Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Elephant No. 360: Marbles

When I was little, someone gave me a small worm made of marbles glued together with some kind of silicone. It even had tiny googly eyes. Even back then, I found it intriguing that something as slippery as glass could be stuck so firmly together with glue—as witnessed by my many attempts to pry the pieces apart—so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant.

Marbles are small spherical toys made usually of glass, although there are also marbles made of agate, clay, steel and plastic. The earliest known marbles were made of stone, and date to the Indus Valley civilization (ca. 3300–1300 B.C.). Games involving marbles made of stone, clay and glass were also played in Rome and Ancient Egypt.

In 1846, a German glassblower invented special "marble scissors" which could be used to clip off and form individual marbles. Mass-production of marbles began with ceramic marbles in the 1870s, followed by the first sets of mass-produced clay marbles, which were produced in the early 1890s.

Traditional marble scissors.

In 1903, the first U.S. produced glass marbles were being mass-produced in Akron, Ohio on a machine patented by Martin Frederick Christensen. M.F. Christensen & Son manufactured millions of toy and industrial glass marbles until the company closed up shop in 1917.

For millennia, children and adults have played games with marbles. One of the most common games involves first drawing a circle in the sand. Players then take turns rolling their marbles into the circle, attempting to knock other marbles out. Other commonly played games involve shooting marbles at holes or at target marbles. In many of these games, the winner of each round keeps the other player's marble.

Most marble-related games involve rolling marbles along a surface; in others, players toss marbles from a standing position. Marbles are also used in board-style games such as Chinese Checkers, in which each player hops his or her marbles over those of other players.

Chinese Checkers board.

There are many colourful terms in the world of marbles. One of my favourites is the move called the "elephant stomp". This is when a player gets to stomp his or her marble level with the surface of the ground, making it virtually impossible for other players to hit it.

Different types of marbles also have interesting names. Alleys, for example, are marbles made of marble or alabaster—"alley" being short for "alabaster". Toothpaste marbles are the ones with a little twist of coloured glass in the centre. Aggies look like agate; bumblebees are yellow with two black stripes on each side; catseyes have a central eye-shaped insert of coloured glass; and elephant eggs are a type of particularly large marble. For an exhaustive list of marble names and types, visit the Wikipedia page on marbles.

Different types of marbles.

When I was young, I had a small jar of marbles—some of which I had won away from my brothers and other neighbourhood boys, and some of which I bought because they were pretty. Today, a marble collection can range from a couple of handfuls contained in a jar or bowl, to elaborate displays grouped by maker, style, material, quality, age and rarity. Because of their relative fragility, even a tiny chip can have a major impact on value.

Marbles were originally made by hand. If made of stone, bone or ivory, they were carved and polished. If made of clay, ceramic or porcelain, they were rolled into balls then fired and usually glazed. Handmade glass marbles are produced by stacking glass rods together to form a pattern, which is then cut into marble-sized pieces with marble scissors and rounded while still molten. Mass-produced glass marbles are produced by dropping blobs of molten glass into a groove. As the glass passes along the groove and cools, it is shaped into spheres.

In the United States, many companies started in Akron, Ohio, where the original marble-making machine was located. Today, the world's largest maker of mass-produced marbles is Vacor de Mexico, which produces 90 per cent of the world's marbles, at the rate of more than 12 million per day.

Glass artists also produce art marbles for the collector market. Many of these are much larger than the average playing marble, and are meant solely for display.

Spectacular art marble by Mike Gong.

For today's elephant, I bought a sort of hodge-podge bag of strange bumpy marbles for less than two dollars. I bought these particular marbles because there were weird-looking, and because there were twice as many marbles in this bag as in any of the nicely packaged sets.

To glue the marbles together, I bought a tube of clear silicone.

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, nor if I was even going to be able to construct an elephant shape of glass marbles. The trunk was a particular concern, as there aren't teeny marbles anywhere to be found.

Accordingly, I started with the trunk, glueing three marbles together in a slight curve.

Next, I put four marbles together in a square to provide a place to hold the trunk. I then added another marble to the back of this head shape. My idea was that the extra marble at the back of the head would help to anchor any body shape I added.

I attached the trunk next, and left things to set for a while. Although this process is very, very easy, it takes at least 10–15 minutes for the silicone to set each time. It won't be completely cured within 15 minutes, but you can at least handle the piece enough to glue on something else. Because of this, making this small elephant took most of the day—although the total actual working time was probably about 45 minutes.

After this, I got a bit distracted with other work I had to do today, every so often wandering over to glue on another marble or two. I also forgot to photograph the various stages. To give you an idea of how I did it, however, I glued on the marbles approximately like this: four marbles between the existing head and the body; a ring of six marbles around a central marble for the main body; four single marbles glued to the bottom of the body for legs; two marbles at the back to fill out the body; and two marbles stuck to each side of the head for ears.

This was easy enough for a child to try—although it would have to be a child with considerable patience, unless he or she was making something like a simple worm or snake. For more complicated forms, they have to be built in a sort of modular fashion, reassessing the shape at each stage. In my experience, the shape can't really be laid out any other way.

In the end, I rather liked this process. It's not something you'd use if you were in a hurry, but the final piece is actually rather pretty, despite the strange mismatched marbles and my rather lackadaisical approach to a tidy glueing technique. It's also quite heavy, so I think it will probably end up on my desk as a rather fun paperweight.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Lawrence Anthony—who became known as "The Elephant Whisperer" for his ability to heal the psyches of traumatized adult elephants—writes about being out in the bush one day, watching the still-unfriendly herd. He was studying them to learn the locations of their favourite watering holes, as well as what they were eating and where.

When he thought the herd was a safe distance away, he got out of his landrover to make a call on his brand-new cellphone. Some instinct, however, made him look over his shoulder, just as he was about to complete his call. To his horror, he saw the herd's most dangerous elephant, Frankie, a mere twenty metres away, with the rest of her family herd in tow.

Anthony leapt into his landrover with, as he wrote, "an alacrity which surprised even me." In his haste, he dropped his new cellphone. Soon the herd had arrived at the very spot where he'd been, and were milling about the phone. Anthony had no choice but to wait until they left, before he could retrieve the hapless device.

Suddenly the phone rang, its sound piercing the quiet. The elephants stopped in their tracks, turned around and approached the source of the unusual noise. Frankie arrived first, sleeking her trunk over the small piece of plastic, trying to figure out what it was. The others soon followed suit, and Anthony watched as seven elephants swung their trunks around over a chirping cellphone in the African bush.

Frankie finally decided that she'd had enough. Raising one of her feet, she stomped on the cellphone. The ringing stopped. The herd then turned around and ambled off.

When the herd was finally out of sight, Anthony went to retrieve his phone. Although it was buried deep in the soil, it still worked.

In addition to becoming famous for helping to rescue animals from the Baghdad Zoo during the recent conflict in Iraq, Lawrence Anthony has also become known for an unusual tribute paid to him following his death in March 2012. As if knowing that their friend and rescuer had died, the herds of Thula Thula walked twelve hours from their home in the bush to visit Anthony's home, remaining there for a short time before turning around and walking back.

Lawrence Anthony with an unnamed member of the Thula Thula herd.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Fauna & Flora International


  1. Wow, you did amazing work with the marbles, You surely have artistic mind. Going to book mark your blog and looking forward to more such creative articles