The Eames Solar Toy Posted June 3, 2015 by Daniel Ostroff

It was characteristic of the Eameses to focus on others. In describing the boundaries within which they could work with “conviction and enthusiasm,” they included “the concerns of society as a whole.”

An Eames Anthology (Yale University Press) features many previously unpublished texts, including ones relating to the moral aspect of their work process.

In a personal letter to Ian McCallum of Architectural Review, Charles explains that at first they declined to participate in an Alcoa marketing initiative, for which various designers were invited to make new products from aluminum. The Eameses accepted the commission only after they came up with an approach that they felt had social value.

They produced a kinetic aluminum toy powered by solar cells. This not only met their client’s brief, but also provided a delightful public demonstration of the virtues of a sustainable, renewable source of energy: the sun.

Alcoa promoted the aluminum product in many national magazines with this full page advertisement.

Eames Solar Toy

Here is an excerpt from Charles’s letter:

We at first declined to be involved in a promotional project for ALCOA on the grounds that we have too many real projects neglected and unfinished. Then it occurred to us that there are some things worth promoting, and the conservation of natural resources looked like a likely one. A demonstration of solar energy as a practical source of power appeared to be a not uninteresting way of promoting resource conservation [emphasis added].

At this point in the development of solar energy converting techniques, it seemed that the best brand of attention could be called by doing an elaborate and delightful NOTHING, rather than a (bound to be meager and apt to be boring) SOMETHING.

So it became a do-nothing machine. First we tried a number of methods of conversion. Steam was attractive because it added to the general do-nothing confusion—however, the transfer to mechanical energy was very inefficient. We tried flash boilers, turbines, and air motors—spectacular in themselves, but low work producers.

The fast growing efficiency of the silicon cells became the determining factor. In one year, the energy produced per dollar cost of silicon cells increased over one hundred times.

At the beginning of the letter, Charles noted that the solar toy was invented in January 1957 and completed in January 1958. It is thus all the more remarkable that they were applying solar cell technology, which is now much more widely used.

With this project, as in much of their work, Charles and Ray showed that designers can and should address society’s true needs. Read more about the Eames solar toy and all of their works, in An Eames Anthology.

You can watch a video of the Eames Solar Do-Nothing Machine in action: