Daily Illuminator

April 7, 2018: The Great Ball Contraption

I am a Lego nut. It is known.

I also like "rolling ball machines" or "marble runs," like the Chaos Machine that I've displayed at various shows over the years.

Mashup time: a Lego rolling ball machine!

It's called the Great Ball Contraption, and it's not any one single Lego kit. It's a standard for creating modules, originated by Steve Hassenplug in 2004. The basic idea is: balls are dropped into one end of a module, balls are moved to the other end in some elaborate mechanical way, balls emerge at a standardized height and fall into the next module . . . and so on. The video below is a little tiny loop that a couple of us set up at my house. Again, this is tiny. Look at some of the links below for some REAL Contraptions.

If you like gadgets, this is more fun than a barrel of wind-up monkeys. And the more modules you have going at once, the more fun it is. The current world record is over 200, set at Brickworld Chicago in July of last year. Here's a video, awesome though almost an hour long. (Edit: A new world record of 259 modules was set at Lego World 2018 a few weeks ago!)

As you can see, it's a community thing. You don't have to have hundreds of modules, but you want a lot, and the best way to do that is to combine efforts. Not everybody is up to the challenge of designing a brand new Rube Goldberg machine, but everybody can play; instructions for some relatively simple sets are online – for instance, on the Brickworld site.  

So at this point, it's possible to substitute enthusiasm for genius (philosophical digression: this is one of the things that our culture is about) and build your own collection of silly machines.

Some more resources, if this sounds like fun for yourself or your Lego group:

• Akiyuki! He's a Japanese builder who regularly posts GBC videos on YouTube. He is an amazingly prolific source of wild new designs.

The Great Ball Pit – a blog about creating modules, with lots of good video. Check out "Solaire." There's also a Discord server, where I sometimes hang out.

•  A Netherlands company, PV-Productions, is selling instructions with a great concept – each is built using the parts from a single, existing Lego set. Warning: The instructions have difficulty ratings. Don't start with anything except "easy" unless you are already experienced with Lego gear trains and so on.

• And, of course, the Great Ball Contraption wiki, which has all kinds of information and pointers to some good beginner sets. A personal favorite is right here.

Have fun!

-- Steve Jackson


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