I asked Jean what I could do for
him. Jean explained that he wanted to make a machine that
destroyed itself and that he needed bicycle wheels. I
found a bicycle dealer in Berkeley Heights where I lived,
who happened to be cleaning out his basement. I loaded
as many wheels as I could into my car, which was a convertible,
and drove them to the museum. Jean had set up shop in
a Buckminster Fuller dome set in the garden. Jean was
as excited as a child when we carried the bicycle wheels
through the empty museum at night. He wanted more, he
said, so I took him to the Newark dumps. He found wheels
of all kinds, also parts of old appliances, tubs, and
other junk, which we hauled to the museum and threw over
the fence into the garden from 54th Street at night. We
were not allowed to work openly in the garden during museum
hours. So Jean was confined to the Bucky Fuller dome.
I enlisted the help of a colleague
at Bell Labs, Harold Hodges, along with the artist Robert
Breer, and we built a timer that could close eight electrical
circuits every three minutes or so during a 27 minute
period. Each circuit triggered an event or an action that
contributed to the destruction of the machine. In order
to make the main structure collapse, my colleague devised
an ingenious scheme of embedding a resistor in Wood's
metal. When the circuit closed the resistor would overheat
and melt the Woods metal, so that the supporting member
On March 17, the day of the destruction,
we were finally allowed to haul the various parts of the
machine from the Bucky Fuller dome out into the garden.
Needless to say it had been snowing all night.
The last few hours of the day were
frantic. Jean insisted that we shouldn't test anything.
Instead he kept adding new stuff to the machine. Not until
6 o'clock did I get a cable for the electricity. The event
was scheduled from 6:30 to 7:00. At 7:30, I asked Jean
"On va?" Jean answered, "On va." and I closed the switch.
The piano began playing. Jean had
reversed the belt for his big meta-matic painting machine
which was the centerpiece. The painting on the long roll
of paper was supposed to spill out over the audience.
I could very easily have reversed the belt, but he took
my arm away and said "Don't touch, Billy." He had decided
that whatever happened should happen. Some time later
the weather balloon was supposed to blow up and explode
but there was not enough gas in the gas tank we had bought,
so it ended up hanging limply. The piano on the right
side had a candle on the keyboard which in the third minute
was lighted by an overheating resistor. Three minutes
later a bucket of gasoline above the candle was tipped
over and the piano began to burn gloriously while it was
furiously playing away.
A small bassinet had been filled with
ammonia. When I closed the switch to start the machine,
Robert Breer's task was to pour titanium tetrachloride
into it. The combination of ammonia and titanium tetrachloride
produces, as you all know, white... in this case white
smoke, which poured out of the bassinet, until it finally
engulfed the specially invited, elegantly dressed audience.
It was all over in 27 minutes. The
audience applauded and descended on the wreckage for souvenirs.
Jean called the event "Homage to New York."