Choreographed Iron Dust Dances To The Beat

Up on the second level of World Maker Faire’s main hall, one could hear Technotronic’s hit “Pump up the Jam” playing again and again. We were expecting breakdancing robots, but upon investigating, what we found was something even better. [David Durlach] was showing off his Choreographed Iron Dust, a 9 x 9 grid of magnets covered in iron filings. The filings swayed and danced to the beat of the music, at times appearing more like ferrofluid than a dry material. Two LED lights shined on the filings from an oblique angle. This added even more drama to the effect as the light played on the dancing spikes and ridges.

While chatting with [David] he told us that this wasn’t a new hack. Choreographed Iron Dust made its debut at the Boston Museum of Science back in 1989. Suddenly the 80’s music made more sense! The dust’s basic control system hasn’t changed very much since the 1980’s. The magnets are actually a stack of permanent and electromagnets. The permanent magnet provides enough force to hold the filings in place. The electromagnets are switched on to make the filings actually dance.

Since it was designed in 1989, there were no Arduinos available. This project is powered by the most hacker friendly interface of the era: the PC’s parallel port. As one might imagine, [David] has been having a hard time finding PC’s equipped with parallel ports these last few years.

[David] wasn’t just showing off iron dust. Having spent so much time painstakingly animating the iron filings for various customers, he knew there had to be a better way. He’s come up with ChoreoV, a system which can take recorded video, live performances, or even capture a section of a user’s screen. The captured data can then be translated directly into light or motion on an art piece.

6 thoughts on “Choreographed Iron Dust Dances To The Beat

  1. “As one might imagine, [David] has been having a hard time finding PC’s equipped with parallel ports these last few years.”

    $8 for a LPT and 2 serial ports on a pci express board from DX
    Not that hard to find
    (needed that to use my old HP laserjet printer)

    1. Might not be quite so easy, if it’s a DOS program bit-banging the LPT port. Most modern plug and play adapters can’t be made to expose the port under legacy ISA addresses. The few that do tend to sell in the $50 ballpark due to their rarity. And I’m not sure if these also simulate the original ISA bus speed of 8Mhz. I know the last program I wrote to bit-bang a device over the parallel port assumed this to be a convenient constant, and therefore relied on repeated port access in a loop for timing purposes; it would certainly fail if access were made faster. Not sure if this is an issue with [David]’s project, on which technical details are sparse.

      Was definitely a cool watch though.

  2. I remember those things! There was one in a science center in Akron OH. They also had what was basically the same idea but an adjustable waveform generator was hooked to the coils and you could put different shaped metal bits on the table and watch them dance around

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