Exhibiting Simple Machines at the Nantucket Old Mill


Sponsor: Nantucket Historical Association
Sponsor Liaison: James Russell, Edwin Rudd, Mary Lacoursiere
Student Team: Bailey Joseph, Mackenzie Phillips, Mitch Read, Ben Thornton
Abstract: The goal of this project was to research and design methods to enhance the visibility of Nantucket’s Old Mill. The project team worked with the Nantucket Historical Association to evaluate the engineering principles that could be conveyed through interactive, age appropriate museum exhibits at the site. We also developed recommendations for signage around the mill, as well as social media graphics that can be used to promote the Old Mill online. Our final deliverables include this final report, four interactive museum exhibits focusing on simple machines in the Old Mill, final recommendations, and supplemental resources to aid in the use of the interactive exhibits such as instructional panels, teacher’s guides, and an interactive booklet.



Executive Summary


Figure 1. Nantucket Old Mill

The Nantucket Old Mill, shown in Figure 1, is a historic landmark recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for being America’s oldest still operating smock windmill. It is among seven historic sites owned by the Nantucket Historical Association on the island. Being a stand out example of historic engineering, the NHA feels that the Old Mill has the potential to draw more attention from the local and tourist visitors by having an educational impact on the island.

Project Statement

The goal of this project was to research and design methods to enhance the visibility of Nantucket’s Old Mill, ultimately by creating family-friendly interactive museum exhibits to showcase the history and engineering of the mill. To achieve this goal, our team researched the history of Nantucket and its Old Mill, as well as other historic windmills and living museums in the Worcester area. Using this information, we designed and created exhibits that educate visitors about the engineering principles supported by the Old Mill. The experience students and families gain through using the interactive exhibits will provide an immersive experience even if the Old Mill isn’t operating on the day of their visit or if they are unable to access the Old Mill building. Our team also analyzed the existing social media presence of the NHA and the Old Mill to create recommendations for developing an enhanced social media presence, as well as provided a comprehensive list of signage improvements that could be made to the Old Mill.

Project Objectives

To achieve this goal, the following project objectives were developed.

  1. Design a series of interactive museum exhibits appropriate to a variety of audiences that can be used to teach the history and engineering principles of the Old Mill in comprehensive exhibits.
  • Research background material relevant to understanding the history and educational potential of the Old Mill.
  • Create a list of design criteria that coincide with the background research.
  • Design age-appropriate exhibits on the Old Mill site that teach how the mill operates.
  1. Recommend improvements to the Old Mill property to enhance visibility of the site.
  • Develop standardized sign templates for the Old Mill.
  • Create a comprehensive list of new signs, and signs that need to be updated.
  • Develop sample social media posts to promote the Old Mill on NHA social media platforms.
  • Identify educational activities that link common themes between NHA sites to promote a fun, but educational environment.

To accomplish the first objective, the project team created detailed designs of several interactive exhibits which were reviewed and revised before fabrication. The final designs were prototyped and constructed in the NHA Gosnold Center before being presented to a focus group for design validation. The second objective was accomplished through onsite research and forming educated recommendations on the topics accordingly.

Project Outcomes

Using the design criteria developed in the early stages of research, the project team designed five interactive exhibits (Figure 2). These criteria took into consideration safety, manufacturability, multi-sided capabilities and relevance. The exhibits are each designed to convey a different engineering principle, while still being fun and easy for children to interact with. Additionally, each exhibit is accompanied with an instructional panel to help guide the user and offer them challenges while interacting.

Figure 2. Box of Rocks, Shifting Gears, Sheets to the Wind, Corn Cart Race, Gear Puzzle

The “Box of Rocks” exhibit is derived directly from the Old Mill. It is a large lever weighed down by a box of rocks that users lift using ropes attached to the large lever arm. Three ropes are strung from the lever arm at differing distances from the pivot point. These ropes demonstrate that the different distances from the pivot change the effort required to lift the box. Each rope has a grip with a different color, corresponding to the difficulty of lifting the box of rocks. The title of the machine, “Can you lift the Box of Rocks?” poses a challenge to the visitor, allowing them to solve the problem using exploration as they investigate the easiest way to lift the box. Focus group testing of this exhibit found that it was very durable and could withstand repetitive pulling.

