The Solar Do-Nothing Machine Posted August 9, 2020 by Ross Atwood

In 1957, designers Charles and Ray Eames created one of the first usages of solar electricity. They called the device, The Solar Do-Nothing Machine.

In 1957, the Aluminum Company of America invited Charles and Ray to participate in an advertising initiative called the Forecast Program. The Forecast Program invited designers across the country to submit aluminum prototypes highlighting the strengths of the material.

By programs end, over 20 Designers across the country contributed prototypes to demonstrate the advantage of aluminum. Among those designers were Alexander Girard, who developed aluminum shelving, and Isamu Noguchi, who used aluminum to design a Prismatic Table.

The Eames Office, famous for its furniture, was specifically tasked with creating an aluminum toy. In the true Eames fashion of “Toys are never as innocent as they appear,” they set forth to investigate the use of solar energy in combination with the lightweight, reflective properties of aluminum.

In Charles and Ray’s first attempt, they used an aluminum parabolic reflector to boil water, making steam, which ran an engine that moved the various parts of a toy. Shortly after that, an engineer introduced Charles and Ray to photovoltaic cells made by the International Rectifier Corporation.

After months of experimenting, the office created what they called the Solar Do-Nothing Machine. But this do-nothing machine did something.

The contraption converted sunlight into electrical energy to run ten motion displays.

A polished aluminum reflector screen reflected sunlight onto two panels of twelve cells, converting the light to electrical energy. Wires conducted the energy to six small one and a half volt motors, placed on (you guessed it) aluminum pedestals, driving a series of pulleys and belts, causing the mounted shapes to revolve.

In the 1990s, Charles and Ray’s grandson, Eames Demetrios, discovered unedited footage of the machine. He cut it together and created the video below.