The Duchamp Machine
“Dad, would you make me one of these?”
So queried my accomplished daughter, Meg (artist, painter, and educator), on a visit several years ago to her home and studio in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood.
What she had in mind was Marcel Duchamp’s famous Bicycle Wheel. The original—lost when he moved to New York in 1915—was subsequently recreated and is on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art  [1a].
“Sure,” I said. And so, in the ensuing months, I started thinking it over. I pictured Duchamp in his Paris studio rising from his chair or stepping over to his wheel from time to time to give it a spin, only to suffer its gradual coast to a stop after a few moments. What fun was that? It seemed that what really should happen is that it rotate continuously on its own.
But wait… if the wheel is to rotate continuously on its horizontal axis why not on its steering axis as well? Beaucoup plus intéressant, non? Thus, the die was cast and my path became clear.
While mulling over the difficulties of building such a confection I made for Meg a different bicycle wheel-related gadget. Duchamp played with plumbing via his controversial Fountain  of 1917. He called these sculptural creations his Readymades.
At my local landfill I found an abandoned bicycle and a friend produced a kitchen stool from hers. Now I had two of the crucial elements. The third requirement was a suitable source of motion. As luck would have it my workshop crate of old electric motors yielded up a small one of 60rpm output.
I can no longer reconstruct the sequence of steps that led to the final design. It was a mix of trial and error, false starts, scrapping and redoing, changes of mind, and above all—serendipity. Without my son’s drill press it would have been impossible and throughout a blistering August it confined me to the blessed coolth of my basement workshop.
A continuous cord around the bicycle wheel leads off to a smaller wheel—tangent at ninety degrees—with a six-tooth, one-inch pitch pinion at its lower extremity. The pinion engages the inside of a one-inch pitch crown gear composed of finishing nails set upright in the top of the stool and is the driving force of the rotation of the vertical axis. The cord then rounds the small driving sheave on the motor shaft and thence, passing a tension idler, returns to the bicycle wheel. I solved the problem of the continuous twisting of the electric power cord by constructing a rather clunky, but happily invisible, commutator arrangement under the stool top.
The pinion is the inspiration of Arthur Ganson whose fanciful machines depend on gears made of bent wire. There is a comprehensive exhibit of his work at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, MA. He sells a DVD of his creations and, at the end, shows how to make a wire-bending jig to produce working gears out of clothes hanger wire .
Notwithstanding his fame for the Nude Descending a Staircase there are other fanciful elements in the sum of Duchamp’s creativity. He is known for a painting in yellow of a Chocolate Grinder  in which the active elements are rendered in white thread applied with a needle to the original canvas.
Between 1915 and 1923 Duchamp created his Large Glass . Among its elements are a re-rendering of the chocolate grinder and the appearance of his “Scissors” above on the grinder’s vertical axis. Thus I had the idea of incorporating these two additional elements in my kinetic design. The grinding cones are of stiff paper around which is wound white sewing thread as in Duchamp’s original painting. The scissors are supported on chopsticks.
Cut into pieces, a print of the Nude Descending is affixed in spiral array to the spokes of the wheel. Thus, metaphorically at least, she descends as the wheel turns.
The Machine resides at my daughter’s in Brooklyn where she awakens it occasionally to keep it limber and to bask in its soothing ambiance.
Kinetic bicycle wheel videos:
Video-Detail view: The wheel, chocolate grinder, and scissors in motion.
Video– Overall view: The wheel and stool.
Wire bending jig (6-tooth, 1″ pitch)
Hommage á Duchamp, Tinguely, et Ganson:
The wheel rotates continuously about its hub while the fork rotates about the bicycle steering axis, driven by the six-toothed pinion engaging the internal gear (finishing nails) on the stool top. Two commutator (slip) rings under the stool top provide the required 110volt power to a 60rpm synchronous motor- thus the wheel can be started in either direction.
The Chocolate Grinder harks from Duchamp’s painting of the same name and both it and the Scissors are elements in The Large Glass.
The Chocolate Grinder drums are “driven” by the rotation of the pinion sheave- its axial “cap” in counter rotation- and the Scissors are activated by a small crank on the motor shaft.
As the wheel turns the fractured Nude endlessly “Descends” her Staircase.
 What my daughter asked for:
[1a] The original work had a straight fork (impossible for riding) like those used in repair shops for re-spoking wheels.
 Duchamp and plumbing:
 Chocolate grinder:
 The Large Glass:
 Making wire gears:
Machine designed and built by W.C. Atkinson (2005)
Work owned by Margaret K. Atkinson, painter, Brooklyn, NY
Stool and base courtesy Cohasset, MA landfill
Fork and wheel courtesy Weston, MA landfill
Pinion design concept courtesy A. Ganson