The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Lawrence Wahlstrom

Added to museum: 5/6/2013

Lawrence Wahlstrom with his "Do Nothing" machine in the 1950's from an unknown newspaper. Care of the machine was later taken on by Earl Wolf, who bought it at an auction. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

The “Do Nothing” Machine—it produces nothing except smiles.

Built by Lawrence Wahlsrom starting in about 1948

Purchased and preserved by Earl Wolf, and donated in his name by his family

A tongue-in-cheek look at a world growing ever more complicated

According to a newspaper article (paper unknown) from about the early 1960’s, the inventor of this engineering marvel was Lawrence Wahlstrom, a retired clock maker. He worked in the newspaper business and for the telephone company, while also acting as caretaker and landscape gardener for a Beverly Hills estate for 40 years. He always enjoyed tinkering with clocks and had attended a clock school to learn about their repair. Somewhere along the line he acquired a fascination for gears. After coming across a surplus WWII bomb sight containing a complicated cluster of gears, he got it working again. He also realized that people prefer to be entertained rather than educated, so he began adding more and more gears to his assembly over a 15-year period starting in about 1948. The first known publicity photo of it appeared in 1950.

Life magazine gave the machine and Mr. Wahlstrom a full page in the April 20, 1953 issue. (Click on either photo to view a larger image.)

A machine that kept growing in size and fame

Over the years, the number of gears continued to grow, reaching either 744 or 764 depending on which account you read. Like the motion of the machine, the actual figure is somewhat fluid. It attracted a lot of media attention over the years, appearing in magazine articles and on TV shows. It was seen on both the Art Linkletter show and the Bob Hope show. The family archives also contain a telegram arranging for Mr. Wahlstrom to appear on the Garry Moore show in November, 1954. Life Magazine gave it a full page in the April 20, 1953 issue, and Popular Mechanics gave it ½ page coverage in the February, 1954 issue. In February, 1955 it was also featured in Mechanix Illustrated magazine. There were also many other newspaper and magazine articles documenting its constant evolution.

      

Popular Mechanics cover and article from February, 1954 and the Mechanix Illustrated article from February 1955. (Click on any photo to view a larger image.)

One uncredited, tongue-in-cheek newspaper article noted the following:

This machine, which is undoubtedly the most complex assemblage of bi-cuspidary discs, was designed either by government engineers or a committee, which is why as you see it, it goes nowhere and does nothing. It was originally designed to be a striking mechanism for mantle clock, bu tit seems to have gotten carried away with delusions of grandeur.

The three electricaly powered motive forces are gravitationally free, non-syncronal, trapezoidal seclusion would and in the Delta configuration. This, of course, prevents total flocture in case of power failure during critical lunar phases. In the event this happens, the operator must search rapidly and diligently to find the cause of the escaping electrons so that there is no an excess of stray electrons massing in the immediate area, which would tend to create some inaudible sounds toward the lower brackets.

The spherical metal mass orbiting in the redundantly circular raceway is advanced rearward due to the three epicylic framatoidal cams, which are time in sequential order.

Due to the inherent possibility during startup of exceeding the  torsional modulus of elasticity, from the polar moment of inertian prior to final assembly, all shafts except those which were castellated, were frenelized in an uncontrolled hydrostatic atmosphere to the equivalent of maximum kilopaschals on the circumareolar scale. There are 764 gears of all types connected to each other either by tooth, lever, chain, shaft or otherwise, all going round and round for the sole purpose of viewing by people who have nothing else to do except watch I go round and round.

The Do Nothing machine ready for action. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Called by its inventor variously a “Flying Saucer Detector” or other nebulous and facetious descriptions, his goal was to add at least 50 gears each year to the constantly growing project. As noted in Popular Mechanics in 1954, “We all know someone who works harder doing nothing than most of us work doing something, but we can’t possibly know anything that works harder at nothing that a machine built by a California hobbyist. The machine has over 700 working parts that rotate, twist, oscillate and reciprocate—all for no purpose except movement.”

