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Seniors build ancient device to teach kids

Leonardo da Vinci invention is the newest exhibit on display at ScienceWorks
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Raul Keple inspects a cam hammer machine that he and 17 others built based off of a 1497 design by Leonardo da Vinci at ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum in Ashland on Tuesday. Julia Moore / Daily TidingsJulia Moore
 Posted: 2:00 AM October 20, 2010

In a project that has put ScienceWorks on the path of adult learning, 26 senior citizens, using a 513-year-old blueprint from Leonardo da Vinci, have built a hand-cranked blacksmith's hammer that can be operated by the public as part of the museum's permanent display.

The machine, one of hundreds designed by the Renaissance genius, incorporated the first-ever cam — an eccentric wheel that, when hand cranked by the blacksmith's apprentice, forces a hammer higher and higher, then drops it with a bang on an anvil rather than the "blacksmith killing himself swinging a hammer," said Larry Kellogg, teacher of the class through OLLI or Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University.

Operating on small pilot grants from OLLI and the National Science Foundation, Kellogg became among the first wave of OLLI programs (there are 124 in the U.S.) to forge partnerships with nearby scientific organizations, with the goal of furthering education in later life.

Kellogg drafted plans for a small model and a larger working model, taller than a man, that would follow the vision of Leonardo, whose "cam hammers" exploded all over Europe, with many still in use today, he notes.

The project gave many OLLI participants renewed admiration for Leonardo.

"A lot of respect for him — that's what we got in a previous OLLI class that explored his many inventions and art," said Steve Kish, who worked on it.

"He built and sold them to blacksmith shops," said Ed Shelley, a retired teacher who led building of the main structural base. "The concept is simple, to us, but you think this was 500 years ago, when not many people would come up with machines like this."

The wooden machine will be on display with a mural painted by OLLI students and directed by Naomi Zapanta depicting the blacksmith at his labors before the invention of the first labor-saving device for a smithy.

"Leonardo created it to aid the blacksmith killing himself swinging a hammer," says Kellogg. "It went out to the world. He said you would try something and most of the time, it would fail and you do it till someone steals your idea, then you move onto something else," says Kellogg.

The class broke into four teams, one on the mural and three engaged in six weeks of procurement, fabrication and assembly, with many modifications to make it work with today's materials, such as plywood — and to be accessible for children to turn the crank at their shorter level.

All this was done by Leonardo without benefit of calculus, which would come along within a century from Newton — and OLLI students had to do a lot of the same trial-and-error as Leonardo to work out the dimensions and arc of the world's first cam.

OLLI students Tuesday had a final class at ScienceWorks, reviewed their experiments and breakthroughs and finally signed over proprietary rights to the museum, with pictures and wine — and Kellogg noting, "We may have given them an albatross. It will require its own space."

Not so, says ScienceWorks Executive Director Mark DiRienzo. "We're absolutely so excited they've created a hands-on exhibit in six weeks."

It's a noisy teaching device, with each click on the rachet — and the final hammer fall — registering vigorously throughout ScienceWorks, but, says Kellogg, students were told the museum likes exhibits that make a lasting impression.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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