The Eames Solar Do-Nothing Machine - The Remaking Of

The Eames's Solar Do-Nothing Toy on the cover of Radio & TV News, Dec. 1958

I'm fallen in love all over again with the Solar Toy Ray and Charles Eames created around 1956-7 for Alcoa.

Writing about it in 1958, Charles Eames also called it the "Do Nothing Machine." As Steve Roden discussed a couple of years ago, Eames's view of the functionless machine/toy was rather Zen: "It is not supposed to do. It is supposed to be. Its whole function is in its being." Or, I would add, rather sculptural.

The Solar Toy was never meant for production, just promotion. As far as I know, a single unit was commissioned by Alcoa's Oscar Shefler for the innovative-sounding "Forecast Collection."

I've been stewing on it for more than three years now, and I think I must track down what happened to it, and what archives and records remain of its creation. And then I must either find it and exhibit it, or remake it and exhibit it. But either way, it should really be seen today.

Beyond the Toy's sheer, self-evident beauty, it could shine a light, so to speak on some of the intellectual, cultural, technological, and environmental complexities of the intervening 50 years.

What has happened, how have we done since the archetypal prophet of American, can-do, corporate modernity dazzled us with his shiny, functionless object powered by the limitless energy of the sun?

Or as the article in Radio & TV News puts it in their cover story, "Will our future electricity all come from the sun?"

Intrigued by the possibilities of a future where man would use an energy source 93-million miles distant, Eames fashioned a design so that people may "see a living demonstration of the fantastic potential of the work that solar energy can perform for mankind."
Fantastic! Let's see how that turned out.

Note to self, even though I now have the print version of the magazine in my hand:

Some of the Solar Toy tech specs mentioned in Radio & TV News, Dec. 1958:

Heart of the unit is a bank of silicon solar cells made by International Rectifier Corp. Mounted in a reflector unit, oriented toward the sun by a unique tracking device, the cells are practical photo-voltaic devices...

Cells used are of the "p-n" type. The junction is formed on the wafer surface that is exposed to illumination and is composed of "n"-type and "p"-type semiconductor materials.

The "p"-type and "n"-type silicon are separated by a microscopic barrier layer, in which a built-in, permanent electric field exists...

A group of solar cells, arranged in a series-parallel configuration designed to give optimum power transfer to the load, becomes a solar battery...

On Eames' Solar Toy, the converted energy drives a group of seven, German-made "Aristo" motors. The tiny 1 1/2- to 3-volt motors are each connected directly to a drive or crankshaft of the Toy.

One thing we know has improved in the last 50 years: we don't need to explain the basics of semiconductors like p-n type junctions anymore, because they're baked into everything in the world.

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: December 10, 2009.

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