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A sign of the atomic age
February 6, 2009 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Roto-Spheres were dramatic animated neon signs, with 16 spikes projecting from a central ball; the left and right hemispheres rotated in opposite directions, and the whole thing rotated as well. Only 234 were made, and not many are still working, but despite their rarity, they are somehow instantly recognizable as the ultimate signs of the atomic age.
posted by adamrice (32 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. That takes me back. Indianapolis had quite a few of these back when I was a kid. I seem to specifically recall one over a burger joint somewhere near the old Tibbs drive-in theater.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:07 PM on February 6, 2009


This one is a landmark in Midtown Memphis. And it's my favorite liquor store to boot!
posted by vibrotronica at 2:07 PM on February 6, 2009


These are very cool but I have to say I did not find them instantly recognizable. As far as atomic goes, wouldn't they have loops for the orbiting electrons? These just look like stars.
posted by longsleeves at 2:11 PM on February 6, 2009


Not a roto-sphere, but I saw a similar "carbon atom sign" when I stayed at the Satellite Inn in Alamogordo. I'm pretty sure it was animated once, but it was stilled when I was there.
posted by adamrice at 2:13 PM on February 6, 2009


That's it. I'm going to Mankato.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:17 PM on February 6, 2009


I want one.
posted by Bummus at 2:17 PM on February 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


ALL HAIL SCIENCE
posted by GuyZero at 2:32 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


These are cool, thanks for the post. I've been having fun poking around the agilitynut.com website you posted - Giant Coffee Pots, Tiki Motels, Giant Food, Dinosaurs...I clearly need to take a road trip. Cool pics on their blog as well. Still, the roto-spheres are my favorite.
posted by Staggering Jack at 2:42 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Now I'm mulling over how to build one of these out of some old motors and CCFL tubes and whether my cohabitant would kill me for putting it in the living room.
posted by hattifattener at 2:46 PM on February 6, 2009


I've seen the Mankato one many times both day and night, and it is a magnificent bastard.

I must have one, and have one I shall.
posted by Muddler at 2:46 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


These mesmerized me as a kid growing up in Flint, Mich. We may have had Roger & Me, but we also had no less than four roto-spheres around town. The Walli's restaurant on the north side of town had two round roto-spheres, and the Walli's restaurant on the east side had two square ones (roto-cubes maybe?). These paled in comparison to my favorite restaurant sign - the 'fifty-foot' waitress outside of Colonial Coney Island. (Probably because I could look up her skirt.)

Great post adamrice!
posted by mattybonez at 2:52 PM on February 6, 2009


are these what Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) meant by rotating neon lights?
posted by andywolf at 2:58 PM on February 6, 2009


These are very cool but I have to say I did not find them instantly recognizable. As far as atomic goes, wouldn't they have loops for the orbiting electrons? These just look like stars.

"Atomic Age" refers to the time period after the first nuclear bomb was detonated and people thought that everything would be nuclear powered. As a design aesthetic, it's 1950's and 60's era futuristic. It doesn't mean that everything looks like an atom; it describes the zeitgeist of that era.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:02 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


To all you engineers out there: How does the sign spin and rotate and deliver constant power to the lights?
posted by hydrophonic at 3:04 PM on February 6, 2009


Hydrophonic: According to the patent, it uses brush contacts (which is what I would have guessed).
posted by adamrice at 3:09 PM on February 6, 2009


mattybonez: As soon as I saw the first video link, I thought of Walli's, and wondered if that was the same thing. I didn't grow up in Flint, but in Lansing. My parents were from Flint though, and we made many regular trips there to visit grandparents and other family members, and there was no shortage of drives by a Walli's. I have no idea where the one we passed was, but it was very visible from the end of an expressway off-ramp.

I don't believe it was a something I saw very often (grandparents lived in Flushing), but enough times to make a very distinct impression! It's sort of sad they're so rare now...
posted by evilangela at 3:15 PM on February 6, 2009


Spent my teens in Lakeland, FL., and my mom got a couple cars from that car dealership. Definitely the highlight each time I was forced to accompany her on service trips.
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 3:28 PM on February 6, 2009


OH GOD WANT
posted by chimaera at 3:55 PM on February 6, 2009


Is there a tabletop led version?
posted by acro at 4:02 PM on February 6, 2009


I've never seen these either - are they regional or something?
posted by mrnutty at 4:27 PM on February 6, 2009


Hydrophonic: It's also possible to build a transformer whose halves can rotate wrt each other. But something like those signs almost certainly uses slip rings, as adamrice says.
posted by hattifattener at 4:31 PM on February 6, 2009


using carbon brushes like in a DC motor is undoubtedly cheaper and since it's just power being transmitted and not a signal, the noise issue aren't important. it's the same as the middle of a motor turning while the outside stays fixed.
posted by GuyZero at 4:48 PM on February 6, 2009


OMG, I have a set of the Christmas ornaments mentioned at the agilitynut site - "Warren Milks poses above with the Shreveport sign which is just a few miles from his home. I had the pleasure of meeting him and presenting him with a set of the original Xmas ornaments which inspired his Roto-Sphere design. In the photo above, he explains how the ornament spun in the TV commercial that captivated him."

I would love to see the TV commercial he mentions.
posted by jvilter at 5:15 PM on February 6, 2009


One of these things adorned a bowling alley in New Orleans East when I was a kid. I don't recall it ever working, and that means it stopped working in the early 1970's.
posted by localroger at 6:47 PM on February 6, 2009


I just spent way too much time down the rabbit hole of that Roadside Architecture site. Thanks for the link!
posted by shannonm at 7:10 PM on February 6, 2009


I'll be damned. I didn't know so few of these existed. I remember one advertising a well, it seemed to me at the time huge store simply named 'Bazaar' (I think...been a while....) near Philadelphia around 1962. I've been trying to find pictures of it for the past couple weeks...(I think Metafilter is telepa...cue eerie theremin music....). I didn't miss it here, did I? Thank you for this post!
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 7:16 PM on February 6, 2009


These are very cool.
posted by Mitheral at 11:54 AM on February 7, 2009


I've never seen one of these either.
posted by !Jim at 1:13 PM on February 7, 2009


Jvilter: in my house, that particular ornament was always referred to as a "Playhouse 90." Could this have been the TV commercial he mentions?
posted by rossmik at 5:21 PM on February 7, 2009


I'm just laughing at the names of these places.

"Jerry Dutler Bowl"
"Action Pawn"

This conjures up memories of the low-rent Midwest I grew up in. Beautiful, beautiful memories. Of Action Pawn and Jerry Dutler Bowl. There was no other time or place like it.
posted by saysthis at 7:48 PM on February 7, 2009


Yay! Just like mattybonez and evilangela, I was awed by the Walli's sign in Flint as a kid. I'm happy to see it's been restored and installed at the Dort Mall. Thanks for the post!
posted by various at 10:12 PM on February 7, 2009


Rossmik: If not the one he meant then certainly influenced by the motif. Thanks for that video link; the original aired almost two months to the day before I was born!
posted by jvilter at 11:26 PM on March 2, 2009


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