The Contraption That Can Really Tie One On

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By Vanessa de la Torre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005

"Okay, Why Knot, do your thing," Seth Goldstein says, stepping back with the flamboyance of a magician. We're in his Bethesda basement, lured here by word of a robot who can tie a necktie. It took about five years to design and build, and soon it will be in a Philadelphia museum. We watch. His wife watches.

Seconds pass. Goldstein, who is 65 and has 12 patents (for such objects as a miniature catheter and a type of laser scanning microscope), steps forward and mouse-clicks on a computer displaying what looks like EKG readings, then returns to the spectator's position: Arms crossed, head jutted forward.

"Do your thing, Why Knot."

Or not. Occasionally the machine has precision issues, Goldstein says, since it is dealing with something so delicate as a polyester necktie. Once it gets going it'll be fine, says Goldstein.

But let's dispel the fantasy that Why Knot whips out a standard four-in-hand knot in 2.3 seconds. It's more like nine minutes and 350 steps. It's not even a robot or some sort of cybernetic manservant, but a "kinetic sculpture," as Goldstein calls it, something you'd sort of expect a guy in the burbs to build in his basement from a big, bad Erector set.

If there is a purpose to Why Knot and its July 15 public opening at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, it's showing that mechanical engineering -- and its friction, momentum and voltages (yee-ow!) -- can be titillating stuff. Because, really, there is no other point, says Goldstein.

"Who's ever made a tie-tying machine?" he asks. "That's not something you can economically justify, but if you're a retiree, you don't have to worry about that anymore. I'm free! "

After earning four degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and working more than 40 years as a mechanical engineer -- including three decades at the National Institutes of Health designing biomedical instruments -- Goldstein decided to create Why Knot "for the hell of it."

Others have more lofty explanations, however. Tom Perry, managing director of education for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, whose foundation provided $30,000 for the project (including $10,000 for the development of educational materials) and arranged its permanent exhibition at Sir Isaac's Loft at the Franklin Institute, believes that Why Knot forces people to confront the complexity of the human body.

"Just the mechanics it takes to reach up and scratch your forehead" is amazing, says Perry. Then you look at Goldstein's machine, and all those infrared lights and optical sensors and the 10 electric motors that propel a series of 350 laborious movements to tie and untie one standard knot -- all that shaft rotation and energy conversion, all that controlled motion and heat.

Goldstein has named some of the mechanical parts that have dominated umpteen hours of his life. There is the Hooker, for example. Then the Grabber, the Breaker and the Finger. "You see, I don't get out enough," he says. And the Roller, formerly a toilet paper roll with a wire clothes hanger, is another favorite. Just see how it smoothly transfers the tie to the closest thing Why Knot has to hands. (The process has begun!)

Next phase: Shaping the four-in-hand.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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