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Electro-Mechanical Folk Art

By Lawrence Harman, Albuquerque, NM

What does a retired bus mechanic with an artistic inclination do when retired? Well, if he is Lawrence Harman he may work on rebuilding railroad steam engines. Or he may repair a vintage firetruck, which is another story.



















Firetruck in the NM State Fair Parade 


But when he’s at home, he may work on smaller works of what he calls electro-mechanical folk art. Here is a tour of his home gallery.




































Self Test


“Self Test” was among the first. Here’s Lawrence’s account.


At the time, I was regularly cruising metal recycling or scrap yards sometimes looking for something specific for my mechanical creations -- an electric car, skid steer, tow boats – and sometimes looking for anything that was interesting. One of the things I bought was probably from Sandia Labs, a calibration and operating paneling for an industrial process, on a pull-out tray with all kinds of tubing and gauges and valves. All kinds of cool stuff. 

Playing around with a bunch of old gauges, thinking I could use them for diagnostic purposes on other machinery I worked on, it turned out most of them had an operating range way outside of the things I’d be working on, for example, millivolts or micro volts rather than volts. 

I decided to do something with the gauges and designed a “self test.” A small battery in the back connects the switch in front to one of the gauges. The “subject” takes the wires, one in each hand, flips the switch on the front panel, and finds the gauge that’s working. The wires don’t actually go anywhere.  The gauge does move, but it has nothing to do with you.  An important life lesson. 

I built a nice frame for it, ready for someone’s collection.





















Busy Work I - Front

This was an effort to use up some of the stuff I’d collected. I always bought more than I needed for a specific project. If I needed one switch, I’d get two or three. All Electronics, a surplus store in Oxnard, CA, was my go-to store for switches, wires, and relays at scrap prices. I decided to put some of the spare parts up on a board - simple busy work. 

The panel indicator lights are normally used to tell you that there’s a problem or that something is on. Each light is turned on by a switch, which then operates a relay, which operates something else. The fan, upper left, is the cooling fan for a desktop computer. It’s programmed to say “Hello, Otto,” to our son.  

That’s it. Flip the switch, turn the light on. This does take a lot of “spaghetti wiring” along the back with no attempt at organization.





















Busy Work I - Back


Component parts include two strips of panel lights along the blue and orange tapes; relays of various types (“ice cube,” automotive, and open relays); switches; a cell phone vibrator motor; a battery holder; a voltmeter; and a cooling fan for a large desktop computer. V is an old Delco-Remy relay, which was a division of General Motors (Code # 781). This came from a forklift I was repairing for the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad that operates along the NM-CO border.. 





Busy Work II


Busy Work II is a more sophisticated version of Busy Work I. I spent a long time putting a super finish on the mounting board that I’d used for a display of a model airplane, showing how servomotors operated the ailerons, and elevators, and rudder. This board had 10-12 coats of glossy black paint, with wet sanding in between, to get a glossy finish. 

I had all these motors I bought from All Electronics, but they weren’t that useful. Fortunately, they also weren’t that expensive. So I decided to use a half-dozen motors, mounting them along the top of the board with switches and fuses along the bottom. The idea was to track the flow of current from the busbar (heavy copper wire at the very bottom) to the load motors, or in other words, from the bottom to the top. For example, in general switch 1 operates relay 1 which operates motor 1. Relay 7 is operated by switch 7 and turns on all the motors. Another goal was to artistically organize the wiring on the front of the piece rather than the “spaghetti” on the back of Busy Work I.

The 12-volt busbar is a common power supply that goes through the fuses to the switches to the indicator lights to the relays, then to the motors. There are a variety of voltages for the motors: 3v, 6v, 12v, and 24v. The relays allow me to operate different motors at different voltages using a common 12v power supply.. Each voltage has its own terminal block (busbar). Four batteries on the back power the different voltages. A large toggle switch at the right-hand end of the switch panel turns everything on or off. 

Motors 1 and 2 have fake propellers that spin when the motor is turned on. Motor 3 spins component 4 through a system of belts and pulleys. Component 4 is an electromagnetic clutch. When you flip switch 4, the clutch is engaged and the screw on top turns. The whole belt and pulley system came from a printer I found in a metal recycling yard. Motor 5 is a tiny 6v motor, and Motor 6 is a 3v motor.


The purpose of the relay string on the right was to send the current from the bottom through 15 relays to the top, acquiring enough resistance so you can see that the top light comes on slightly later than the bottom one. All my relays use a cylindrical coil of wire that acts as a magnet to carry the current.

A cooling fan for a big desktop computer displays the internal temperature of the erstwhile computer and now the ambient room temperature. I used the programming function to also display various messages, including “Hello, Wendy,” “Earth to W4,” and the time delay in the relay string. All these messages are to my wife, who sits through my technical explanations until she’s glassy-eyed and tells me when I have reached the limit of TMI.  She also displays my artworks in the living room rather than consigning them to my workshop. Maybe that’s why we’ve been married for 38 years. No, I’m sure.  Watch a demonstration of Busy Work II: https://youtube/Vhl2XDNr2CA

Self Test-Lawrence.jpg
Busy Work1-Lawrence.jpg
Busy Work1-back.jpg
Busy Work 2-Lawrence.jpg
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