A Personal Monopoly Case Study
Meet George Rhoads. An artist and creator from Illinois. The maker of 300 Ball Machines, enshrined in airports, malls, and museums all over the world. These spellbinding audiokinetic sculptures mesmerized a generation of kids. And I was one of them.
I spent afternoons transfixed by the Archimedean Excogitation exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science. You see a series of balls meander its way through an intricate orbit of loop-de-loops and xylophone chimes. These elaborate inventions varied in size, from tabletop props to towering spectacles.
Most of all, they were unique. Each machine had a different design.
Better yet, Rhoads gave his machines playful names.
As a child, Rhoads was fascinated by gadgets. He’d take apart clocks, and built one himself at 12. A year later, inspired by a trip to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, he built a miniature Ferris wheel.
His love for engineering extended into college, where he took math and physics classes at the University of Chicago. Though he eventually majored in art, Rhoads taught himself welding and metalworking — skills that would later come in handy.
Rails, coils, and pendulums; ferris wheels, loop-de-loops, and jiggling pin boards. Each machine was an engineering marvel, their inner workings open for the world to see. Rhoads says: “There’s no intervening technology. You confront it eye to eye, and everything is tangible and real.”
Though Rhoads liked gadgets, he was an artist at heart. After studying painting at the University of Chicago’s Art Institute, he found the work of Alexander Calder, who was by that time already a commercial success.
Calder was known for his grand abstract sculptures, such as the Eagle, Trois Disques, and La Grand Vitesse.
Most importantly, Calder was the pioneer of the Kinetic Art movement. His mobiles — dangling sculptures that moved by themselves — were found in museum galleries. They were made of everything — tin, wood, steel, and wire.
“Sometimes things moved around me and I enjoyed that. It was like having my own private sky.” - Calder
Rhoads took Calder’s idea of moving art and incorporated it into his own designs.
Besides Mobiles, Rhoads was also inspired by the flow of water. After university, Rhoads’ worked for a fountain sculptor named Hans Van de Bovenkamp. There he made the analogy between water and balls. Instead of recycling water in a fountain, he would recycle balls in a machine. In a gravity-based system, balls are the nearest thing you can get to independent animation, like in an animal or a person.
Take a look at his machines, and you’ll notice they’re filled with weird shapes: hexagons, tubes, spikes, and spirals.
Many of these unique 3D shapes can be traced back to his experience in Japanese origami. Rhoads invented a series of folds known as the Blintz Bird Base, now a standard technique. And he made the first elephant with four legs, two ears, two tusks, a trunk, and a tail—all from one piece of paper. The elephant was particularly far ahead of its time. By the early 1960s, Rhoads was considered a pioneer of American origami.
His animal-themed shapes found its way into his designs.
From there, George had other inspirations too — the comic drawings of Rube Goldberg and the twisting ride of a roller coaster. These formed the precursors to his Ball Machines.
By looking at all the parts of George Rhoads’ life, we can begin to form his Personal Monopoly.
A personal monopoly is a unique intersection of skills and interests. They are often unusual, complimentary, and rooted in experience.
Rhoads’ work fuses three elements: Kinetic Art, Origami, and Mechanical Engineering. These make up his personal monopoly.
Though Rhoads died in 2021, his work lives on through his Creative Machines foundation. His ball machines delighted millions of people, and will continue to do so for years to come.
“The piece itself has no useful purpose. It’s a machine that plays instead of works.” - Rhoads
Rhoads was a man who played at work. Maybe that’s why I love him so much.