The “Shifting Gear” exhibit at the Old Mill demonstrates how changing the gear ratio in a transmission will affect the speed of an end effector. By shifting a cage gear, similar to the one in the mill, the visitor will be able to move a wheel modeled after the grindstone in the mill. The title of this exhibit proposes a question, “How Fast can you Spin the Grindstone?”, encouraging users to think critically about why the different gears change the speeds of the grindstone.

The “Sheets to the Wind” exhibit is a simplified version of the Old Mill that has a moveable smock top with vanes and attachable sails. The users place the sails on the vanes, made of canvas similar to the material the Old Mill’s sails are made from allowing them to get the tactile experience of raising the sails on the mill. The exhibit provokes the question, “How many sheets to the wind?” with information that provides details about how many sheets the actual Old Mill uses depending on the wind speed. This exhibit provides the participants a simplified experience of what it is like to attach the sheets to the vanes and turn the smock into the wind to optimize the efficiency of harnessing wind energy.

The “Race to the Top” exhibit conveys the lesson of distributed loads across pulleys as well as basic physics lessons using trigonometry. This simple machine consists of two ramps with tracks built in them that carts sit into, pulleys, and weights. Users are able to fill their cart with corn, manipulate the angle that the ramp sits on between 3 angles, and add weights to the pulleys to change the rate the cart travels up the inclined plane. This exhibit is similar to common high school science experiments, but ties in the themes of the Old Mill and solving the puzzle of transporting products like corn in and out of the mill itself.

The “Gear Puzzle” exhibit demonstrates how gears are an easy way to teach how to transfer rotational energy to move something. The title of the machine, “Who will make the mill turn first?” tasks the user to have a friendly competition with their friends or family to solve the puzzle. This interactive element is a three-sided structure where participants must place gears on pegs such that the gears fit together and spin the windmill at the top when they crank the gears. Due to time constraints, the team was not able to fabricate a full assembly of this exhibit, and recommends the NHA use the detailed drawings included to build and implement this exhibit.

To tie the different exhibits together, supplementary material was provided to enhance the experience of the participants. The project team created a teacher’s guide/lesson plan to emphasize the different engineering principles in each of the exhibits. This guide is available to all school teachers and is targeted towards children between grades 6-8. Additionally, the team produced a “Voyage Log” that is a creative map resembling the outside of the Old Mill and the location of the different exhibits. The goal of the Voyage Log is to give visitors an incentive to visit all of the exhibits by collecting stamps at each, and finally a completion stamp after all have been visited.


Updating Signage

Figure 3. Locations of future signs inside the Old Mill

In addition to the educational exhibit elements on the outside of the Old Mill property, the project team recommends the NHA update the signs and labels inside the building. We identified types of signs to be improved for both the inside of the Old Mill, as well as the exterior property. The signs the team recommends be improved were the labels on different elements of the mill or artifacts displayed there, captions explaining photos, and existing signage that needs to be updated.

Connecting Historic Sites

The project team recommends that the Nantucket Historical Association capture thematic connections through the sites by using signage, activities, and site maps. The NHA can capitalize on the summer months and increased tourist traffic by hosting “Field-Days” between the Old Mill, the Oldest House, and the Old Gaol.

The team recommends that the outcomes from this project can be expanded in the future to encompass future exhibitions at the other NHA sites, all offering their own stamp books, challenges, and interactive games to encourage visitors learning outside of what the interpreter conveys to them on their tours.

Increase Social Media Presence

The project team found the social media usage by the Nantucket Historical Association to be very active in promoting the NHA’s events and properties. However, with only a few posts about the Old Mill in the year proceeding this project, and the site being a landmark of Nantucket, the project team recommends a series of improvements to the existing NHA social media posts to boost visibility of the mill. Posts on Facebook and Instagram can be used promote the Old Mill and advertise when the mill is operating. Snapchat can also be used to show the mill operating and people using the exhibits can be posted on a public story.