Apple Engineer Creates Elaborate Drawing Machine, Using Legos

Inspired by the Martin Scorsese film Hugo, an obsessive Lego enthusiast built a programmable machine that writes messages and draws pictures. All you have to do is turn a crank.

The last time we spoke to Andrew Carol, he was telling us about the working replica of a 2,000-year-old Greek mechanical computer that he constructed out of Lego. He hasn’t spent the following few years sitting on his laurels. Quite the opposite: he’s designed and built ever more complex Lego contraptions, including a Babbage Difference Engine. His latest opus: a dizzyingly complicated Lego automaton that can write and draw at the turn of a crank. Check it out (although you might want to skip to the end after the first few seconds–the process is quite slow):


Andrew Carol, who works at Apple for his day job, says he got the idea for his latest creation after seeing Martin Scorsese’s Hugo–which features a mysterious automaton as well. “Walking out of the theater, my mind was spinning with ideas,” he tells Co.Design. He mocked up a prototype mechanism that used Lego chains to move a pen over paper in two dimensions. “It proved the idea was workable, but I did not finish it. It sat that way for well over a year,” he says. But in November of this year, Carol got the itch to finish his project. He spent “every weekend and the holiday week off” tinkering with his machine, and had it working by Thanksgiving.

I had to ask him–what is the point of constructing these elaborate machines, out of toys that were never designed to construct them, to accomplish simple tasks very, very slowly? “Part of the attraction is the puzzle solving aspect, but I would disagree that these are Rube Goldberg machines,” Carol says. “Rube Goldberg machines were intentionally designed to be overly complicated ways to solve simple problems. My machines are as simple as possible within the constraint of being purely mechanical and using Lego parts. In a certain sense, I’m trying to make machines as they might have rationally been approached in 1880 if Lego was more available than custom metal parts.”

Carol says his next project is a Lego machine that can play a perfect game of tic-tac-toe: “There are still many hurdles, but it seems plausible.” Given what Carol has accomplished already, I’d wager those hurdles won’t get in his way for long.

[Read more about the Lego automaton]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.