Public Art at Williams
Wave Machine, 1975
Fielding Brown (American, b. 1924)
steel, aluminum, and hardwood with electrical drive
Drive by Hugh Kirkpatrick. Termination by Bryce Babcock.
Photo by Megan Cross
Long misidentified by admissions tour guides as a giant strand of DNA (shame on them…as it isn’t even a double helix), the sculpture that hangs in the main stairwell of the Bronfman science building, as a large scale torsion wave machine, is both an interactive science demonstration and a work of art.
Designed by Fielding Brown, professor of Physics emeritus, the sculpture dates from around 1971 when Brown’s daughter, a Mt Greylock High School senior at the time, was auditing his introductory course in physics and saw a torsion wave machine demo. She suggested to her father that he should design one for Bronfman. With the help of staff members Joe McCann, Hugh Kirkpatrick, and Bryce Babcock, Brown created the sculpture as a way for physics students to engage in experimentation. By twirling the knob and observing waves on the machine, students could learn about waves of all kinds, how they travel, interact with each other and are reflected. The blue and orange colors of the machine were chosen not only to reflect the colors of the center, but also to define its edges and make it easy to follow the motion.
As for more unofficial reports of campus interaction with the sculpture, Professor Donald deB. Beaver relates that in the early days, when the College maintained a monkey colony for research, one monkey escaped, and climbed the sculpture to evade capture. Professor Brown confirms that “after its installation the first several arms were removed because, it was rumored, monkeys tried to climb it.” Then, decades ago students covered all the cubes with tiny cereal boxes. Beaver remarks, however, that “As a prank, it doesn’t quite rank as high as the one by the students who put Mickey Mouse’s hands and face on the Lasell Gym clock facing Main St. in the fall of 1971.”
Having retired from Williams, Brown is now engaged in his second career as sculptor exhibiting nationally. He has even created a public art work in Great Barrington that was inspired by the wave machine he designed long ago for Bronfman.
By Margaret Adler ’99, MA’11