MAKING ST THOMAS’S
box had a particularly slow birth. Within a few months of installing my
previous Guy’s hospital collecting box in 2003, I was approached by the
Friends of St Thomas’. I was busy at the time and said I would get some
designs to them in a few months. I mentioned this in is passing to Karen
Sarkissian, the director of art and heritage for both hospitals, and she
was horrified, and said it had to wait until she had sorted out the
politics - where it could be placed etc. A year went by. When the contract
finally arrived I had embarked on my Nesta fellowship, so it got delayed
by another year. I finally started work in October 2005. Four months
later, it was finished, but the National Health Service was in a funding
crisis. It finally got installed on June 21st 2006.
My initial idea
was to make another game using coins. I tried hospital cleaners sweeping
coins off a moving belt….but it didn’t quite work out. Then Karen
suggested trying something related to lifts as the box was going to be
placed by the hospital’s main lifts (the hospital is a tower block). At
Guy’s I’d had to wait for the lifts to get down to the basement to go
to the toilet and been entertained by people stabbing the lift call
buttons constantly and the gamble of guessing which of the eight lifts
would arrive first. So the basic idea of combining a fruit machine with a
bank of lifts came almost immediately – though puzzling out the details
One of the most
useful things about experience, having made things all my life, is the
sense of which decisions need to be made before starting construction, and
those that are best left until its half built. Although the drawing I did
before signing the contract looks fairly set, in my mind I still hadn’t
decided the mechanism, or quite how much like the fruit machine reels the
floor numbers should look. I also had little idea what style the figures
would be as my only experience of making figures this scale was the
collection box I’d made for the Pitt Rivers museum, 12 years ago, and
they were in the style of primitive carvings which wouldn’t really be
suitable. I was also straying into the relm of proper ‘automata’,
which I’d avoided in the past as it can so easily be twee.
I started by
fixing the scale for the figures. My first thought was for the lift cars
to move sideways together, so different scenes could be revealed behind
each door. This limited the size of the figures to 250mm and allowed only
5 scenes. Moving the lifts vertically seemed more like real lifts, and
allowed 9 scenes and 300mm tall figures. This immediately made my life
simpler, as I had been wondering about having the fruit machine mechanism
visible, above the lifts – but now the space was fully occupied.
up with thinking, I bought a large lump of Jelutong, the wood
traditionally used for engineering pattern making (for sand casts) because
of its straight grain and ease of carving. I drew the front view and the
side view of a matron and cut them out on my bandsaw. (After cutting the
first section, I stuck the bits back together with masking tape to provide
a flat surface to cut the second section).
I made matron in less
than a day, and she had a certain presence, so I felt I was off to a good
start. I then spent some time drawing people at the hospital. Everyone was
just walking past so I tried to memorise details and then draw them, or
just write down elements that caught my eye. The drawings were ghastly,
but they were full of useful ideas that could be distilled into the
various characters I carved. One thing I decided was important about my
matron was that she did not have obvious joints to break up the shapes of
her head or body. This meant, for instance, that her head could move from
side to side, but not up and down. Disjointed figures I realised was an
aspect of automata – and puppets - I definitely disliked.
The look of the
figures obviously depended on the lighting inside the lift cars, so I
built a model car to place my matron inside. I convinced myself it was
best to keep light off the back wall of the lift so she needed intense
side and top lighting, from compact fluorescent lamps. Positioning the
lamps, the door mechanism and the floor indicators together was a squash
so the model was useful.
The model also
got me thinking about how to make the lift surrounds. The style of the
matron figure I’d made gave me the idea that everything should be
simplified and stylised. This
idea, combined with enthusiasm for my latest favourite tool, my deluxe
Fronius tig welder, made me try fabricating the surround from stainless
steel plate, bent and welded together. Very satisfying.
With the model set,
Graham made the frame for the whole machine in a less than a week.
Deciding how to
do the floor indicators developed into another whole saga. I toyed with
the idea of programming my own scrolling LED display – I courted
companies that made real lift displays – but no product seemed quite
right. As I’d recently been playing with stepper motors for another job,
I eventually decided to have stepper motors powering disks with the floor
numbers round the circumference, backlit by LEDs. No option was easy and I
did spend several weeks getting my idea to work. What I liked about the
finished effect was that it didn’t look completely real, just some weird
approximation to reality. Of course the downside will be that stepper
motors, working all day, will never last as long as LEDs. I’m lucky I
only have to make one of anything – if I was making lots I would have
gone in a more conservative direction.
