Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests: The Engineering Wonder of Wind-Powered Skeletons

These PVC tubing and wood sculpture-turned machines are powered by the wind with polymer sails.
Christopher McFadden
Theo Jansen's Strandbeest.Theo Jansen/Strandbeest

Inspired by evolution and powered by the wind, Theo Jansen's amazing "Strandbeests" are some of the most awe-inspiring machines you can ever likely see. Jansen describes his creations as "skeletons that walk on the wind, so they don’t have to eat".

He first began to create them in the early-1990s in response to the fears of rising sea levels. In his mind's eye, he envisaged a race of wind-powered bach creatures that could bring sand from the water's edge inland to help build, and repair, a never=ending sand barrier to protect the Low Countries.

These are the coastal areas of northwestern Europe consisting of parts of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. 

jansen strandbeests large example
Source: Theo Jansen/Strandbeest

“The first animal in 1990 could only move its legs lying on its back. The leg system evolved in the first couple of years, and then I found better ways to connect the tubes – at first I just used Sellotape to make the connections, and later I found out that you could use heat,” Jansen explains.

Jansen's skeletal sculptures-come-machines are usually made from PVC tubing or wood and are powered by the wind using polymer sails. Their lightweight frame and ingenious propulsion systems enable the beasts to power along beaches completely unaided. 

Many of his creations are also surprisingly fast for their size, and, being wind-powered, are typically completely silent. 

Each year, starting in around October, Jansen begins to work on a new machine/beast. By late spring the next year, his machines are usually more or less finished and he usually releases them on a beach near his home in Scheveningen to "roam" for the Summer. 

“In the autumn I’m wiser, and I declare the animal extinct – it becomes a fossil. These fossils go out to the boneyard, which is the exhibitions," he added.

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Taking inspiration from nature and the neverending process of evolution, Jansen improves his machines with each new generation. Over time he has added "sensors" that let his Strandbeests that allow them to travel equally well on hard and soft sand, some can even "store" the wind using special devices to compress air in bottles.

This stored wind energy can then be released when the wind dies off to keep moving the creature forward. Some of the newest models can even take to the air. 

Such adaptions, though more accurately called intelligent design, enable each new Strandbeest to become more and more self-sufficient. 

Jansen's "Strandbeests" is loved by the public

Since he first unveiled them several decades ago, his creations have really struck a chord with the general public. Videos of his lumbering machines regularly attract millions of views, and 3D printed versions, or small toys of them have become something of a cultural phenomenon. 

From time to time, Jansen takes some of his beasts on tours around the world. For example, back in 2014, his machines went on a world tour including destinations in Japan, France, Russia, and the United States. 

strandbeest flying
Source: Theo Jansen/Strandbeest

 Theo Jansen, now in his 70s, has long had big ambitions for his creations. 

"Within the next 20 years I want the animals to be independent of me, so they take their own decisions – when to walk on the beach, what to anchor themselves against during storms or when to move away from the water,” Jansen told the BBC back in 2014.

But, as he is the first to admit, his creations are machines and not living animals. However, Jansen does seem to have a hard time letting go of his creations when they must ultimately become "extinct". 

“They die, and I die a little as well because I have to say goodbye to the animals,” he explained. 

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