Hawkeye Science Fair - Rolamite project

Hawkeye Science Fair – What Is a Rolamite?

Project Recap




April 1969


Presentation & exhibit at the 1969 Hawkeye Science Fair explaining rolamite technology. Recently patented and described in a NASA Tech Brief, rolamite consisted of only four components (two rollers, a tension band, and a rectangular enclosure) and was hailed as a new, simple machine on par with the lever, fulcrum, and wheel.

Project Details


I admit it - I think I've always been a geek. I used to design space ships as a little kid. I remember watching the Mercury (yes, really), Gemini, and Apollo space launches on my parent's black & white TV. I clearly remember the first episode of Star Trek which aired on September 8, 1966.

Since I was in love with all things extra-terrestrial, it seemed perfectly normal - to me - that a 12 year old kid should read NASA Tech briefs.

So when I decided to enter the science fair computation, I thought I should browse back issues of Tech briefs for ideas. That's when I saw the Tech brief on the rolamite.


This was my first science fair, and even then I guess I was more of an engineer type than scientist. To me the thrill was in discovering the technology, learning how it worked, and then explaining it to others. I wasn't developing anything, or experimenting; I was helping people understand technology and how it could be put it to work.


I built several models of rolamites, even ordered some pre-made tension bands from a company. By changing the material of the band, creating shaped cut-outs in the band, or even using bi-metalic material for the band - you could change the behavior of the rolling action.

Tools & Resources



I created the display board you see in the photo above, then explained how it worked as my visitors played with the models I'd built. Looking back on it today, my approach at the time was definitely a "Tell-Show-Try" methodology.

I must have done OK because I won honorable mention. For a state-wide competition, I thought that was pretty good. Interesting point though. The guy who won first place that year got a big article in the Des Moines Register & Tribune newspaper. He built a voice activated typewriter. In 1969 the kid was working on voice recognition. I wonder where he is now?

I think there was 250 or so exhibitors at the science fair, which was held at Veteran's Auditorium in Des Moines. From those 250, about 15 of us got selected to take our exhibits to the Iowa State Fair.

You had the option of either 1) setting up your display and not spending the week with it, or 2) be there with your exhibit during the fair. I chose to be there. But it did seem like I must have explained hundreds of times what a rolamite was and what you could do with it. I had my pitch down so well that I literally woke up one night giving it in my sleep! To me it was fun helping people understand something that at first seemed to make no sense at all.

The following year I started working on an experiment with my pet hamster (Hammy) and understanding how biological clocks worked. Unfortunately, I didn't have the success I did with the rolamite project in '69.

- The Article That Started It

- A Pocket Sized Model

Fast forward. A few years ago friends at Touchstone 3D made two pocket-sized rolamites for me. My idea was to have a sales give-away the size of a business card. It needed to be simple, affordable, and something that would tickle a prospect's fidget reflex when you handed it to them.

Above you can see the size, rollers (two pennies), the plastic tension band (marked with the white arrows), and the enclosure (laser-cut clear acrylic).

The prototypes worked great, but then we got sidetracked with other paying work and never got back to it. I still have the two we made though, they're the perfect example of a kinesthetic sales tool.

- A Rolamite in Motion

I bet you've maybe never seen one work. Here's a quick demo video. Interesting isn't it?

The behavior of the rolling/snapping action can be changed in lots of ways (etching the bands, cutouts, bi-metalic bands, non-symmetrical rollers). This pocket version is simple, but the science fair models showed several types of action.

Pocket rolamite
Category: Projects
Topics: Tell-Show-Try
Skills: Explaining, Technology