Strandbeests, Hackbeests, and Steamspiders

072115 Chris Banner

In 2007 Theo Jansen demonstrated his famous “strandbeest” invention at a TED Talks presentation. Strandbeests are wind driven creations that use no electronics and yet are able to wander the beaches. Each one is constructed of PVC electrical conduit, plastic tubing, and water bottles. They are able to count steps with a binary step counter, sense and flee from the edge of the water, and protect themselves from strong wind. The way they move is fascinating to watch.

Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

Animaris Umerus, Scheveningen beach, The Netherlands (2009). Courtesy of Theo Jansen. Photo by Loek van der Klis

Jansen has worked on this creation for more than 25 years. Each leg of the strandbeest is comprised of 11 linkages that were designed using a special kinetic algorithm. After the TED Talks presentation, Jansen released his designs to the world and encouraged inventors to create their own versions. Many people took up the challenge; some produced their own models of the strandbeests, but others designed unique creations using Jansen’s kinetic algorithm to create hackbeests and steamspiders.

Jansen’s creations enjoy international popularity thanks to videos on sites like YouTube. The first major American exhibition of his work began on September 19th, 2015, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The preview display on Crane Beach drew more than 10,000 fans. There are four active beests including a brand new model designed specifically for the show. Along with the beests, the exhibition will include Jansen’s sketches, photographic documentation by Lena Herzog, and interactive elements designed to help visitors understand the beests’ intricate mechanisms. It will be interesting to see how many more visitors are recorded by the time the exhibition closes January 3rd, 2016.

Strandbeest at Peabody Essex Museum Preview Event

Strandbeest at Peabody Essex Museum Preview Event

What is even more impressive than the technology is the willingness to share exactly how to create these inventions. Jansen provides the detailed plans for free on his web site Strandbeest. He also has a book, The Great Pretender, models, DVDs, and plans for 3D printed beests for sale. The models for the mini-beests seem reasonable at $35. There are a lot of options depending upon how much a person wants to do for him/herself.

Exhibitions like the one at the Peabody Essex Museum are also encouraging the development of hackbeests. Along with hosting an all night “hack-a-thon” where tech-savvy folks have to solve a Strandbeest challenge created by Jansen, visitors to the museum can work with scientists and engineers to build a hackbeest of their own.

3D Parametric Drawing from Steamspider.com

3D Parametric Drawing from Steamspider.com

For those that might enjoy a more steampunk version of the hackbeests, I-Wei Huang and Joe Klann have designed a steam spider that works under the same type of kinetic motion. Huang provides detailed drawings and assembly instructions at his web site Steamspider.com. He even offers to provide additional information to anyone who contacts him, although he offers his sympathy to anyone who starts building these: It apparently becomes an obsession.

For more information:
Theo Jansen’s TED Talk,
Ian Frazier, “The March of the Strandbeests” The New Yorker, September 5, 2011
Lawrence Weschler, “Theo Jansen’s Lumbering Life-Forms Arrive in America” The New York Times Magazine, November 26, 2014


 

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