I also had to program
the lift indicators. I wanted to have some sort of pattern so people could
predict which lift would arrive if they had the patience. People who play
real fruit machines often search for patterns in the outcomes of the
When I sent Karen my
initial drawing, I’d thought that only the figures that appeared when
you’d won (when you’d guessed the right lift to arrive) would
move. But as I was drawing people in the hospital, I kept thinking
of them moving, and decided it would only take an extra week or two to
motorise them all. As they neared completion, I still wasn’t sure how to
finish them – matron was getting very dirty from my hands, dirty from
all the metalwork. I eventually felt I wanted a change from my previous
natural wood figures and painted matron with thin, pastel, acrylic paint.
Still not really sure, I painted all the others. I now like the effect –
more like cartoons, less like fine art.
Nearing completion, I
started fretting about the caterer. If you guess right, a nurse comes out
of the left lift to sooth you, and a cleaner comes out of the central lift
to clean you up. The caterer appears with food. The problem was he almost
immediately has to snatch the food away again so the lift doors can
When I finally
started trying the game out with everyone who happened to visit, the
caterer didn’t bother anyone but there were more serious problems. The
idea of the game didn’t seem quite intuitive enough – people often
started by pressing buttons at random, not even looking at the lift floor
indicators. They also didn’t really distinguish between losing and
winning. I changed the program so it made a satisfying winning noise and
improved the wording of the instructions but was still nervous. However,
it wasn’t all bad. After a few goes they got the hang of it and then
seemed really hooked. Several children played with it for over half an
hour. I found that if you played it constantly, it got in a sort of loop
so you could never see all nine scenes. So I spend two days reprogramming
it to get round this problem, but it made the program less logical and
harder to follow, so I now rather regret it.
Just when the
box was ready to be delivered, I was told the hospital trust needed to
‘sign off’ the project and that there would be a delay. Though no one
actually admitted it, I’m sure the delay was because the NHS was in a
funding crisis which was making headlines in the tabloid papers every day.
If something so elaborate and inessential as my box had appeared at that
moment it could easily have been attacked as both a shameful waste of cash
and as the NHS resorting to collecting pennies from patients. The money
for the box actually comes not from the NHS but from the hospitals’
charitable foundation, which has a brief to improve the hospital
environment, but there was the worry that the papers wouldn’t make the
distinction. Personally, I’m sure the box is worth every penny, making
people laugh improves the whole atmosphere of the waiting areas, and
provides some small thing that kids can look forward to when visiting, let
alone the cash it raises.
It was a sensible
decision to delay its delivery though frustrating for me at the time.
After a couple of months, thinking it might be a year or more before they
relented, I changed the graphics and put it in my arcade on Southwold
Pier. More humiliation as most people just ignored it – much more
fun to have an ‘instant weightloss’ or to ‘rentadog’ than to see
the workings of the NHS! I tweaked the program again, finding a way of
forcing people to wait until the floor indicators were static before
making their choice. A definite improvement but overall, still
It had only been on
the pier for about 6 weeks when the hospital finally accepted delivery.
Graham and I drove it to London on June 21st, midsummers day.
It was an awkward heavy lump to move. While loading it to move it to the
pier the ramp had collapsed and while taking it to London the straps broke
on the sharp edges of the hire van’s bars, sending the whole box
careering around. Miraculously it wasn’t harmed by either of these
incidents, but we arrived at the hospital completely exhausted. We
switched it on and could quickly see it was a lot more effective than it
had been in my arcade. There were no other more alluring machines to
distract them and people seemed to recognise all the characters.
My main reaction was
simply relief that I could finally move on to future projects without it
hanging over me. As I write, only a week after delivery, it’s still too
soon to have any objective view of how well it serves its function. I fear
that the game will never be as intuitive than the Guy’s nurse game but
I’m still quite proud of it. It is just as addictive once people have
got the idea and the lifts look a lot more decorative than the nurse!
Its not going well. Predictably there have been teething problems,
mostly caused by the warm dry atmosphere and my rash use of 10mm ply
instead of 12mm. The ply is warping and even the steel frame has moved a
lifts have been grinding against the frame as they move and one set of
doors has started intermittently missing its position sensors. This has
finally just caused a door drive belt to snap. At the moment I'm still
hopeful I'll be able to get everything adjusted for the climate and make
it more reliable.
than the technical problems though is that its still not engaging enough.
I changed the graphics a few months ago to liven it up, but that made
little difference. Children are drawn to it but not adults, even though
once a child tries it, the adults get involved too. I fear it maybe just
too complicated for its own good.
Its been moved to a new location. Its now further from the real hospital
lifts, in a main corridor. Lots of people walk past though not many stop
to use it. However, it is a better place. By the cafe, people were too
keen to get their food, here its more relaxed. People now quite often stop
to talk to me when I'm there and it now has quite a lot of fans. So it
feels like a happy ending.