Tin Can/Lamp Steve H.

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Concept:  A Tin Can Lamp embodying three primary functions of “lamp-dom”, Light, Heat, and Illumination.  The light is an obvious by-product of the electrical excitation of the bulb filament.  Heat is a less recognized output of this process and indicative of the energy waste inherent in incandescent light bulbs (soon to be outlawed for this very reason).  This wasted energy typically evaporates unnoticed however the design of this lamp captures the energy as movement, the rising heat providing motive force via the fins cut into the top of the inner can.  This rotational movement in turn facilitates the third elemental function of Illumination via the message “Free Your Mind” animated through letters cut into the inner can and which are read through slots cut into the wall of the outer can.  The principal is borrowed from the Zoetrope, an early mechanical animation device that takes advantage of human persistence of vision to create the illusion of motion from a sequence of still images, and which was the precursor to the modern film projector.  By incorporating the Zoetrope I pay homage in two ways to my filmmaking career by referencing the film projection apparatus as well as my first film internship at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco.  As the first project created in pursuit of my MFA in Product Design which paves the way to a new future the piece symbolically extinguishes the lights on my former career in film as the message implores me to seek new challenges.

Structure:  The lamp includes a large tomato can acquired from the 7th Avenue pizza deli, a smaller tin which contained butter cookies, a scrap wood base, a porcelain flush mount bulb socket salvaged from the ceiling of my garbage alcove at home, a repurposed two prong lamp cord, plug, bulb, and a harp from a box of miscellaneous lamp parts that my wife keeps in the basement.  All parts are salvaged and repurposed to remain structurally and ethically consistent with the inherently recycled nature of the assigned “tin can” material.


Research:  An internet search of Tin Can Lamp yields hundreds of examples, many of them beautiful, ornate, and highly functional.  Given the ubiquity of these artifacts I sought rather than to add my own ornamental and/or functional element to the oeuvre, to focus on essence and meaning as the primary function of my design.  I researched the manufacture of tin cans, their history, and discussed the essence of lighting and lamps with several classmates.  Professor Andrew Schloss who happened upon our conversation about lamps revealed that he had spent many years designing lighting for Artemide and lamented the fact that they so often neglected the light in favor of the form of the thing (the lamp) itself.  As he lost himself in this lament and excitedly discussed the nature of lighting he blurted out “lighting is 3D plus magic”.  I really liked this idea and in thinking of “magical” applications of light I remembered the Zoetrope and the magical way it used light to reproduce reality in an entirely new manner and that this led eventually cinema.

Prototyping:  Initially I intended to create a single can system that rotated and projected a message on the surrounding walls.  I created a cardboard model with 1/4” thick lettering and discovered that the projected shadows were illegible at any distance.  A second model with very thin lettering cutouts provided a focused projection but only if the lettering was placed about 20 to 30 inches from the light source.  This would only be possible if I constructed a large ring out of several flattened cans so I rejected this method and turned my attention towards a direct view of the message rather than a projected view.

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I reversed my original model (the projection required the letters to be backwards in order to appear correctly on the wall) and I built a larger outer “can” from paper that had slits through which to view the lettering one at a time as the inner tin rotated.

I cut several fins into the plastic lid from a coffee can to test the rotational force of the rising heat.  I filed the screw on the top of the harp to a sharp point upon which to balance the lid and the reduced contact area also greatly reduced the friction.


The plastic finned lid didn’t rotate however and I felt this was because the cardboard and tape model was too imbalanced and imprecise.  I had to move on to a metal version in order to truly test the phenomenon.  The 10oz coffee can standard proved to be too small to fit over the hips of the harp so I had to find another tin that was one size larger in diameter.  I procured a cookie tin that had the disadvantage of being very short and therefore much less vertically stable than the coffee can was during my preliminary balance testing, but I decided to move ahead as it otherwise fit the model.  I tried to carve the letters out with an auger bit and the flexi shaft.  It was really unwieldy trying to cut and in fact I blew a big hole into the side of the tin so I opted for the drill through pinhole method of lettering that you see in the final prototype.


The fins were cut using a jewelers saw (thanks to Heath for coaching me with this and for sacrificing several of his sawblades to towards my education!) and I also used the saw to cut the slot in the side of the outer can.  After a bit of sizing and drilling into the base the assembly was put together.


Unfortunately the heat from the 100 watt lightbulb didn’t create emough motive force to make the tin rotate (although it is enough to quickly heat the tins so as to cause pain if you touch them).  I attribute the lack of rotation to a combination of excessive weight and a lack of balance which creates an “uphill” push for one section of the rotation and am convinced that a balanced model with a deeper can will rotate from the rising heat (while creating even more scalding hot tin).  This prototype offered enough manual functionality to test the rotational revelation of the message and to photograph the above GIF simulation of the system’s functionality.  As you can see the message is sequentially revealed but two significant design flaws also became evident.  I need to cut the top fins in the opposite orientation as the heat risen motion as is will reveal the letters backwards.  The other is that this structure, while it provides the desired illumination and it is revealed sequentially through the slot in the side, it inadvertantly subverts the use of persistence of vision in favor of a mechanically revealed sequence of letters.  Not so magic after all.