Posts Tagged ‘Mechanical Elephant’

2011 – Inflatable Walking Elephant – Otherlab (Saul Griffith)

Pneubot stands for "pneumatic robot", or a robot that is actuated by pneumatic technology. A pneumatic technology involves the use of compressed air to drive mechanical motion. The compressed air can be moved through soft, balloon-like tubes, which allows for both rigidity (when filled) and flexibility (when decompressed or empty). In this video, an elephant-shaped pneubot is used to demonstrate the level of motor control allowed using this technology.

MAKE #27
Pneubotics: Walking Bouncy Castles
By Saul Griffith

Sometimes I feel like a false nerd, or a geek with two important genes missing: I’m not particularly interested in space exploration, except as fiction, and I’ve never cared for robots. So I find it strange that I’m now working on a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) robotics program.

I think what I never liked about robots is that they’re complex machines that really don’t do much. They’re fragile and very expensive. I like simple, robust things; things that don’t cost more than they should.

What I’ve found myself working on (with Jack Bachrach, Geoffrey Irving, Pete Lynn, and the good guys from Meka Robotics) is completely soft, completely compliant, very lightweight, and very cheap. No joints. No servos. Just skins — inflated skins.

For a long while I’ve been fascinated by inflatable objects for their extreme strength-to-weight ratios (they can carry a lot of load for very little mass). I also love the challenge of designing something “human safe,” in the robotics lexicon. Biology doesn’t use metal, and it doesn’t use servos. Nature points to some very interesting alternatives.

To make it work, we had to invent a new kind of actuator. Think of it as a vascular system for robots. It’s fluidic — works equally well with air or water — and by pumping either of those around, you can change the dimensions of the skin and effect motion. Our first actuator was quite literally a bicycle inner tube in a sewn pair of membranes. It worked really well for a $5 prototype!

For the next trial, I asked my sister to return an inflatable 4-foot-high elephant I’d designed and given to my niece. When it arrived, Pete burned the midnight oil and sewed up some vascular “muscles,” and in a day or two we had four moving legs. It actually walked. About one mile every 24 hours, but hey — baby’s first steps! It moves like no machine you’ve ever seen; more like the way biology moves. A walking inflatable elephant might sound ridiculous, but it works, and the numbers on paper told us it should have incredible strength, good speed, extremely low weight, and cost very, very little to manufacture.

The next prototype was designed to walk with a human rider on it and to look less like an elephant. We built it in under a week for less than $1,000 in parts. A 15-foot-long, 5-foothigh robot with 28 muscle actuators (four in each of six legs, another four in the trunk). It worked too (after a few exploded actuators).

I like the idea of a robot you can sew together. I like that it has no heavy, sharp, or costly parts. Most of all, I like the intellectual challenges of it. There aren’t any CAD packages for designing highly elastic kinetic membrane structures. We had to write our own. There aren’t any analysis simulations. We had to write our own. There aren’t any walking bouncy castles out there. We built our own! We call our weird new style of robotics “pneubotics,” as in pneu for air (like pneumatic).

Who knows if the robotics community will like it or even care. Either way, that’s not why I built it. I built it because perhaps my niece will forgive me if she gets a walking elephant next Christmas that she can ride to school.

All pictures and captions sourced from Otherlabs webpage unless noted otherwise. See Otherlabs webpage and other videos here.

OtherLab is a collective of scientists and inventors involved in a number of projects, including proof-of-concept mechatronics that might be useful in building functionally adaptive and intelligent machines.

See other Pneumatic, Fluidic, and Inflatable robots here.

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1957 – “Danger in the Everglades” (Mechanical Elephant) – Frederick Keith


Danger in the Everglades.
Author: Frederick W Keith
Publisher: New York, Abelard-Schuman [1957]

[Thanks to Michael Rekoff who informed me about this book.]

Authors: Frederick W Keith
OCLC Number: 1420226
Description: 1 v. illus. 22 cm.
Responsibility: Illustrated by Kurt Werth.

A diagram of Packy's interior from page 17.

Packy's exterior, page 13.

Review from

Danger in the Everglades

3.0 out of 5 stars An odd premise for a "realistic" juvenile novel!, February 19, 2012

By Molly Grue "Renaissance Woman" (SF Bay Area, CA USA) –  Danger in the Everglades

Steve Hubbard's parents and their boat, the Cormorant, disappear in a hurricane while heading for the Shark River in the southwestern tip of Florida, where his father had planned to fish while his mother collected wild orchids and other tropical plants. Eight days later, Steve anxiously waits for a positive word from the Coast Guard with his Aunt Ellie, who is taking care of Steve and his frail grandmother while his parents are away.

