Friday, 3 February 2012

Elephant No. 124: Jumping Jack

I've always liked jumping jacks—enough to own three or four, I must admit. I've never made one, however, so today could be interesting. I believe some engineering may be involved, which always fills me with a vague sort of dread.

Jumping jacks date back thousands of years. Jointed ivory figures which could be made to dance and spin by pulling their strings have been found at Ancient Egyptian sites, and similar figures made of clay have been found at archaeological sites in India and China.

The jumping jacks we know today likely derive from an eighteenth-century version popular among the French nobility. Known as pantins—a slightly pejorative term for a political figure, as well as another word for clown or marionette—they featured harlequins, stock characters such as soldiers and farmers, political figures, and even pornographic novelties.

In 1832, the Hampelmann ("jumping man") was created by Carl Malss for a show in Frankfurt. The jumping-jack thereafter became known as a Hampelmann in German-speaking countries.

Nineteenth-century Hampelmann.

Modern jumping jacks are generally made of wood or thin metal, and are usually manipulated by pulling on a single central string. When this string is pulled, it tugs on additional strings tied to the tops of the figure's arms and legs, making the limbs move up and down.

For today's elephant, I needed a bit of help to figure out how a jumping jack is made. The Internet abounds in instructions, largely written for children, so it's not meant to be a terribly difficult activity. I found this site and this site helpful in getting me started.

I decided that I wanted to draw an elephant king for my jumping jack, so I began by sketching the main body and head, the two arm segments, and the two leg segments on good-quality bristol board. I only drew one set of arm and leg parts to start with, because I wanted to cut these out to make mirror-image limbs for the elephant's other half.

Once I'd drawn all the segments, I painted everything with watercolour paint to give it an old-fashioned feel.

Next came assembling the jumping jack. This involves piercing and fastening all moving parts. The body gets pierced in four places: once at each shoulder to attach the arms, and once at each hip.

Each upper arm and each thigh gets pierced at both the top and bottom, and each forearm and lower leg gets pierced at the top only. I made these holes with a heavy tapestry needle, but you could use a metal skewer, or a nail or even a single-hole punch. I avoided the hole punch because I didn't want large holes.

Once all the piercing is done, you can begin fastening everything together. This is usually done with brass paper fasteners, although you could use just about anything that allows fluid—but not too floppy—movement around the joins. I even thought of trying a bead and a piece of wire, but I wasn't sure if that would take me too long to figure out.

You'll need eight of these for this particular design. I used the smallest ones I had, which are labelled as being 2.5 cm (1 inch). If you can get them even smaller, that would be better, as I ended up having to cut off the ends.

Joining all the parts is simple: just push the fasteners through the holes you've already made, spread the two tabs apart—and, in this case, cut off the too-long ends. To cut these, I scored them with wire cutters by squeezing the jaws of the wire cutters really hard, then bent the ends back and forth a few times until they snapped off.

You'll also need to move the paper parts around a bit to widen the holes and create free movement around the fasteners. If you use bristol board as I did, you need to be relatively gentle, but not timid.

 Continue joining the limbs and body until it looks like the next two photos.

Now you're ready to add the strings. This is also very straightforward. You'll need to make new holes, but this is easily done with a sharp needle.

I used red embroidery floss for this, to add a bit of colour, but you could use any fine string. Because this was made of bristol board and I didn't want it to tear, I split the six-stranded embroidery floss into two strands of three for all the strings on my jumping jack.

The first string links the two shoulders. Pierce the centre of each upper arm, above the brass fastener, thread your string through, and secure on each side with a double knot. The line between the two arms should be fairly straight and taut when the arms are down by the figure's side.

Repeat this with the legs, then attach a string to the middle of the string linking the arms, and to the middle of the string linking the legs. Finish with a nice loop at the end. Traditionally, you would also attach a string to the top of the head, to give you something to hold onto when manipulating the jumping jack.

This is what the back looks like when fully strung. Simple, n'est-ce pas?

Now all you have to do is flip it over, pull on the string and watch it fling its limbs about.

The action of the central string on the strings linking the limbs causes the limbs to rise. The joins at the knees and elbows can either be posed or, if loose enough, will move on their own.

I like the final elephant a lot. It's kind of cute, which is always nice, but I like it primarily because it actually works. This, to be honest, was something of a surprise to me, because I more or less expected it to get jammed, or not move, or fall apart right away.

It also didn't take all that long, even if you include the hour I took to paint it, and it's certainly not difficult once you know how it works. I might even be convinced to make another one someday.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Most elephant experts believe that it's pretty much impossible for a fully grown elephant to jump—although baby elephants sometimes jump if surprised or provoked.

The reason they don't take to the air is that mature elephants weigh far too much, and landing on all fours would likely result in multiple leg fractures. The legs of elephants are also designed for strength rather than jumping about. Mark Grunwald of the Philadelphia Zoo further suggests that an elephant's bone structure makes it hard for it to bend its legs enough to spring into the air.

In the wild, elephants have occasionally been known to jump over ravines and ditches—often in search of food. This, however, is unusual. Elephants are actually quite awkward when on the move and can lose their balance easily, making them reluctant to do something as risky as leave the ground.

That being said, this lovely short film by Nicolas Deveaux featuring an elephant on a trampoline suggests that elephants may have untapped aerial talents.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 


  1. Are your fasteners the standard office supply brass fasteners? They look like they have a patina. Thanks you.

  2. Hi Melina,
    Sorry to take so long to get back to you! The fasteners were of the standard el cheapo office-supply variety, but I'd had them for a few years, so they had probably oxidized slightly on their own.

    If you like the oxidized look, I've noticed that the ones in dollar stores are often slightly oxidized. But it's hard to find the small ones in dollar stores. Sigh...