George Rhoads, Designer of Fantastical ‘Ball Machines,’ Dies at 95
George Rhoads, a quirky artist who created elaborate sculptures in which spheres made seemingly random journeys along labyrinthine paths, triggering the ringing of bells, the ringing of chimes and the vibrating tones of xylophone keys, died on July 9 in Loudun, western France. He was 95.
His grandson, Chip Chapin, said he died in the house of his caretaker Laura Dupuis.
The colorful “audiokinetic ball machines” by Mr. Rhoads, reminiscent of how clocks and roller coasters work, consisted of funny rails and devices such as loops and spiral ramps and were usually two to three meters high. Dozens of the machines have been installed in children’s hospitals, shopping malls, science museums, and airports, and elsewhere in a dozen countries, but mostly in the United States and Japan.
“Every path the ball takes is a different drama, as I call it, because the events take place in a certain order, analogous to the drama,” he said in a 2014 interview with Creative Machines, which makes ball machines based and inspired his designs. “The ball is getting into some trouble. It does a couple of things. Maybe there is a conflict. You hit or walk whatever it is and then there is some kind of dramatic conclusion. “
One of his most-watched machines, the 42nd Street Ballroom, was installed in the lobby of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan in 1983 and stayed there. 2.50 meters high and 2.50 meters wide, the sculpture shows how its plates turn, fold their levers and roll their 24 billiard balls down ramps. As is typical of his machines, numerous balls move independently of one another, allow themselves to be guided by gravity and, when they have reached the bottom, are brought back up by a motorized hoist.
Mr. Rhoads was a painter all his adult life but knew little about electronics and was not an engineer, despite taking engineering courses at the University of Wisconsin during his military service.
He built the ball machines in his own metal workshop until he partnered with Bob McGuire, an artistic welder.
“George had a technical mind,” said Mr. McGuire. “With each new piece we tried to develop something different, maybe a new device or a modification of something we had done before. And George would receive them. “
He added, “George said, ‘I want this to happen in this machine,’ and we said, ‘Make us a model,’ and he cooked something out of welded wire or wood or cardboard and he said, ‘That’s the concept. ‘“
The final work was built by a team that included engineers at Mr. McGuire’s Rock Stream Studios in Ithaca, NY, based on Mr. Rhoads’ designs.
In total, they created 300 ball machines, some modest tapestries, some large and some colossal, with amusing names like “Bippity Boppity Balls” (at Boston Children’s Hospital); “Archimedean Excogitation” (Museum of Science, also in Boston); “Gizmonasium (Philadelphia Children’s Hospital); “Exercise in Fugality” (Logan Airport); and “Loopy Links” (on board the cruise ship Adventure of the Seas). Chockablock Clock (the Strawberry Square retail complex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) rises 46 feet.
Based on Balls was installed in 1998 in Phoenix outside Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Field), home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Its features include a ball that bounces down xylophone steps and plays the first seven notes of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and another ball that rides a track and makes the crowd do “The Wave,” and then zooms into a snake’s mouth.
Mr. Rhoads believed that the charm of his creations was their openness – as if everyone were wearing a magnifying glass and examining the inside of a Waltham pocket watch from the 1900s.
“Machines are interesting to everyone, but people don’t usually understand them because, like a gasoline engine, the fun is in the cylinder,” he said. “That’s why I limited myself to mechanisms that you can quickly see and understand.
George Pitney Rhoads was born on January 27, 1926 in Evanston, Illinois. His father Paul was a doctor and his mother Hester (Chapin) Rhoads was a housewife. George began drawing as a young boy, taking apart clocks and then building one himself. Inspired by a visit to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, he built a miniature ferris wheel.
Mr. Rhoads graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in 1946. He also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and at L’Academie de La Grande Chaumière in Paris. Before he started developing the ball machines, Mr. Rhoads painted in a variety of styles including trompe-l’oeil, surrealism, expressionism, and landscapes. He also worked in origami.
In order to earn a living, he held various jobs, including as a medical illustrator. He designed toys and sold at least one game idea to Milton Bradley.
“He always worked, but he struggled and got help from his father,” who at one point arranged an exhibition of his paintings that provided enough income to live in Mexico for two years, his son Paul said in a telephone interview. “Most of the time they bought his father’s patients.”
In the late 1950s in New York City, Mr. Rhoads began working with Dutch artist Hans Van de Bovenkamp on the design of kinetic fountains that recycled water through gravity-based systems – a connection to the ball machines he himself built in 1965.
An appearance on David Frost’s television show in 1972 earned him contracts for ball machines. One patron, David Bermant, a mall developer, acquired more than a dozen. And Mr. Rhoads officially began his partnership with Mr. McGuire in 1985.
Their collaboration lasted until 2007, when Mr. McGuire sold his business to Creative Machines, who worked closely with Mr. Rhoads for the next five or six years until he trusted the company enough to hand over more design work, said Joe O’Connell , President of Creative.
Mr. O’Connell said on the phone that Mr. Rhoads viewed his sculptures as machines that people could love, as opposed to factories.
“He said they are self-contained machines that don’t pollute the environment – beautiful machines that make up for what we’ve done to our country,” he said.
In addition to his grandson and son, Mr Rhoads leaves behind his daughter Daisy Emma Rhoads and sisters Emily Rhoads Johnson and Paula Menary. He was married five times and divorced four times. His third wife, Shirley Gabis, is the mother of his children; his fifth wife, Marcelle Toor, died in 2009.
Mr Rhoads acknowledged that his machines were in part inspired by Alexander Calder’s abstract constructions, Jean Tinguely’s kinetic self-destructive sculptures, and Rube Goldberg’s cartoons of nested gadgets.
“But you can’t really do things that Goldberg drew,” Rhoads told Times Magazine. “That’s a huge limitation.”