Steve is convinced that he can find his parents by travelling south in Packy (short for pachyderm—groan!), the wonderful electric elephant his father constructed. "It had two levers to steer it, like those on a tractor, a smaller gadget that you pushed forward and backward to control the speed, and some other thingamajigs that Steve knew how to handle. Then there was a one-cylinder gasoline engine stuck away next to the batteries to charge them." An electric elephant that relies on fossil fuel to recharge its batteries isn't truly electric—and Steve's dad must have been some sort of engineering genius, because the vehicle gets amazing mileage without being refueled!

Packy also contains three bunks, a lavatory and a small gasoline stove—yet there is no mention of a ventilation system, so how the occupants keep from suffocating or dying from carbon monoxide poisoning while the gas engine or stove are running is anybody's guess. The author similarly neglects to mention how the waste products from the lavatory are discharged.

Steve's dad "had built Packy just as a hobby" and then "had intended to rent [Packy] out for advertising purposes—to put a big sign on each side of it proclaiming somebody's product. But so far nothing had come of that and Mom refused to go traveling around in it so it had just stood in the garage." Okay then. An enormous project that consumes time, energy, money and garage space, and has yet to be taken on its maiden voyage. Got it.

"Its skin was genuine elephant hide, trunk and all. The hide was what had given his dad the idea of building it. He had read one morning in the paper that one of the largest elephants of the Ringling Brothers' Circus had died suddenly. An offer from him by telegram to buy its hide had been accepted. When the skin arrived in Daytona Beach by truck, Steve's dad had a local taxidermist cure and soften it thoroughly. Meanwhile he had gone ahead with the framework, and when the hide was ready he had slipped it over the wooden form." Is it just me, or is this a disgustingly creepy idea? And sheesh, you can't just build a framework and hope that a cured hide will magically fit!

The result? Packy looks exactly like a real elephant, albeit one with a glass windshield set in its forehead and "stitches along the belly where the taxidermist had sewn up the skin" and "Packy's eyes which Steve's dad had converted into headlights." And the two seat howdah on Packy's back and the over-the-tail red glass tailight, to prevent rear end collisions. And did I mention the "air horn in the base of the trunk that sounded only faintly like an elephant, but made up in volume for what it lacked in reality"? "The trap door, with a folding [aluminum] ladder fastened to it to get in and out by, could not be seen at all from the outside when it was shut tight."

This electric elephant is not only an engineering marvel, it's a transportation miracle! "It could walk through anything—swampy ground, underbrush, water (if it wasn't too deep) and even mangrove swamps…"

Now, let's pause a moment to ponder this carefully. A heavy machine made of organic materials (leather and wood) that concentrates all of its weight on four columnar appendages is perfect for navigating a swamp? I'd imagine it would get stuck in the mud, the leather and wood swollen and leaking absorbed moisture. Now, the author does mention that Steve's father carefully waterproofed the seams, and that Steve maintains Packy by oiling its numerous joints, but how that is accomplished (given the hide's closed seams) is left strictly to the reader's imagination.

Okay, elephant rant off.

So, Steve and Packy leave home with food, money, and a rifle, and instantly acquire two companions, Dave Graham and his sister Kitty, ages about fourteen and twelve. They are runaways from an orphanage in Redding run by cruel Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, and Steve twice helps the duo escape their abusive guardians before taking Packy away from civilization.

And then the story veers from science fiction to a rather pedestrian adventure about three young people and their journey through the Everglades, with a few lectures about the natural and political histories of the area (all delivered by characters in the book) thrown in for good measure. With a few caveats (noted below) it's not bad, just not terribly exciting, and the juxtaposition of this rather ordinary tale with the amazing electric elephant is rather bizarre.

The kids sit out a thunderstorm, explore an abandoned Seminole lodge, feed raccoon babies, and Steve shoots a rattler that's in Kitty's path. Then they head into town to buy groceries, and give money to a middle-aged Seminole, Tigertail Billy, who needs to pay for his shopping, but has lost his cash. The man invites the kids to come home with him, but they're headed in another direction, so they part company…until Packy gets stuck in the mud after fleeing a wildfire and the trio wind up near the reservation.

