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Tech Life

What Happens When 116 Makers Reimagine the Clock?

A contest from Autodesk Instructables resulted in an impressive collection of alternative time displays.
Sep 24th, 2023 6:00am by
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As 2023 began, the Autodesk Instructables makers site launched a clock-building contest. Users would create and share instructions for an innovative clock, to be judged based on creativity, ingenuity, and execution (as well as the clarity and quality of presentation). The contest ultimately attracted 116 entries, with all the imaginative entries displayed online.

It was a fun exercise in the maker spirit, showing what happens when tech enthusiasts and home-brewing hobbyists try to reimagine something in a whole new way, to dream a new dream, and then take it as far as their imagination will go.

The end result was a wild parade of creativity — all happening at that invisible corner where technology and imagination meet.

‘You Rang?’

For example, UK-based “scottydog58” had already spent years working on a replica of the Addams Family mansion that could double as a kind of cuckoo clock. When it’s time to strike the hour, miniature cutouts of Gomez and Morticia Addams slide along a track to the front of the clock’s face. And then windows open to reveal the entire creepy Addams clan — Lurch the butler down in the foyer, Grandmama up in the belfry, crazy Uncle Fester (with a light bulb in his mouth), and even the two children playing a ghoulish game — Pugsley hanging Wednesday.

“Green LEDs are wired into the circuit to illuminate the characters from above,” explain its how-to-build guide on Instructables. Somewhere inside there’s an Arduino Mega 2560 handling all the window-opening and character-animating. (The instructions explain that “Tinkercad allowed me to design the initial circuit layouts and the program code that would be needed to run the clock.”) Two additional “stepper” motors slide Gomez and Morticia into place. And the house itself was built with laser-cut (birch) plywood and medium-density fiberboard.

Off the Wall Clocks

The coding blog I-Programmer quipped that the wacky projects were “off-the-wall clocks.” Earlier this year they’d argued that in 2023 it’s much easier to experiment with your own homegrown timepieces thanks to widespread availability of both low-cost displays and single-board computers. “And the fun is inventing a new way to show the time.” Soon the imaginative entries were coming in from all over the world.

Colombia-based Lina Maria actually crocheted an entire clock face. Bangladesh-based “taifur” built a wristwatch that displays the time in binary numbers.

There were two different gorgeous minimalist clock built mostly of wood. One entrant even provided time of day with an animated Rubik’s cube.

But one of the most unusual entries was the Periodic Table clock. As the day rolls along, its display continually lights up three elements on a periodic table, providing the hours, minutes, and seconds through the atomic numbers of those elements (in the upper left of each element’s square in the table). As the seconds change, the red-highlighted “seconds” square cycles gracefully through the first 60 elements of the table. “If you are familiar with the periodic table or the atomic numbers of the elements, you can tell the time from far away just by seeing the elements!” says the clock’s creator in a how-to-build-it guide on Instructables.

It was the brainchild of Estonia-based interaction designer Görkem Bozkurt (who had a local advertising agency print a precisely-sized periodic table onto plexiglass, ready to be lit up). But the instructions add that the same table could just as easily have been printed on transparent sticker paper, and then attached to the plexiglass by hand.

“The construction is fairly straightforward as long as you have a 3D printer to create the case,” noted I-Programmer. (Numerous Arduino’s now support its real-time clock libraries, which can be connected to the clock’s programmable strip of LED lights — though there is some soldering involved.) And the comments on Bozkurt’s page at Instructables show at least one person who’s already used the page to build their own Periodic Table clock.

But it’s not Bozkurt’s only clock. There’s also a 3D printed “rolling ball clock,” indicating time with the position of steel marbles. The bottom tray of marbles indicates hours, with the one above it counting up minutes (in multiples of five) — with the highest tray counting the remaining minutes. (After 12:59, all the marbles roll to the bottom except the single marble representing 1:00.)

And in 2021 Bozkurt even built an Arduino-powered astronomical clock that displays the phases of the moon.

Nixie Tubes vs. The Matrix

The contest seemed to inspire tributes to technology — both old and new. Dallas-based “Sawdust Willy” built a cuckoo clock from scratch, while Washington state’s Matt Wach delivered the time at a bottom of a rectangle of “falling particles” reminiscent of The Matrix.

And a UK-based maker with the nickname “4dcircuitry” actually built a simulation of a “cold cathode display” — also known as a Nixie tube — by soldering tiny LEDs onto brass wires shaped like numbers. (“This was a lot of work,” they explain in a video about the project…)

Their video contains some classic self-deprecating maker humor. “With all that out of the way, I had to make it function like a clock with some fancy code,” they explain at one point. “So I did what all coders do. I went online and copied the code from a stranger on the internet. I then made a few changes so that I can claim it as mine.” There’s no neon or argon involved — just glass tubes surrounding the numbers — but the effort was enough to win the contest’s grand prize. (Which was a $500 Amazon gift card.)

26 prizes were handed out in total — including 15 “runner-up” winners who received a $50 gift card. But it’s just another typical day in the life of Instructables. Since the site launched in 2005, “We’ve run over 1,000 contests,” according to their official tally, “with more than 19,000 winners to date.”

And judging by the clock-building contest, there are lots and lots of makers who have ended up having a lot of fun.


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