Life Magazine in 1953  headlined its article, “Machine-Age Revenge—Californian’s mechanical clown is built to accomplish nothing.” It went on to say:

The good earth and green thumb are tools enough for Lawrence Wahlstrom of Los Angeles who, in his calling of landscape gardener, is more immune than most to the tyranny of efficient machine—machines that clamor to write his letters, eliminate distances, grind out his product or wake him with music. But for Mr. Wahlstrom, immunity is not enough. When he gets home he slips into his workshop and takes the offensive, working earnestly with piles of nuts and gears. The resulting machine is his own personal triumph over efficiency. It has no name but 700 moving parts. It is cheap to manufacture, economical to operate and it runs smoothly without a hitch or backlash. More important, Mr. Wahlstrom has made sure this one device will never speed or complicate his comfortable way of life; a captive mass of cogs, it will start  and stop, but otherwise it accomplishes utterly nothing.

Earl and Patty Wolf is all set up to amaze people with the Do Nothing machine at a show in Congress, AZ in August 2006. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Earl Wolf gives the Do Nothing machine a second life

At some point after the Do Nothing machine came into the possession of the Antique Steam and Gas Museum in the Joe Martin Foundation’s home town of Vista, CA. It was put up for auction, where Mr. Wolf purchased it in about 2003, repaired it and for years took it to several shows a year for the public to enjoy. The following article by Mark Duncan was published in the Yavapai Yellow Sheet newspaper in Arizona Thursday, October 26th, 2006.

Prescott man’s machine does none of the work

Some folks spend their golden years doing nothing, but not Prescott’s Earl Wolf.

He’s got a machine for that.

Wolf, a retired plumbing contractor, is a collector of arcane machinery. He has a tiny steam engine, a hot air engine, a solar motor that spins like the dickens in the Arizona midday sun and a Dynavoice Piano Player (not a player piano) that sits on a keyboard and, driven by a vacuum cleaner motor, presses the keys on the commands of punched paper rolls.

But the jewel of his collection is without a doubt the 60-plus year old, one-of-a-kind, magnificent and wonderful Do Nothing Machine, which he picked up in an auction from the Antique Steam and Gas Engine Museum in Vista, Calif.

Built by clockmaker Lawrence Wahlstrom of los Angeles during a period of seven years in the mid-1940’s, the machine has three electric motors that spin it on its pedestal while driving chains, sprockets, steel bars, a tiny taillight and more than 700 gears in a flurry of activity that accomplishes absolutely nothing.

The machine, and Wahlstrom, had a flirtation with fame in the 1950’s, and Wolf has a scrapbook detailing more than 25 television appearances including gigs on the Garry Moore Show as well as spots with Bob Hope and Art Linkletter.

From time to time, Wahlstrom called the machine a Flying Saucer Detector, or a Smog Eradicator. Obviously, it did none of those things—it does nothing but entertain, the inventor was prone to admit.

These days, Wolf spends several weekends a year going to fairs and festivals, where he and his useless device invariably steal the show.

“It’s always the biggest hit at the show,” Wolf said. “People will look on it, they’ll stick their noses in there and study it, then walk away and then come back and study it some more.”

Truly, the softly whirring machine has a mesmerizing effect on an observer. Here’s a part of an oil pump from an old Volkswagen, and those little steel bars are from a World War II Norden bombsight. There are square gears, round gears, even an oblong gear, a floating gear and the crankshaft from a linotype machine, as well as a ball bearing that plies an aimless path along a tilting metal race near the top.

And it breaks down—a lot.

“The machine does nothing, but I have to work,” Wolf said. “I’ll show it for a day or for a weekend and then spend the next three or four days getting it running again.”

Despite having owned the machine for three years, Wolf is uncertain exactly how many gears it contains. The documentation lists 744 and 764, but Wolf is not about to try and count them.

“Oh, God no, you can’t count them,” he said.

It’s about all he can do to keep the machine well lubricated—he’s become an expert in the properties of various brands of silicone sprays—and fix it when some part or another stops working.

“You just track it down,” he said. “I’ve worked on it so much by now that when I see something not turning I pretty much know where to find the problem.”