And bleargh, this is one of the spots where the book shows its age. When Tigertail rallies the tribe members to dig Packy out of the muck, David remarks, "Gosh, they've got on skirts, the big sissies," and Steve laughs. Tigertail's daughter is "pretty by Seminole standards" and when Tigertail's son Jumper eats with the kids, he suggests that his mother ladle out individual bowls for the three visitors ("although his mother could not see the point of it") while the rest of the tribe eats directly from the kettle. He then says, "I'll admit the white man's method of eating is more sanitary, but we Indians don't pay much attention to germs. And most of us live to a ripe old age just the same." These are just a few examples of the author's patronizing tone when describing the Native Americans.

The author's attitudes towards women are also dated, and while the sexism is relatively mild, it's noticeable. Once Kitty boards Packy, she automatically takes over the cooking and cleaning. Various males casually make disparaging remarks about females, and the females live up to these stereotypes…ugh. But I suppose these attitudes are not unexpected in a book this old.

Anyway, Jumper, Steve and Dave go frogging, Steve tumbles from the airboat and is rescued, and the three scare off an alligator poacher. The trio depart from the reservation on Packy and the boys manage to lose Kitty (who falls while washing Packy's tail light!) and find her again. They see a lot of wildlife and Steve gets stuck in quicksand and has to be rescued. They wander through a mangrove swamp, Packy nearly short-circuits in deep water, and they find Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard and rescue them. The Hubbards decide to adopt David and Kitty, and it's the end of the story!

The book contains seventeen illustrations, all rather crude. And my overall impression is…well, the story is memorable only because of the weird method of transportation. If the kids had been on horseback, this book would have sunk into obscurity. Is it worth reading? Only if you're dying of curiosity or brimming with nostalgia. 

See real Mechanical Elephants in Florida, 1938 here.

Interesting to note that in 1950 the Frank Stuart Mechanical Elephant was undergoing developments to make it Amphibious. Sadly Stuart went bankrupt before completing his patent application so we'll never know what that next development would have looked like.

Mechanical Elephants – Toys and Automata


A modern piece of elephant automata.

Ducamps automata made for Barnum.

The above automaton, by Decamps, shows further articulation in the legs, offering a 'knee' action.

Martinet elephant clock c1790.  See youtube video clip here and here .

Walkindg model elephant made from Meccano.

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Mechanical Elephants – Miscellaneous Material

Ice show with elephant.

Popular Mechanics March 1947

"Then there's Dumbo, the two-man elephant that shambles across the ice on the skates of Ole Ericsen and Jim Hutchinson. Ericsen wears football shoulder pads to support the head and trunk and guides himself by peering through small windows in the cloth head. Hutchinson brings up the rear and sees only the ice between his feet.

Inside the elephant's head are so many strings, levers and controls that Ericsen needs a small overhead light to see what he's doing. One set of levers wiggles the huge ears, another blinks the eyes, a third lowers and raises the trunk. Dumbo picks up wire-stemmed flowers from the ice by means of a magnet in the end of his trunk. He sprays water into the air when Ericsen releases a siphon of water through the trunk, and shoots ground corn-cobs over the spectators when another control is pulled."

Festo's new elephant truck based manipulator and gripper.

Pedal-powered Elephants.

Ice Bike.

Kinetic Sculpture Race.

Elephant float – Southend Carnival, 1934.

No, not a mechanical elephant under construction, but a taxidermist building a frame that will eventually hold the hide. The elephant was "Rajah" in New Zealand, 1936.

A wooden elephant on parade in British Columbia, 1986.

The "Elephant Train" from California's World's Fair on San Francisco Bay, 1939.


Kou Kong of Jilin City has built his own two-metre-long elephant, which he can ride or take for walks. Made out of stuff he found in skips, only the engine that drives the elephant cost anything at all. Mr Kong hopes that, at the 2008 Olympics, people will ride his motor-phant.

Chinese Elephant – 2007

Robot elephant waste utilization, popular! – Rin Shiyoukiti Jilin
Mobile Edition URL:
June 18, 2007, 58-year-old hole that picks up trash in the living Rin Shiyoukiti Jilin (RC) The man has become the talk of the elephant using a robot to make a local pick up trash.

Uncle just passed through the hole in one elementary school. Over six months alone, height 1.5m, length 2m made a robot elephant. Most of the material things picked up in the city Jilin. Made with thick wire frame, four legs with a steel pipe roller. Rubber ears, the ping pong ball eyes. Ivory wooden stick, made a long nose cloth wrapped around a tree form.

1500 Uncle yuan more holes (£ 40,000,002) and Hatai precious money, buy a battery and generator. Elephant's foot is fine but the roller to move forward. If you go to town riding on the elephant man, a crowd quickly. "Though I can not frame, there are more bodies still room for improvement," the man said passionately. The dream took a patent on this robot, as it's getting put Jilin tourist destination. (Translation, editing / Tomoko Hongo)

1947-55 – Baby Mechanical Elephants – Frank Stuart (British)

Ex-Tom Norgate’s Mechanical Elephant supplied by Frank Stuart.

