At the Exploratorium: ‘Curious Contraptions,' the World's First GIFs

Paul Spooner, 'The Barecats," from Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. (Photo by Amy Snyder, © Exploratorium)

Sometimes the best antidote to the doldrums is a reminder of one’s capacity to experience wonder and joy. Last week the Exploratorium opened Curious Contraptions, an exhibition of over 20 “charming and often hilarious” mechanical sculptures on loan from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre and Science Projects, both in London.

The automata, as they’re called, include a wooden man who eats spaghetti in a bathtub, a cat who turns the crank on a miniature version of itself (how meta!) and a graceful swimmer who quaintly tilts his head at every other stroke of his arms. Instead of the opaque, solid-state technology we’re used to these days, the automata cheerfully expose their inner workings -- gears, pulleys, cranks and all -- while additional displays explain the mechanics at play.

Paul Spooner, 'Spaghetti Eater," from Cabaret Mechanical Theatre
Paul Spooner, 'Spaghetti Eater," from Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. (Photo by Amy Snyder; © Exploratorium)

Yet even with the “how” of these curious contraptions made apparent, they still mesmerize. Part Rube Goldberg machine, part puppet, each acts out its own tiny drama over and over again. Automata: the first GIFs.

For those inspired to make their own machines, the museum’s Tinkering Studio hosts cardboard automata workshops on Saturdays, Sundays and Thursday evenings for the length of the exhibition (through Jan. 29).

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