Rome, Built in a Day: How We Made a Sisyphus Machine

This visual project was co-produced by Jing Ke and Samantha Logan for a class project

Welcome to Article 3 of our Sisyphus machine build!  If you’re not sure what this project is about, please visit our other articles including a powerful mission statement!

  1. What does Perpetual Motion, Sisyphus, and the Anti-Vaxxer Movement have in common?
  2. Behind Pandora’s Box: Why Anti-Science Can’t Stop Science
  3. Rome built in a day:  How we made a Sisyphus machine
  4. Nevertheless She Persisted:  The cycle of science and Nature

This blog, unlike our other articles detailing the project is a bit more low key.  In this blog we will cover how we built the machine, and what problems we ran in to.  We will begin with the concept and measurements for the box, then break it down to the boxes internals, and its designs.

The Concept

As stated in our first article, the purpose of this machine is to illustrate the march of science and nature in a perpetual cycle.  Interrupting it could have devastating consequences and because of that Anti-vaxxer and anti-antibiotics movements have a detrimental effect on how we handle the natural evolution of harmful viruses and bacteria.

We thought that the greatest way to depict this concept was in a perpetual motion machine – a kinetic and moving sculpture that always moves in specific ways.  A Sisyphus machine is a specific type of kinetic sculpture that gives the illusion of moving in space – much like Sisyphus in the Greek tale would move a rock up a hill, and then wake up back at the bottom again.

The scribbled notes on the front and back provide initial ideation mechanics and despite their mess, they largely translate to the following plan:

  • Internal (Samantha):
    • 2 options – a wheel or piston bar can produce the motion we need.  Motion we are looking for is about 8-10cm rotation where the rods coming out of the top of the box move up and down in a circular motion.
  • The box (Jing):
    • Jing had a polystyrene box measuring 87x30x27 cm.  Cutting roman columns out of the polystyrene box would require a hot wire cutter. only access to this tool we had was in the creative office and we didn’t have time. Tried anyway.   On all sides a plaque would be provided that includes the title for the piece.  a border of DNA will also frame the full box.
  • The sides:
    • front (Samantha):  The march of human evolution with a grim reaper at its back and a slew of dead bodies under them.
    • Side R (Samantha):  The invention of penicillin
    • Side L (Jing):  Bacteria and Viruses
    • Back (Jing):  Someone getting a shot injected in to them.
    • Top (Samantha):  the cycle mentioned in our second blog article about the march of science and man will be detailed going around the box with the full title of the project: Nevertheless, She Persisted.  this refers to the politics surrounding the anti-vaxxer movement as well as a call to the persistence of mother earth – nature.
    • Figures (Jing):  one would be a man and the other will be bacteria.

19190802_1761469167201229_1166559111_n.jpg    19191043_1761469180534561_1153799470_n

We will go in to detail regarding this list now.

The Inner workings:

The internal workings were the most difficult part of the build.  There were two conceived options here – we could make a wheel that would move two pistons, or a piston rod that would move two pistons.  We initially went with the wheel as resources allowed it to work more easily, but had to scrap it after it didn’t work and went with the rod design which as of writing this is also not looking super positive (but we’ll get there!).  The chassis and the actual rods were fashioned together using an old Lego set.  The engine we used was a basic 12W converter that pushed about 8 volts of electricity to turn the bottom rod.

The internal mechanics built and “working”

In the end the device worked well “enough” for a proof of concept to work so our internals seem pretty solid.  If only we were able to machine our parts instead of relying on lego parts this would work a lot better.

The Outside: 

While the internals were quite possibly the most difficult part of the build, it was the designs on the outside, and the figures that created the most difficulty for us.  We chose to build our box using Polystyrene and in hind sight this wasn’t the greatest idea.  With no access to a hotwire from the university we were forced to use a very sharp exacto knife to get in to the device. While it worked, there was no impression that we could make. We had to make do with just providing a poor illusion in the design.

The polystyrene box with the blue markings that will show the columns.

The Designs: 

The designs  were probably the ones that we had the most fun with during the course of the project.  Each side was meant to compliment each other.  There were 5 drawings and 2 figures in total – most of which Jing was responsible for.


evolution drawing

Left & Right:

19206357_1764265870254892_395281156_npenicillin Drawing






Our next blog, “nevertheless she persisted” will unveil the final product and discuss the full project, including how we think we did, but a brief discussion of the final product is in order at least.

This project has been a stressful one full of failures in the case of the engine and the polystyrene box, but what engine hasn’t created problems?  Without the proper machinations to produce what we needed it was difficult, but we would not trade this experience.  It has taught us a lot about building and about art.  We hope that the finished machine will create thought provoking ideas surrounding the place of science in the greater natural evolution of our world, how this applies to global warming, and especially how artists around the world can impact the world around us.  Stay tuned for the final reveal of the finished product in our next blog!

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