Thing of the Week

3D Printed Walking Gyroscope Modeled on Lapsed Patent


Invented in 1981, the Walking Gyroscope is a cool toy that uses centrifugal force to move. Here’s an open source 3D printable version.

walking gyroscopeJoin us on a journey through the misty ruins of time. To the ancient past where Ronald Reagan was President, Michael Jackson was about to become King, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth (possibly). The year is “1981”.

Robotics Engineer John Jameson has invented a tiny gyroscope with feet, which uses a metal flywheel and pivoting legs to create forward motion. The design for the walking toy wins plaudits, and is a big seller in Japan, where it’s licensed by Tonka for their GoBot line of transforming robot toys.

In the US, the same design was patented by toy giant Mattel. But lo! Tragedy strikes when the company decides to shelve plans for mass-production. American childhoods were deprived of the joy and delight that comes from seeing a wobbly walking gyroscope. They make do with ‘Masters of the Universe’ and ‘My Little Pony’ instead.

Snap! Back to the present day. More than 30 years later — and with the patent now expired — John’s good friend Jeffrey Kerr has modified the design for 3D printing. The result is a fully open-source 3D printed toy design, downloadable (and remixable) from Thingiverse. A step-by-step tutorial is available on Instructables.

Gyroscope Uses 104 Pennies for Balance

pennies from heavenThe modification of the design takes one ingenious, delightful turn. Where the average person wouldn’t have access to a perfectly balanced metal disc to use as a flywheel, this version uses a plastic flywheel weighed down with 104 pennies as substitute.

The heft of the pennies, in tandem with the magic and mystery of centrifugal forces, is what allows the tiny toy to veer from side to side and walk all by itself. Think of it as a piggy bank with legs.

As Kerr further explains on the instructables page:

This amazingly clever walking toy was invented more than 30 years ago by my friend John Jameson. It consists of two feet that are geared to a spinning flywheel, so that as the flywheel spins, the feet stomp up and down. When one foot goes down, instead of tipping over, the gyroscopic action causes the body to lift up and then precess around the planted foot. When the other foot comes down, the body lifts again but it precesses in the opposite direction, and voila, it walks!

John’s original version was machined, but this version I designed is nearly completely 3D printable. With the addition of some ball bearings, steel rod, screws, o-rings, and also 104 pennies for the flywheel, you can create your very own copy. The overall cost is less than $10.

But what if you don’t live in the United States, or don’t have US currency in your pockets? The Thingiverse community has remixed the design to account for other sizes of coin. Ranging from Taiwanise dollars to UK pennies, this is open source design in action.

And what about the original designer, John Jameson? Rumours are circulating that he’s assembling a giant gyrobot to take revenge on Mattel and conquer the Earth. From small acorns, spring mighty (gyroscopic) oaks.