Kineticist Bill McHugh's Inventions Enthrall Humans and Critters Alike

With names like Twirl-A-Squirrel and Squir-Rel-A-Tor, McHugh’s machines serve the dual purpose of feeding backyard creatures and entertaining neighbors.

McHugh with one of his pterodactyls. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Bill McHugh is at a crossroads of sorts. The Narberth kineticist always thought his machines were novel—until squirrels used his 2004 Lexus SUV as a feeder. Apparently, when they exhausted the peanuts in McHugh’s Twirl-A-Squirrel, the critters caught a whiff of the 50-pound sacks of nuts he was storing in his Lexus. “They ate my truck,” he says.

They even gnawed away at the wires leading to his gas-tank cap, tripping McHugh’s “check engine” light. Seven hours later, at $105 an hour, mechanics finally figured it out.

Now he’s not sure what he’ll do. “To feed or not to feed?” McHugh poses. “I’ve created a monster. I feel badly because I put them into action, and I’ve always felt like I need to keep them running.”

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On and off for the past four decades, the retired mechanical contractor has built an amusement park for squirrels and birds out of aluminum and steel. He calls his diversion “Back Yard in Motion.”

And there’s always motion—even if he leaves the food chambers empty for weeks. The Twirl-A-Squirrel alone has gone through at least a million peanuts during its 10-year existence. When everything’s running, McHugh needs a 50-pound sack every three weeks.

When anyone asks if he likes squirrels, he doesn’t hesitate: “Not really.”

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As for the seed in his Hitchcock contraption (think The Birds), McHugh is up to about five pounds a day. The bird-driven water fountain is like a Ferris wheel, except there are two of them. One is 10 feet around, with 32 feeding stations; the other is smaller, with 12 cups that scoop water from one reservoir to another. More than 50 birds—sparrows, cardinals, cowbirds, chickadees and nuthatches among them—typically pile on. “You can never count,” McHugh says. “Sometimes, it’s as many as a hundred.”

Does McHugh like birds? “Not particularly,” he confesses.

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The 81-year-old credits his invention to “a sick mind and nothing to do.” “I just had this idea of putting squirrels to work,” he says.

McHugh’s ingenuity has led to media coverage, including a story in MAKE magazine. His first machine—the Dialectic of Hegel—took root 40 years ago, six years after he basically built his own house. Its counter-rotating stainless-steel wheels face into any air current, however light, and stay in motion—no maintenance or lubrication required.

Hegel originally had some function. Rotating on two gears, a big red ball was synchronized to knock a perching squirrel off the top at high noon. But there were too many problems with oscillation. “Now, it’s just for kinetics,” he says.

Twenty years later, McHugh built Swirl-A-Squirrel—and one machine every couple years since. Swirl-A-Squirrel has a caged wheel that’s eight feet in diameter, rotating in a horizontal plane that’s perpendicular to the vertical shaft. A large sail helps orient the wheel into the wind.

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Squirrels in the screened-in chamber provide the rotation. Two create the cyclotron effect. It’s sort of like a WWF steel-cage match, only peanuts are the prized championship belt. “Two squirrels can go nuts inside, get disoriented and smash into one another,” he says.

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There’s also Squir-Rel-A-Tor, which involves three moving wheels. It chiefly entertains squirrels—and those watching them play.

McHugh doesn’t market or sell his machines, though he will lend them to interested parties—and there’s a waiting list. “If you put 300 hours in the machine shop into each piece, think what you’d have to charge—somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000,” he says. “Plus, each would probably carry an insurance premium, because these would probably be rated as playground equipment.”

The Lower Merion Conservancy in Gladwyne has a Whirl-A-Squirrel on long-term loan. Another is with an avid collector around the corner on Cherry Lane in Narberth.

“We use it with our programming,” says Patty Thompson, the conservancy’s conservation director. “We were all in awe of his creativity and ingenuity. It’s just plain fun. Ours is located right next to our bird-feeding area. When the birds aren’t cooperating, visitors can look for squirrels on the whirl. People are naturally drawn to it. Whenever we have a program, they want to know about it.”

In its at-rest position, the Whirl-A-Squirrel’s serpentine tube is at 45 degrees to the vertical pole mount. The structure is almost balanced, top and bottom, on the pole. A cylindrical cage at the bottom holds peanuts. Squirrels scale the vertical pole, then up the top of the tube and in, its weight making the machine rotate. The cage at the bottom rotates, and when the squirrel reaches the top, the spinning continues and accelerates. “It whips,” McHugh says.

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One non-critter-centric machine has a certain local flair. Narberth Lite is made of two 30-foot columns of Coors Light cans. For a penny deposited into an attached 1935 Burlington County, N.J., parking meter, you get 12 minutes of rotation. For two nickels, it’ll run for two hours.

While all of those machines are above-ground, McHugh’s basement houses two pterodactyls made of aluminum and stainless steel. His favorites, they’re also the most reliable.

The first operates on counterweights, which make its wings rotate up and down to imitate flight. The second pterodactyl—with a 10-foot wingspan and 360-degree rotation capabilities—was out front at a staging area on a recent visit. It’s connected to a vintage parking meter. One day, McHugh left 100 pennies for it, later finding 150 inside. “Toddlers walking past absolutely, positively have to stop,” he says.

It also has eyes (underwater-blue LEDs) that light up at dusk. “To see the little kids makes it all worthwhile,” McHugh says. “The parents unload the kids, and I watch them put pennies in. On July 4, I hook up a PA and talk to them from inside. From over an intercom, I can hear what they say.”

Another of McHugh’s machines can talk. Fittingly, he usually puts that one out on Halloween.

When he attended St. Joe’s Prep, Bill McHugh wasn’t allowed to take chemistry, physics or biology. Because he earned such high marks, he had to take Greek. “What an absolute waste,” says McHugh today.

At Villanova University, he majored in physics. Then McHugh began a sales career in waterworks supplies. He claims to have sold every fire hydrant in Philadelphia—30,000 of them—and another 30,000 in New York City. “It just flowed from there,” he quips.

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Later, as a contractor, McHugh mostly built underground tide gates at sewer outfalls. That might help explain his large-scale model of the old Ringoes Grist Mill in New Jersey that burned down in 1939. It, too, is in his basement. A devotee of Eric Sloane—who once invited him to his place in Connecticut—McHugh also built a scale-model barn and sawmill from Sloane’s illustrations.

But what could possibly explain his Pancho Guerrero machine? “He was this big [baseball] guy who could never hit anything,” says McHugh, who fabricated a rotating bat that’s so far away from the ball, it could never make contact. He puts that one out front in April for the opening of baseball season.

So what’s next? “I’m looking for inspiration,” McHugh says.

And maybe a rich widow to amuse further. “Someone to keep me moving,” he says. “But I guess there wouldn’t be too many interested in my Erector sets.”

But it seems McHugh is always looking for trouble. And, frankly, it’s a wonder animal-rights activists haven’t been on him like squirrels on a peanut-filled SUV. He’s convinced that if his Hurl-A-Squirrel ever goes into production, he’ll have to get a head-start out of town. The gist: A lacrosse-stick catapult hinged at pavement level with two bungee cords. A solid weight—a squirrel—in the basket would trip the trap, and the animal would be hurled into a nearby spruce tree—without harm, he assures. “But it would certainly fly,” says McHugh.

So much so that he suspects he’d need two plexiglass shields on both sides to protect the innocent. Based on what the local critters have done to his Lexus, perhaps McHugh has already found the inspiration he’s been searching for.

“I have all the materials,” he says.

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