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The Leonardo Gallery

The Chaotick

by Larry Breed

© Larry Breed. Photo © 2005 by Rick Egan. E-mail: netmoser at aol dot com; web: www.moonski.net/burningman/

Once, as a child, I visited the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In a room devoted to clocks and clockwork, I was mesmerized by an erratically moving miniature tetherball: Beside a vertical 4-inch rod, a tiny ball hanging by a fine chain from a swinging arm was being flung in an arc. The ball and chain wound up around the rod, unwound, and then the ball was flung around again to wind up, unwind . . .

One 19th-century novelty clock used such a tetherball, rather than a pendulum, to regulate its ticks. It wasn't particularly accurate, but it was unique and entertaining, and that's why a tetherball was in the Franklin Institute in 1957. In 1998, by then a confirmed Burner, I recalled my visit and thought, "Yes! Really big, and on fire. I have to build one."

The name came next---The Chaotick, for its erratic timekeeping. I put together a tabletop model with a bicycle-wheel hub for a pivot, a battery-powered toy's motor for power and a rubber band for a drive belt, but no flames. I showed it to Burning Man director Larry Harvey, who said simply "That's very cool. How can we help?" For me, that remark holds the essence of worthwhile appreciation.

The full-size, 20-foot-tall mechanism evolved through discussions with Jim Mason, Chris de Monterey, Kimric Smythe and Peter Coonen. The fireball is a stainless steel sheet folded into a dodecahedron and filled with wicking. A gardener's spray can, mounted on the rotating central shaft, pumps pressurized kerosene through a drip irrigation emitter. From the emitter, a plastic tube leads up the shaft and out the arm, where it becomes the tether the fireball hangs from.

Participants sometimes ask where The Chaotick gets the power to rotate unceasingly through the night. I explain that playa time, which reigns in Black Rock City, flows more irregularly than the conventional time outside the city. This creates time-flow vortices along the city-limits trash fence; these power the temporal-induction motor housed in The Chaotick's base and so cause the central shaft and arm to rotate. Then I add that, for emergency backup, the base also holds a cordless drill connected to a car battery.

On the nighttime playa, The Chaotick's looping, smoothly irregular orbit of fire differentiates it from all other sources of light. Only the flame is visible from afar---a disembodied sprite engaged in fiery aerobatics. People are drawn closer, until they also see the mechanism standing isolated on the playa and functioning with no evident human assistance. They speculate about perpetual motion; they debate whether the arm reverses direction, swinging the fireball back from where it came. Some lie on their backs and watch it cycle around them.

The arm's tip, as it completes its 70-foot circular trip, clangs against the fixed pole. The ball spirals inward, finally banging the pole and abruptly starting its unwind: one tick of playa time. Nearby, in a family that for many ticks has stood, watched and quietly conversed, a small girl looks away from the spiraling fireball and exclaims, "Daddy! Our shadows are dancing!" Indeed they are. The whole family turns around and starts to dance with their swaying, sweeping shadows.

Larry Breed, livember at earthlink dot net

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Updated 17 April 2007.

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