Workshop 6: Motors, solenoids and other actuators

Week 6’s workshop introduces a number of common actuators used in circuits, with a focus on motors and solenoids. Actuators are important parts of any circuits if we were to make things move. You will be spending some time exploring the mechanisms of DC motors, server motors, and solenoids – and how they can be controlled in electronic circuits, and their possible use in media artworks. This workshop will also continue with Arduino sketches and exercises.


  • Research essay due in week 6.
  • Read Chapter 6 of Making Things Move by Dustyn Roberts. (This book is at the UOW library.)
  • Document all experiments using photographs/ videos and texts on you process blog/ online journal.
  • Research The Way Things Go and other similar “Rube-Goldberg Machine” or chain reaction works using objects and mechanisms.
  • Begin research on assessments 2 & 3 (project brief presented in lecture 6, to be followed with further exploration in lecture 8).

Research Analysis:

The following are 4 works that use some form of movement actuators in some way. Explore each work and answer the following questions:

  • What actuators are used to produce movement?
  • What kind of movement is produced? Describe the movement.
  • What difference does it make for the movement to be generated mechanically rather than moved by a human hand (or other agencies?
  • Does the motorised movement add to other senses/ sensations to the work (e.g. sound, tactility)? If so, what type of sensations or feelings?
  • What role(s) does the movement play in the work? Imagine if the work is still, what would be different about how you may experience the work?

1. Ingrid Bachmann’s Symphony of 54 shoes

2. Zimoun’s 318 prepared dc-motors, cork balls, cardboard boxes 100x100x100cm

3. Horio Kanta’s Particle

4. Terrance Bao’s Panic Mirror


Exercise 1: Making a motor

Follow the instructions in Chapter 6 of  Making Things Move by Dustyn Roberts (download here) and make a simple motor using a copper coil, paper clips, an eraser, magnets, crocodile clips, and power source.

A motor is the most basic unit that demonstrates the electromagnetic force at work. Unlike a permanent magnet, an electro magnets can be controlled via its electricity supply, so can be switched on and off. When electricity is supplied to the metal coil of your set up, a magnetic field is generated and when this opposes the permanent magnet below, the coil should start to spin (it may need a little nudge).

Those of you who saw my work in Spinning World at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences would have seen electromagnets at work in the “After Japanese Kimono in green silk figured, gold embroidery, small birds in silver coloured silk” or the Flapping Birds piece. Metal coils act as electromagnets that have been supplied electricity (intermittently) through the micro-controller.


Exercise 2: Using a motor

Collect an Arduino, a servo motor, hook-up wires, and a power source, put the following circuit together:


Change the codes see whether you can change the angle of the sweep, and the increments of the movement.

In the following example for a work I made for a series titled Some Useful Values, where I used servo motor to turn a prism to approximate Isaac Newton’s experiment to split white light.

Once you have success with the Sweep sketch, add a potentiometer and try:

Can you find other examples of artworks that use servo motors? Jolt down any ideas or make sketches of any ideas you may have for the use of servo motors.


Solenoids are also electromagnetic devices. When supplied with electricity, the coil generates a magnetic field that retracts the central shaft; when the electricity supply is cut off, there is no magnetic field and the central shaft springs back into its original position.

Below is another example from my work series Some Useful Values. In this box, I used a solenoid to rock the ‘Titanic’.

When hooked up with an Arduino, a solenoid generally a transistor to increase the amperage and a diode and/or a separate power source to prevent damaging electric current when the circuit switches off.

Following the instructions here to build a solenoid circuit.

Can you find other examples of artworks that use servo motors? Jolt down any ideas or make sketches of any ideas you may have for the use of this component.

Exercise 3: Arduino programming

Collect an Arduino and the necessary components, put the following circuits together:

For Loops Iteration

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