Introduction: Automata

About: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a modern myth; a 200 year-old science-fiction story that explores themes of human creativity, societal responsibility and scientific ethics. Two centuries later, these themes c…

Another challenge from the Frankenstein200 Workshop!

In Mary Shelley’s original story, Victor Frankenstein was a science student with a secret project. He built a person out of dead body parts and brought it to life.

When his creature began to move, Victor became scared of it. He thought his creature looked like a monster, and he let it run away. Later, his creature kills a child. Victor feels guilty and ashamed, but he doesn’t tell anyone he created the “monster.”

Do you think Victor Frankenstein is responsible for his creature’s actions?

In this activity, you will make an automaton — a machine that seems to be alive!

Step 1: Collect These Materials

  1. A rigid container, like a yogurt carton or cardboard box
  2. 2 foam circles (about 2.5’ diameter)
  3. 2 skewers
  4. 2 small pieces of plastic straw
  5. A center hole punch
  6. Some tape or glue
  7. Additional materials to decorate your automaton

Step 2: Plan Your Creation

Plan your automaton. Look at this example automaton made by the Exploratorium. Notice how the foam circles work together to make the decoration on the top move? The foam circles are part of a cam system.

Check out these other great examples from the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio for some ideas about how to decorate your automaton.

What will you put on top of your automaton?

Can you make something that looks like it’s alive?

Step 3: Build the Top

To start building your cam system, make a center hole in the bottom of your rigid container, and insert a small piece of straw into the hole. Tape it into place. Thread a skewer through the straw, then push it through the middle of a foam circle. Adjust everything so the foam circle is inside the container, near the top.

Step 4: Make the Handle

To complete the cam system, make two holes in opposite sides of your container, lined up as carefully as you can, and perpendicular to the top piece. Insert a skewer through one of the holes, then push it through the center of the second foam circle, and out the hole in the other side of the container.

Adjust the foam circles so they are at right angles, with the flat surface of the top one resting on the edge of the bottom one.

Step 5: Customize and Experiment

Double a piece of tape over both ends of the side skewer. This will give you a handle on either side. Turn the handle! What happens to the top skewer? How could you change the motion?

Now decorate your automaton. You can put whatever you want on top. Turn the handle. Adjust your cam system, and experiment with your decorations until you can make it move the way you want.


Did you make a scribble bot? Then share it with us! We love seeing what people make. All the best ones will be featured in our Showcase.

And there's way more! Frankenstein200 puts you in the middle of the action in a story where Mary Shelley’s classic tale Frankenstein collides with modern science. Perform experiments, explore hidden areas of research, and assist a pair of young scientists as they unravel a mystery in a cutting-edge digital experience.