The ex-Norgate elephant (“Ellie”) is the only known baby elephant to have a plate on it saying “Supplied by Frank Stuart”.

Above 3 images courtesy Derek Tucker.

The full history of Frank Stuart and his baby mechanical elephants (stiff legged, not the later walking elephants) remains unclear.  In the mid to late 1940’s, Frank Stuart’s business was primarily into theatrical mask making and scenic prop making. Around 1947 he finally makes an electric powered mechanical elephant, most likely for indoor theatrical purposes. He reasons that he was holidaying on the sea side at Clacton watching donkeys take children for a ride. Having an affinity with animals, his father was a vetinarian, and he was a fellow of the Zoological Society, as well as making animal props for the theatre, Stuart thought he could make an artificial substitute, saving the animal on the one hand, and believing it to be cheaper to run on the other.

Later on, Stuart makes baby elephants under contract to Macades (Entertainment) who bought the Frank Smith patent.

It appears the idea of theatric prop to making money from amusement rides starts to take shape. Maurice  Radburn, an employee of Frank Stuart’s, believes he can make a walking version of this elephant. In his spare time, he produces a working model, called “Bimbo”. Stuart develops this idea further, and produces drawings and a full size prototype called “Potsy”. At about this time, if not before, Stuart ceases to supply Macades with baby elephants, and focuses his business and staff on building the larger walking elephants. The walking elephant was announced to the world early in January of 1950, but took another 6 months before a reliable version was perfected enough to fully publicise, around July 1950.

Soon after, it is believed that Stuart is charged with infringing the patent now owned by Macades (Entertainment), who are in business to make money in the amusement game. Clearly Stuart was about to muscle in on Macades turf big time, which is why it was most likely Macades that sought the patent infringement.

Stuart therefore targets his elephants for export only, given that the Macades patent was for Great Britain only. Initial orders were fulfilled, but Stuart geared up for larger orders coming in. Unfortunately for Stuart, his creditors get nervous or see that the production rate is too slow, for whatever reason the receivers are called in and Stuart eventually declares bankruptcy mid 1952.

Most likely Stuart had spirited away some walkers and a baby at the time the receivers were called in, and was now using these at Paignton and Scarborough during the summer season, at least in 1952, and possibly up until 1955, at Paignton.

The era for such amusements was, however, in decline, and Macades themselves also disappeared off the scene.

Jenny II with coach at Paignton, 1955.


The original and larger Jenny.

Source: The Argus (Australia) 13 Jan 1950.


Filling up at Ramsgate, 1972.


Lot 382 Brooks Auction – Toys and Models 28th Sept. 2000. Sold for Pound 450. (Image courtesy Stuart Cyrus). Notice the Engine display window has not been cut into the side of the howdah in this image.

Amazing Wilhelmina the Mechanical Elephant

Wilhelmina is for sale by John Hornby-Smith, England [or was in 2000].

He provides the following details:
Wilhelmina the mechanical elephant is nearly 50 years old and getting ready to celebrate the millennium. Built by Frank Stuart in the early 50’s, she served her time giving children rides on the promenades of famous north country seaside towns and later in the Belle Vue Zoo Manchester (England). Recently restored, now sparkling with gold decoration, she is ready for more and FOR SALE.

Extract of details:
4 children can ride on the howdah. Wilhelmina is propelled by a J.A.P. 4 cycle petrol engine (shown below) with centrifugal clutch. She is steered by an adult walking along beside her. Her head nods as she moves. She is constructed of papier mache and canvas over tubular steel frame.

See full page article here.

**Stop Press** as at 29 Jan 2011, ebay has one for sale!  As Larry Gavette pointed out in the comment posted, this is Wilhelmina being sold again – see Wilhelmina above.

Ebay Item number: 280621953395


Sold for GBP 1,600.

The Orrows now own Wilhelmina and are lovingly restoring her.

**Update** Jan 2012 – During the restoration, Derek Tucker noticed that Wilhelmina, too, is the same construction as it his “Ellie” above. The manufacturing plate is missing, but the mounting holes line up.

NOTE: RH 2011 – My research suggests that the Macades elephants, who bought the Frank SMITH patent, all had the J.A.P. motors and were manufactured by both Frank STUART and Luneside Engineering. Macades may have made some themselves.

Is this the electric version built by Frank Stuart?

Update: No, it was converted from Petrol-fueled engine.