By the Power of Silica

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Happy Canada Day, everyone!  Call it Commonwealth patriotism or perhaps monarchal pride in the wake of the royal visit; whichever it was, from the enchanting imagination of YouTube, I decided to try a period piece from the Victorian Era.

When I Google’d Victorian Toys, I found a site that simply said, “Victorian children had fewer toys than you have today.”  It sounded bleak.  But then I came across the magic of sand power!  The Victorian Sand Toy is an antique rarity, an authentic original easily selling for over $1000.

How does it work?

It comes as no surprise to anyone that I am fascinated by automatons, but there’s something about the liquid flow of a sand-driven mechanic that makes this variation even more appealing.  The mechanism is a closed system, consisting of a water wheel, a funnel, and a handful of sand.  When the box is rotated in the appropriate direction, the sand is directed to a compartment above the water wheel and funnel.  And when the box has turned a full 360, the sand will slowly fall through the funnel, the water wheel gathering the liquid grains and driving the main axle.

Drive-Wheel Variations
I haven’t confirmed this, but you should be able to derive a variety of animation types with this simple mechanism.  For example, the acrobat has the wheel centered directly under the funnel.  This results in the drive-wheel only rotating when the weight of the sand-filled bucket offsets the weight of the acrobat, and in a more random direction with each rotation.

Alternatively, if the wheel is offset from the center, the sand falling from the funnel will cause the wheel to spin continuously in one direction.  This can be useful if you need a constant rotation for the automaton.  But even more interesting is if you treat the wheel as a cam and attach a lever to translate this rotational motion into linear motion.  Or even MORE interesting: attach the other end of the lever to one end of a see-saw and you can use the see-saw fulcrum to create a back-and-forth partial-rotation!

Very.  The dovetailed box is made from faux-walnut pine.  I somehow managed to forget to glue the dovetails, so it is currently held together with load-bearing varathane.  The funnel, wheel, and acrobat are made from baltic birch ply.  The window is reclaimed plexiglass shelving from a liquidation sale of a Saskatoon home decor store back in 2004, aged 7 years for perfection.  The sand was harvested from the local beaches of Kits, courtesy of a Nathan Dog.

So many problems!
Being a closed system, it was difficult to test the components as they were built.  Instead, I needed to build most of the components before I was able to assemble it and make sure it worked.  It didn’t.

For starters, the slope of the funnel needs to be fairly steep, otherwise, the sand reservoir won’t empty properly.  Unfortunately, with our house becoming ever-crowded with a growing number of toy prototypes, I thought I’d try making this a more manageably small size…of course, that limited the space I had for a suitably steep funnel.  FAIL!

The box should be constructed such that the user can simply rotate the box clockwise (or counterclockwise) and all of the sand will be directed into the sand compartment/reservoir.  Many of the original Victorian toys had hidden systems, but in using the plexiglass backing to see the inner workings, I think I wanted to make it a little more elegant and a little more pretty.  MISTAKE!  Yup, in the end, the compartment opening was too small, as was the compartment itself.

I think the drive-wheel and acrobat need to be fairly light or, at least, lighter than I made them.  The lighter they are, the less sand required to rotate the wheel.  I also think the wheel dividers need to go straight to the axle creating deeper buckets, rather than shallow buckets, to make the wheel less likely to maintain its balance at the top.

The biggest problem I’ve had is preventing the sand from jamming up the axle.  I’ve tried a number of things to minimize sand getting trapped around the axle, but I have yet to find a reliable solution short of using sealed bearings…which I suppose I could try…

In conclusion…
Meet Sandy, the Victorian Acrobat!

Song:  The Entertainer
Artist:  Scott Joplin, 1902
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4 thoughts on “By the Power of Silica”

  1. Thanks Sarah! Yeah, the problem is that the weather is getting nicer, so I'm hard-pressed to stay inside and work on the garage design when I could be playing with tools outside. :)Sam and I were looking at a house for sale a couple doors down from us that has EXACTLY the same layout as our house, except with an attached woodworking shop…that would save me the time of architecting a new garage…and we could basically just wheel-barrel all our stuff on moving day. :)

  2. Good Day’

    While perusing the web on victorian toys I came across your video. Sand toys are extremely light. The acrobat – use aeroply. Even better get a copy o Rodney Peppe’s Moving Toys. He provides not only the materials list, instructions but also the templates. If you can’t find the book let me know and maybe I can find a copy I have and get it to you. Nice toy. Keep automating, it’s great fun. Take care

  3. Awesome! I’ve gotten a few of Peppe’s books from the library (“Automata and Mechanical Toys” and “Making Mechanical Toys”) in the past, but I hadn’t heard of “Moving Toys”. I will definitely keep my eye out for that book! Thanks for the recommendation, Cheri!

    As for the sand toy, I’m definitely planning on revisiting this when I have some more time. It such an intriguing device!

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