Author, Publisher, Developer, Stitchcoder


Now Available, a New Dimension in MechanicalGIFs: The Third

Today I am officially announcing a new set of six fully three-dimensional, transparently obvious acrylic models, all available at As before, they are highly simplified and stylized models of mechanical devices (just not quite as simplified as the earlier, flatter ones I've had available since late last year).

I think my favorite of the new batch is the combination lock, which goes nicely with the older pin-tumbler lock model. The little gif here only shows it from the front, but watch the video below and you'll see that it's a complete, 3D mechanism. The three "tumblers" have notches and pins whose relative locations determine the combination that, when entered, will cause all the notches to line up directly underneath the "fence", allowing it to fall into place and open the lock.

(This is a model of a fancy style of safe lock, which uses a clever cam mechanism to allow the code dial to also act to withdraw the bolt, opening the lock.)

There was a gif posted recently on the mechanical_gifs subreddit (link to Reddit post) which illustrates basically the same thing. It's neat, and got to the front page of Reddit with tens of thousands of upvotes. But I think mine is better....both because it's transparent, so you can see the pins that link the tumblers together (which are not visible in the Reddit gif), and because it's a real physical objects you can hold in your hand

That's the whole point of this exercise. These models combine the explanatory power of a simplified, schematic animation with the visceral, hands-on learning only possible with a physical object. 

I've really tried to make these models as affordable as possible by designing an efficient production system and setting the price as low as I can (consistent with not losing money once they sell in reasonable volume).

They could be cheaper if they were being sold in very large quantities and were made in China from injection-molded polystyrene (and maybe some day they will be). But for now they are made in Illinois from precision laser-cut acrylic, which is just a lot nicer, and a lot more realistic for getting started. It would costs many tens of thousands of dollars to get them into production with molded parts, but we can make them 20 at a time here for what I think is a pretty reasonable price. The only startup cost (not counting cost-of-goods-sold like acrylic, nuts and bolts, etc) was the large laser cutter and a whole, whole lot of storage bins to hold the different parts. (The Combination Lock alone, for example, has 117 parts of 51 different types!)

The pinnacle of industrial development for any country, historically, was reaching the point where they were able to manufacture entire cars. (Recently the bar has been raised to being able to launch those cars into space.) So I decided that I too should be able to manufacture an entire car. Thus was born the mechanical gif Radial Engine Car model.

It's a lot more expensive than any of the other models (it incorporates four other models into a single unit, and adds additional chassis parts). But, if I do say so myself, it's seriously cool.

Nick insisted on shooting a drone video of the car in action (though we were actually just holding the drone up by hand since the fool thing is only a foot long and goes about two miles per hour):

Yes, we used a drone, but only because Nick insisted. We didn't actually turn it on. (Not as stupid as it sounds: a drone like this is an excellent steady-cam, because its gimbal mechanism remains active even when the propellers are off.)

The car looks kind of goofy with its hugely-out-of-proportion mechanical parts—and literally no driver's seat. Why? Because who cares about people, this is about machines. The parts are sized in proportion to their mechanical significance, just as the hands (and lips?) of this "cortical homunculus" are sized in proportion to how much brain power is dedicated to each part.

Both are distorted to show what matters, while minimizing the decoration and dead weight that dominates the practical, real-world versions.

Well, I hope y'all appreciate the effort that went into designing (and actually making!) these kits, and that you'll consider getting one for yourself or that mechanically curious kid you know (12 or older for legal reasons).

But you know what I'd really like? For someone to post a few of them to the mechanical_gifs subreddit.... Every time I try to post something on Reddit it gets buried, but maybe one of you will have better luck? I think they are super-relevant to that particular subreddit. In fact, they are so relevant that the fixed sidebar at r/mechanical_gifs actually contains a gif animation of a steam engine that is almost identical in design to my Two-Eccentrics Steam Engine. Which is surprising since (a) I didn't know that before I designed mine, and (b) I didn't think any real steam engine would actually be designed that way. But there is it, just waiting for someone who isn't me to point out that it's available in physical form right now.

Theodore Gray1 Comment