When Austin Granger was just a kid growing up in St. Paul, he got his first K’nex set. This was the 1995 Big Ball Factory – all spindly plastic pieces, chutes, slides, and staircases – a self-contained playground for shiny little ball bearings to roll through again and again.
That is when Granger fell in love with play, with machines, with problem solving. That was the beginning. From there, he says, it got “out of hand.”
Granger still spends hours with K’nex toys, and people spend hours watching him do it. His latest creation stands 23 feet tall in the middle of a stairwell in The Works Museum in Bloomington. It’s made of 115,000 K’nex pieces, and it takes 40 balls at a time through loops, ramps, elevators, Ferris wheels, and drops that would make any roller coaster designer proud.
When any given ball reaches the bottom, it’s automatically funneled into a motorized lift, which takes it back up to the top for the fun to begin anew.
It replaces another K’nex machine he built for the museum five years ago, and it dwarfs it by comparison. It’s so large that it’s impossible for the eye to take in at once, and so complex that there are 12 different ways for a ball to reach the bottom. When The Works asked him to build the new model, he estimated he’d be done in three months. It took him over a year. Just getting the motorized lift to work took five months and 10 prototypes.
But no one can fault the results. The machine is absolutely mesmerizing. Kids can stand on different sections of the stairwell and watch different sections at work. Some pick a ball – even name it – and come up with a story for its journey back to Earth.
Sometimes, Granger says, kids will see the machine and say, “I could never build something like that.” And that, he admits, makes him sad, because it’s the opposite of what he’s trying to convey.
He wants kids to know that they can make creations like his. Not so long ago, he was one of them, just a kid playing with toys in his room. He never had a master blueprint for this massive installation; he figured it out as he went along. And, with time, they could too. Someday, he hopes, a kid will come back to The Works and build their own monster machine, and they’ll be “20 times better” than his.
He insists that even though it takes him hours – even years – to do something like this, every moment is still play. He loves figuring out how to make a tricky section work, or trying to make different segments of machines flow together. If he could tell his younger self anything, it would be to never let people tell him that he was “just playing.” If it makes you happy – if you could spend hours and hours tinkering away at it – what others call “play” could become your passion.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” he says.
If you want to get a closer look at Granger’s machine, you can catch it at its grand opening on Saturday. Granger will be on hand to answer questions and troubleshoot, and he’ll run a K’nex workshop for kids interested in building their own.