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Get Bending Your Old Toys

Get Bending Your Old Toys

By Magdalena Kogutowska

The initial joy experienced by children on Christmas morning, when they unwrap their presents and discover lots of shiny new electronic toys, is all too often replaced with boredom a few days later. But this no longer needs to be the case, thanks to Null’s short and sweet introduction to "circuit bending".

So what is this "bending you might ask? Surely we can’t be advocating deviant behaviour? Well, in a way we are, because "bending" involves breaking into the inner part of the beloved but discarded toy. Be warned: this is an activity that may disturb young children and those of a nervous disposition.

Circuit bending took off in the late 1960s when American man-of-the-arts Reed Ghazala discovered that a dismantled and discarded toy emitted strange sounds when touched with metal. Nowadays there's a large underground community experimenting and producing music with Furbies, educational toys and any other children's toy that has a circuit worth hacking.

To start "bending" all you need is a screw driver; John Gaves, a Maths undergraduate student at Bath University, explains the basics. "Getting the toy opened is surprisingly hard work and can really hurt your hands. You also need to make sure that your toy is battery powered and not running off the mains." No joking - this last bit is an essential and serious safety precaution.

As long as you heed Gaves’ advice you should have nothing to worry about. Begin by relieving your child's talking teddy of its organs and carefully open the box containing the circuit. You can now commence the experiment. Wet two fingers (water is a good conductor) and start placing them at random points on the board. "The basic thing of circuit bending is finding two points,” says Gaves. “Once you touch something and it makes a desirable or undesirable sound, you can solder it."

A collection of bent toys
A soldering iron is useful for making permanent changes to your toy - you can solder the two points together with some wire to maintain the connection (more info here) - but not necessary if you just want to hear how a possessed teddy sounds. Those feeling a tad more adventurous can add a potentiometer which will change the pitch of the sound. "Virtually all toys have a transistor that controls the pitch and adding a pitch controller is easy," Gaves tells me.

But patiently testing all the nooks and crannies of a circuit board is only half the game. Choosing the right toy to bend is just as important to achieve satisfactory results. Gaves advises that, "Furbies are quite good, but you have to cut away the skin which makes you feel a bit weird and they also break easily so you have to be a bit more delicate with them. Toys with microchips are more complicated so you can do more interesting stuff."

Circuit bending is not only a great way of getting your money's worth and more fun out of a toy. It’s also a very different approach to learning* about electronics and avant-garde art, not to mention a good way to keep the meddling dads and uncles of the family occupied while you put your feet up with a glass of mulled wine.

If you fancy trashing a few toys yourself, check out some other benders' work first in this highly informative video:

More to save you from boredom over the Christmas period:

- Retro - Old style toys are back in
- Stuff to do - Top 10 xmas experiments
Why - Remote controlled lederhosen
- Just because - USB humping dogs

* We can't condone stealing your little brother's toys and pulling them apart for the express purpose of "educational" play. And please do supervise any children who want to start bending.

Image: W

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20 Jul 2017
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