Even though its heyday of television appearances is behind it, the machine still attracts admirers with a creative bent. At a show in south Dakota, Wolf said, a couple looked at the device for a half hour on Saturday, then came back the next day with a poem the man had written.

“He said he was up until three in the morning writing it,” Wolf said. It read, in part:

A magnificent kind of invention

A wonderful thing to behold

The most beautiful thing in the world

It’s a Do Nothing Machine I am told

What is the value of a Do Nothing machine? Wahlstrom buit it for about $25 dollars (Wolf recently replaced two sprockets for $33), and it last sold for several hundred dollars.

Wolf said he would certainly take $10,000 for it if anyone offered it, but no one has. So he has a plan. Knowing the machine needs to go to a good home, where a mechanically-inclined lover of synchronized intricacy would give it the care it deserves, he plans to donate it to a young frined—once his own gears start to wear out

Money isn’t really the object.

“The thing has already given me a million dollars worth of pleasure,” Wolf said.

So maybe it does do something after all.

Preserved for present and future engineers to enjoy

In its present state, after being demonstrated thousands of times over the past 60+ years both by Mr. Wahlstrom and then by its longtime caretaker Earl Wolf of Prescott, AZ, it is a little worn but still functional. A couple of the gear trains in the center of the mass have ceased to work consistently, but the overall impression is still one that inspires both awe and a smile when seen in action. The famous “Do-Nothing” machine is now on permanent display in the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum in Carlsbad, CA, courtesy of the family of Earl Wolf. It will be maintained and operated in its present condition, exactly as Mr. Wahlstrom and Mr. Wolf ran it, and the museum shop machinists will keep it running for visitors to enjoy.

Summing up its function and purpose is the aforementioned poem written in honor of the machine and presented to Mr. Wolf.

The Do Nothing Machine

By Keith Christensen, Tabor, SD

It’s wonderful, stupendous, colossal

It wakes up all of my loves

The most wonderful gadget ever

Now what would you say that it does?

It has big gears and small gears and levers

It has a governor too

This machine is downright exciting

I wonder what all it can do?

There’re seven hundred gears to amaze you

There’s even a flashing red light

Things go this way and that way and new ways

It’s just a most wonderful sight.

A magnificent kind of invention

A wonderful thing to behold

The most beautiful thing in the world

It’s a do nothing machine I am told.

 

Our thanks to Dianna Moinet, Mr. & Mrs. Lee Stanek and the family of Earl Wolf for the donation and to Leo and Lisa Zugner at the Antique Steam and Gas Museum for restoring it and delivering it to the museum.

Video of the machine in action

A Youtube Video Link can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9x0HECkbKbk

To see a very old movie clip from when the machine was new and shiny CLICK HERE.

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Photos of the Do Nothing Machine

Images (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Description

   A special transportation crate and display base was built by Earl Wolf for the Do Nothing machine to protect it on the way to shows. It also serves as a base to display the machine and a billboard to post photos, articles and information about the machine for curious onlookers.

Three different views of the machine show it upon its arrival at the Craftsmanship Museum. Some work will need to be done to clean up the electrical connections and restore some of the geartrains to running condition. The flyball regulator that appears at the top of the machine in several old photos is no longer there, but the machine is virtually intact, functional and attracts the same amused amazement it did when Lawrence Wahlstrom first ran it over 60 years ago.

Mr. Wahlstrom was paid to take his machine to expositions and shows where it was often the most popular exhibit.

This close-up shows some of the many kinds of gears and movements incorporated into the structure year after year by Lawrence Wahlstrom. Keeping it all running after Mr. Wahlstrom passed away was the job taken on by Earl Wolf, who purchased, fixed and displayed the machine starting in about 2003. It was a favorite site at fairs, engineering gatherings, shows and club meetings for many years hosted by Mr. Wolf, who never tired of keeping the story alive.
Earl Wolf (far left in first photo) was always able to draw a crowd at shows when the Do Nothing machine was running.
Earl doing a demo at a show in Congress, AZ.

 

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