hour and travel approximately ten miles. These are given by specially trained pilots. Some professional balloonist have travelled a lot longer than that. One pair floated along for 3 weeks and covered thousands of miles. The longest journey ever taken in a hot air balloon lasted 20 days as they worked their way around the entire globe!

Balloon Basics

~ The Basket or Gondola – this is under the balloon and is where the passengers stand. It comes in two styles; Open and T-Partition (divided with a “T” shaped bar).
~ The Burner – is the “engine” and is used to propel the heat into the balloon. They are available in single, double and quad, depending on how big the hot air balloon is.
~ The Envelope – is the actual balloon which is made from long nylon sections called gores. This the same material used in parachutes.


Hot air balloons were constructed in a basic tear-drop shape, but as time went on balloon designs have soared. Now hot air balloons are being made into all shapes and critters. From cartoon characters to castles hot air balloons can be made into most anything. Check out some of these wonderful, special shapes

Do You Remember?

…what was on the first flight of the hot air balloon?
…what makes the balloon float?
…how long did it take two balloonists to go around the world?
…what’s another word for the basket under the balloon and what’s it typically made from?

If you didn’t recall the answers check back through the article. See you next time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Totally True Tuesday - Guess Who

I’m a very common animal that likes to graze in a field. The first of my species arrived in America with the pilgrims in 1611. I provide 90 percent of the world’s supply of milk.

Can you guess who I am?

I’m a cow!

The Not-So-Boring Cow

Cows have been around for so long we tend to take them for granted. However, cows are not only important to us humans, they’re also very interesting. Did you know…

…there are 920 different breeds of cows?
…cows were domesticated around 5000 years ago?
…like a humans fingerprints, no two Holstein cows have the same pattern of spots?
…Cows have cloven hooves?
…the average cow weighs 1400 pounds

Moo Moo Chew Chew
Cows spend a lot of time eating, 8 hours in fact! However, 6 hours of the eating is actually chewing its cud. This is called rumination. The cow has no upper front teeth so rather than bite the grass, they curl their tongue around it and pull it out.

All this chewing makes a cow thirsty so on average they drink about 30 gallons of water a day. That`s like drinking a bathtub full!

It`s All in the Moo

Have you ever met someone who speaks with an accent? So do cows! It`s been observed that cows from different regions moo with an accent, too.

Cows are very social animals and will bond with other members of the herd and avoid the cows they don`t like. Plus, they not only moo to communicate, but they use facial expressions and body language to get their feelings out.

More Amoozing Cow Facts

Check out these totally true facts;

- A cow can give up to 25 gallons (400 glasses) of milk a day.
- Cows in the U.S. can give 200 gallons of milk a year or over 30,000 glasses!
- Approximately 9.2 million cows on 110,000 farms are milked each day in the U.S.
- Cows can see colours (except red), they can detect smells up to 5 miles away and can hear higher and lower sounds better than us humans.

Now that you know all about our friend the cow, remember to wave to them if you pass by a farm. Until then print and colour your very own cow picture, and remember, milk cows are black and white.

Wonder Words

* domesticated – to tame an animal as a pet or farm use
* cloven – a divided hoof
* rumination - to crew the cud

Remember to pop over to knowonder magazine for more fun articles and super stories for kids - It's totally FREE!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Fun Facts Friday - What Am I?

I’m strong and powerful for my size. I’m built to help large vessels through tough canals by pushing or towing them. I once ran on steam, but now I’m powered by diesel fuel. Plus, some of us are able to be on the ocean, fight fires, break ice and collect salvage.

What am I?

A Tugboat!


Tug boats have been around since the 1800's and were specifically designed to assist large ships through crowded harbours or narrow openings and to dock and undock. Tugs have to be compact and super powerful so they are designed with a deep hull and a pointy bow. The propeller sits deep in the water. And because tug boats can be used in the rough ocean waters, they have to be made more water-tight - doors are made so water can flow past and not into the tug and scruppers on deck allow water to drain and run off.

Tugboat Types

Tug boats come in different styles depending on what they are used for;

~ Standard Tug - has a model bow and tows it’s vessel
~ Notch Tug - used to push a barge and has a specific "notch" that fits with it’s payload.
~ "Intergal" Unit - this tug is considered more of a ship than a boat as it locks so tightly with it’s barge that it is virtually inseparable.
~ River Tugs - have a flat bow to line up with the rectangular stern of the barge.

Not So True Tugs

Tugboats are so cool that children’s books and programmes have even been written about them. In 1939 the first children’s book, Little Toot, tugged the hearts of his readers. Little Toot wanted to be like the big tugs and soon proves he’s worthy.

In 1946 Scruffy the Tugboat came on the scene and was written about a toy tug that longs to see life outside of his owners bath tub.

Do you know who the most famous tugboat is? If you guessed Theodore Tugboat, then you’re right. This guy was also made into toys and a tv program.

For more information on tugboats check out the library, the internet or, if you live by water, perhaps your own city.

Wonder Words

* Salvage ~ is to save a ship or it's cargo from the perils of the sea.
* Scrupper ~an opening at the side of a ship at deck level that allows water to run off.
* Barge ~ a flat-bottomed vessel used to carry passengers or cargo and is pushed or towed.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Totally True Tuesday ~ Guess Who

I have strong, powerful back legs and a thick tail to help me balance.  I can hop up to 60  kilometres per hour (40 miles) and leap up to 3 metres (10 feet) high.  I also keep my baby safe in my pouch.

Can you guess who I am?

I’m a kangaroo!

Where  in the World?

There are 60 different species of kangaroos and they are found all over Australia.  Some species such as the tree kangaroo and forest wallabies can be found in Papua New Guinea.  And even though kangaroos are not normally thought to be in Hawaii, Great Britain or New Zealand, some feral animals have been found to live there.

Kangaroo Kitchen

The Red Kangaroo can weigh in at a whopping 200 pounds and be 6 feet tall!  What does he eat to get so big.  It`s a fact that all kangaroos are herbivores, so it pays to eat your veggies!

Some kangaroos that live in the dryer regions of Australia can go long periods of time without drinking a single drop of water, months in fact! 

For the first 12-18 months of age a baby kangaroo or Joey will suckle on its mother inside her pouch. 

Mom has 4 teats that each provide different nourishment for all the stages of the baby`s growth.

Who`s Who When You`re a Kangaroo

Male kangaroos are called Bucks, Boomers or Jacks.  Females are Does, Flyers or Jills and the babies are Joeys, or you can just call them all Roos.  However, a group of kangaroos is called a mob.

It`s True for the Kangaroo

~ On land kangaroos can`t move their legs independently of each other
~ Kangaroos are good swimmers and it`s only in water that they can kick each leg one at a time.
~ They can`t move backwards
~ Kangaroos are the only large, hopping animal
~ They not only use their tail for balance, but as a fifth leg.
~ Kangaroos box to play, defend their territory and to attract a mate.
~ They are nocturnal

Now that you know a bit about kangaroos check out the Wonder Word list below for the meanings of the bold words scattered throughout the article.

For more information on the Kangaroo check out the world wide web or your local library.

Wonder Words List

1)  Herbivore - one that feeds on plants
2)  Nourishment - food/nutrients
3) Independently - each working separately
4) Nocturnal - Active at night

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