George Rhoads, Designer of Fantastical ‘Ball Machines,’ Dies at 95

In his ingeniously conceived sculptures, balls seem to travel randomly and trigger various sounds. “Each pathway that the ball takes,” he said, “is a different drama.”

George Rhoads’s “42d Street Ballroom,” a kinetic sculpture installed in 1983 at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. It was typical of his works, which involved balls following whimsical and seemingly random paths through a three-dimensional labyrinth.

Published July 28, 2021
By Richard Sandomir

George Rhoads, a whimsical artist who created elaborate sculptures in which balls traveled seemingly random voyages along labyrinthine paths and set off the ringing of bells, the tinkling of chimes and the vibrating tones of xylophone keys, died on July 9 in Loudun, in western France. He was 95.

His grandchild, Chip Chapin, said he died in the home of his caretaker, Laura Dupuis.

Mr. Rhoads’s colorful “audio-kinetic ball machines,” which evoked the workings of watches and roller coasters, were built of comically designed tracks and devices like loop-the-loops and helical ramps, and were usually six- to 10-feet high. Scores of the machines have been installed in children’s hospitals, malls, science museums and airports and elsewhere in a dozen countries, but mostly in the United States and Japan.

“Each pathway that the ball takes is a different drama, as I call it, because the events happen in a certain sequence, analogous to drama,” he said in an interview in 2014 with Creative Machines, which makes ball machines based on and inspired by his designs. “The ball gets into certain difficulties. It does a few things. Maybe there’s some conflict. They hit or they wander, whatever it is and then there’s some kind of dramatic conclusion.”

Mr. Rhoads in an undated photograph. Roller coasters and the innards of clocks and watches inspired him.

One of his most frequently viewed machines, “42nd Street Ballroom,” was installed in 1983 in the lobby of Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, where it remained. Eight feet tall and eight feet wide, the sculpture shows its plates spin, its levers flip and its 24 billiard balls roll down ramps. As was typical of his machines, numerous balls move independently, letting gravity guide them and, when they reach the bottom, they are returned to the top by a motorized hoist.

“George had an engineering mind,” Mr. McGuire said. “What we tried to do with every new piece was to come up with something different, maybe a new device or a modification of something we’d done before. And George would conceive them.”

He built the ball machines in his own metalworking shop until he entered into a partnership with Bob McGuire, an artistic welder.

A painter all his adult life, Mr. Rhoads knew little about electronics and was not an engineer, although he took engineering courses at the University of Wisconsin while he was in the Army.

He added, “George would say, ‘I’d like to see this happen in this machine,’ and we’d say, ‘Make us a model,’ and he’d cook up something out of welded wire or wood or cardboard and he’d say, ‘This is the concept.’”

The final work was built by a staff that included engineers at Mr. McGuire’s Rock Stream Studios in Ithaca, N.Y., based on Mr. Rhoads’s designs.

“Archimedean Excogitation” (2014) at the Museum of Science in Boston. Mr. Rhoads believed the appeal of his creations was their openness — as if viewers were examining the inside of a pocket watch.

In all, they created 300 ball machines, some modest wall hangings, others large and some colossal, with amusing names like “Bippity Boppity Balls” (at Boston Children’s Hospital); “Archimedean Excogitation” (the Museum of Science, also in Boston); “Gizmonasium (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia); “Exercise in Fugality” (Logan Airport); and “Loopy Links” (aboard the Adventure of the Seas cruise ship). “Chockablock Clock” (the Strawberry Square retail complex in Harrisburg, Pa.) soars 46 feet high.

“Based on Balls” was installed in Phoenix in 1998 outside Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Field), the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Its features include a ball that bounces down xylophone steps playing the first seven notes of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and another ball that rides along a track and causes the crowd to do “the Wave,” then zooms into a snake’s mouth.

Mr. Rhoads believed the appeal of his creations was their openness — as if each viewer were wearing a loupe and were examining the insides of a 1900s Waltham pocket watch.

“Machines are interesting to everybody but people usually don’t understand them because, as in a gasoline engine, the fun part goes on inside the cylinder,” he said. “So I’ve restricted myself to mechanisms you can see and understand quickly.

“Newton’s Daydream” was installed in 2005 at the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

“Newton’s Daydream” was installed in 2005 at the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

George Pitney Rhoads was born on Jan. 27, 1926, in Evanston, Ill. His father, Paul, was a physician, and his mother, Hester (Chapin) Rhoads, was a homemaker. George started drawing as a young boy, and would take apart clocks, then built one himself. Inspired by a visit to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, he built a miniature Ferris wheel.

Mr. Rhoads graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1946. He also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the L’Academie de La Grande Chaumière in Paris. Until he began creating the ball machines, Mr. Rhoads painted in various styles, including trompe l’oeil, Surrealism, Expressionism and landscapes. He also worked in origami.

To earn a living he held various jobs, including working as a medical illustrator. He designed toys and sold at least one game idea to Milton Bradley.

“He was always working but he scraped by and got help from his father,” who at one point arranged a show of his paintings that provided enough income to live in Mexico for two years, his son, Paul, said in a phone interview. “Mostly, his father’s patients bought them.”

“Based on Balls” stands outside Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, in Phoenix. Its features include a ball that rides along a track that causes the crowd to do “the Wave,” then zooms into a snake’s mouth.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Rhoads began working in New York City with the Dutch artist Hans Van de Bovenkamp on the design of kinetic fountains that recycled water through gravity-based systems — a link to the ball machines he started building on his own in 1965.

An appearance on David Frost’s television show in 1972 brought him commissions for ball machines. A patron, David Bermant, a shopping mall developer, acquired more than a dozen. And Mr. Rhoads formally began his partnership with Mr. McGuire in 1985.

Their collaboration continued until 2007 when Mr. McGuire sold his business to Creative Machines, which worked closely with Mr. Rhoads for the next five or six years until he trusted the company enough to hand over more of the design work, said Joe O’Connell, president of Creative.

Mr. O’Connell said by phone that Mr. Rhoads viewed his sculptures as machines that people could love, unlike factories.

“He said they were self-contained machines that don’t pollute — beautiful machines that redeem what we’ve done to our land,” he said.

“Incrediball Circus II” was put in place in 1993 at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio. Mr. Rhoads considered his creations “self-contained machines that don’t pollute — beautiful machines that redeem what we’ve done to our land,” a colleague said. 

In addition to his grandchild and son, Mr. Rhoads is survived by his daughter, Daisy Emma Rhoads, and his sisters, Emily Rhoads Johnson and Paula Menary. He was married five times and divorced four times. His third wife, Shirley Gabis, is the mother of his children; his fifth wife, Marcelle Toor, died in 2009.

Mr. Rhoads acknowledged that his machines were inspired, in part, by Alexander Calder’s abstract constructions, Jean Tinguely’s kinetic, self-destructing sculptures and Rube Goldberg’s cartoons depicting convoluted contraptions.

“But you can’t actually make things that Goldberg drew,” Mr. Rhoads told The Times Magazine. “That’s a severe limitation.”

NY Times Obituary Link | Washington Post Obituary Link

Creative Machines Website