I’ve written before about the day I answered a strange advert on a local noticeboard, offering ‘a flock of clockwork birds’. It was several years ago but I clearly recall the vendor reaching into a box of mouse-shredded newspapers and pulling out one of the little mechanisms for my inspection. It seemed to be composed of brass, steel and rust, in more or less equal quantities, with a plastic section to one side which housed a rubber diaphragm. With the sort of smile a favourite uncle gives at children’s parties before performing magic tricks, he took a brass key from his pocket, began to wind the motor and with a loud snap, the spring broke.
“Oh dear,” he said, carelessly tossing it back into the box and removing another, “They have been kicking around an attic for about 40 years, Not surprising, really. Let’s try this one.”
The next purred into life perfectly. Metal arms moved to and fro, a blue steel lever pumped the rubber bellows and a tiny Swanee whistle twittered its modulated tune. The whole thing, he explained, was controlled by a complex steel cam just visible amongst the whirring brass cogs and gears.
I was smitten.
“And how many are there?” I asked eagerly.
“God! No idea! Hundreds – at least,” he grinned. “Do you have a van? No? I’ll drop them round to you tonight, then.”
I’d been expecting a dozen, or maybe twenty, for the money he was asking. As my hallway filled up with an endless stack of mouldering cardboard boxes and a musty smell I wondered whether any of the mice whose handiwork I’d witnessed earlier remained. The boxes were stacked in the shed.
In the days that followed, I gingerly investigated. Countless clockwork motors ranging from pristine to utterly wrecked, a huge box of small plastic birds and yellowing waxed envelopes with the precious brass keys and parts to join the birds to the mechanisms. There was also a sheet of rodent-nibbled instructions for putting them together and a hobbies annual from the early 1960s where I found the sets advertised for 9 shillings and sixpence each, for fixing into novelty cigarette boxes. It seemed I had inadvertently bought up the entire remaining stock.
I grew up in a different age. I’m female. When I asked (every year) for a Meccano set for Christmas, my parents smiled and gave me a dolls’ pram or toy iron and ironing board. When I put down woodwork and metalwork as my preferred technology options at school, I was allocated to domestic science (aka cooking and housework) and needlework classes.
Can I blame this background for my almost total ineptitude with anything mechanical? Maybe not, but still it took me many, many weeks of fruitless and frustrating experimenting to begin producing chirping and twirling birds, perched on little boxes of clockwork wonders.
I sold dozens of them, and dozens more of the motor sets (with shredded newspaper and mouse droppings removed). However the number of broken mechanisms gradually began to outnumber the remaining working sets and I started to wonder how they could be used. In most cases the motors worked fine, but the rubber diaphragms that created the bellows had perished, which meant they were silent. Putting my woefully limited technological skills to work, I examined them. Two metal bars moved irregularly backwards and forwards. An offset lump on a wheel turned round and round quite fast when detached from the broken bellows. Three moving parts, then. What could I do with them?
Idea 1 came from a miniature butterfly net I’d bought in a job lot of dolls’ house furniture. Two dismembered arms move up and down – one waving the net, the other grasping a magnifying glass while a small metal bug whizzes around and others perch nearby. I called it The Clockwork Entomologist and am now making some more of them. They’re my sort of crazy.
Idea 2 is a silent version of the bird model, but with a seahorse emerging from glittery weeds to search left and right. It went too fast and smoothly at first, so I added some shell charms to the whizzing wheel to slow it down a bit.
Idea 3 is probably the most ambitious – an evil octopus kicks a small hapless jellyfish, who turns the machine that works the robot angler fish above the undersea lair. This creature hunts for tiny fishes in the weeds to provide supper for the octopus. That one is off the wall, even for me!
Finally (for now) there is another angler fish – simpler but more deadly with gaping mouth, huge teeth a battery-operated light-up lure, chasing her prey as it swiftly darts about and changes direction.
I can imagine readers of this post shaking their heads sadly at my lack of skill in fully utilising the intricacies of these amazing little motors. In my defense, I can only say that they all do what I had intended them to do, they are all constructed almost exclusively from upcycled junk and cast-offs and I had tremendous fun making them.
A few of them are for sale in my Etsy shop. More will be available when I replenish supplies in the New Year. They’re incredibly fiddly to make for one this clueless!