On Monday, May 4, 2009, the question to Michael Flynn from the city of Ann Arbor building inspector was: “What line of work are you in?” Flynn’s answer: “I invent things.” In Flynn’s backyard, the inspector had just signed off on the packed sand for a concrete pour that will become the floor of Flynn’s new laboratory space.
So what sort of stuff does Flynn invent? And is there any money in that?
From now through Mother’s Day, visitors to Ann Arbor’s Hands-On Museum can have a look and touch for themselves. That’s where Flynn’s Magnetoscope will be on display. The Magnetoscope exhibit illustrates how ferrofluid – oil, plus iron oxide particles, plus a surfactant – interacts with the forces of magnetic fields and gravity to create spiky columns out of an black pool of liquid. Visitors can manipulate the magnetic fields by cranking a red or a blue magnet closer or further away from the pool of ferrofluid.
At the Hands-On Museum, Flynn’s Magnetoscope is surrounded by red and blue stools that match the red and blue magnets of the display. But the stools aren’t a part of the exhibit. Flynn said that Carol Knauss, who he described as the museum’s director of visitor experience, had matched them up with the exhibit from a set of stools that John Bowditch, director of exhibits, had built. The stools are built with an extra heavy base, to prevent them from tipping over from the force of active kids.
As we were poking around with Flynn in his current backyard laboratory space – a shed-like structure crammed with suitcases of tools and in-progress work – he mentioned that it was exactly a year ago to the day (May 3-4) that Flynn’s Magnetoscope enjoyed its world premiere. The occasion was the Maker Faire in San Francisco. Flynn said that the director of San Franscisco’s Exploratorium had seen it there and had expressed an interest in possibly helping to produce more Magnetoscopes.
But at that point, Flynn said, the device had no patent protections and he was thus a little reluctant to enter into any kind of business partnership. Now that the device enjoys a pending patent, he’s far more open to the possibility of partnering with someone to produce more of these devices. Licensing the design is one possibility.
But what he’s working on right now is producing at least one more – a production model as contrasted with the prototype that visitors to the Hands-On Museum will see. What qualifies that one a prototype?
Flynn explained that one example is the openings in the metal, which he hand-routered for that model, but which will be machined with a computer-driven mill on the production model. Another example: The clear plastic hemispheres bolted around the ferrofluid chamber had their bolt holes drilled pretty evenly spaced around the perimeter.
But “pretty evenly” isn’t exact. Though any unevenness isn’t really apparent to the naked eye, the fact that the spacing isn’t dead-on exact means that the holes have to be indexed so that if it needs to be taken apart for cleaning (or if a kid inadvertently gouges a scratch in one), it can be re-assembled easily. For the production model, the holes will be spaced exactly so that the parts will be completely interchangeable.
The other part of the business end of things is selling that production model. To that end, Flynn has been shopping the Magnetoscope around. The Hands-On Museum is a part of that effort. Before the Hands-On exhibit, the device was on display at the Ann Arbor Public Library. It’s also been at the University of Michigan Work Gallery in Detroit, as well as Lansing’s Impression 5 Science Center.
Flynn has created a video about the exhibit, but says there’s nothing like experiencing it hands on. Next up after Ann Arbor’s Hands-On Museum is the Cincinnati Museum Center as well as the Boonschoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton.