Our Story

The Very Beginning

Creative Machines was founded by current company President and Artistic Director Joe O’Connell. Our company story starts in the early '70s where Joe grew up near Thomas Edison’s West Caldwell, New Jersey laboratory. His grandfather had been friends with the Edison family and passed on stories, motors, parts and lab books that had been handed down by Edison himself.

 

Joe's father was a mathematician and his mother was an artist working with ceramics and silk. His home was filled with music, tools, materials, and intellectual discussions. When he and his sisters were young, their parents built each of them a workbench, provided tools, piles of materials and encouragement to make their own toys and gadgets.

A Passionate Maker

Before the internet, people had to learn directly from teachers and spend long hours in library stacks. Joe studied history, literature, anthropology, philosophy, and physics at four universities. He traveled widely by bicycle, learning from inventors and visiting with scientists and artists of several generations along the way. The different perspectives offered by a wide range of ages and experiences both inside and outside the academy has informed how the Creative Machines staff has developed.

The World of Exhibits

Joe spent several years working at various science centers and exhibits companies such as Science North, Liberty Science Center, and Hands On! Studio. He spent this time designing, programming, prototyping, directing school programs as well as helping plan major capital projects and creating new models for informal learning. 

Start of Creative Machines 

Joe started Creative Machines in his garage in 1995. Even though the immediate market was museum exhibits, the goal was not to be an exhibits company but to eventually design and fabricate a wide range of interactive experiences.

 

We follow the same mission statement established back in Joe's garage as we do to this day— to create objects and environments that encourage creativity, support social interaction, and inspire self-confidence.

A Notable Influence

When Creative Machines landed its first large job, Joe rented the first official Creative Machines workspace from Thomas Edison’s former shop foreman, Azell Prince. He set up a hammock for him in his shop which led to many hours of unforgettable conversations. 

 

At the time, Azell was doing a series of interviews with the National Archives on Edison’s management process and would rehearse his memories in long conversations with Joe. Azell imparted many of Edison’s lessons in how to manage a creative workplace to Joe, and those lessons influence Creative Machines to this day.

The Move to Arizona

In 2001 Creative Machines moved to Tucson, Arizona. Joe was attracted to the deep cultural roots found in Tucson as well as the strong industrial base of the desert city. Owning a building for the first time let us do things like cut a hole in the roof to prototype a solar-tracking art piece.

 

Creative Machines grew quickly in Tucson, with most new hires coming from southern Arizona. The size of our projects quickly expanded to the size of our new facility and we developed larger exhibits such as the Eruption Effect at the Bishop Museum – a large scientifically accurate erupting volcano. In 2015 we moved to a larger space but the old shop is still owned by Creative Machines and operates as an arts incubator space.

Exhibits Maker to Public Artist

In 2004, Creative Machines began using its resources to create interactive sculptures and public art in order to explore new ideas and reach more diverse audiences. During this time a full staff of carefully chosen artists, engineers, master craftspeople and skilled designers - all united by a shared culture of creativity, enthusiasm, and respect was formed. 

 

While Joe leads each project and assumes full responsibility for it, he considers everyone at Creative Machines a collaborator and has developed a fruitful environment for nurturing ideas, talents, and a positive outlook. This company culture goes into every piece that is made.

Creative Machines + George Rhoads

In 2007, Creative Machines partnered with kinetic artist George Rhoads to manage, design, fabricate and represent his famous kinetic rolling ball sculptures. It was an easy fit. Joe had been designing public art since 2004 and the widely popular ball machines of George Rhoads fit both with Creative Machine's mechanical expertise and their appeal to all ages. Joe had known George Rhoads and his fabricator Bob McGuire since the late 90’s and had kept in touch, making it an easy transition among like-minded people.

 

Today, Creative Machines is evolving ball machines in new ways with the full blessing of George. This includes exploring new methods of integrating technology and interactivity into the ball machine sculptures by including dynamic lighting, touch-responsive sensors, and mechanized elements that give viewers more opportunities to engage with the artwork. 

The Big Move

As Creative Machines grew, so did our ambitions to create even larger and more interesting interactive exhibits and sculptures. In 2016 we moved into a new building that includes an 8-acre yard, 77,000 square feet of workshop space, 5 gantry cranes, and clear spans up to 50 feet high. This new building has made it possible to create some of our largest and grandest pieces to date. 

Mission, not Market

Creative Machines first created interactive exhibits, then diversified into public art, trade show exhibits, ball machines, and various other special projects. These differing markets share the same mission-driven product: objects and environments that encourage creativity, support social interaction and inspire self-confidence.

We have one of the most capable staff and facilities in the world for making technically and intellectually sophisticated work – and we would like to use them to create pieces that catalyze and share your identity with your local community and the rest of the world.

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