The Electric Hourglass


For my main project, I intend to design and build an “electric hourglass”. The initial concept was to construct a custom wood stand and hourglass section in which a lighting display would imitate the movement of sand. However, this challenge seemed beyond the capability of the lighting options I found online. It was not until a brainstorming collaboration with a team member, Jason, that a solution was posed. I mentioned the possibility of moving away from the aesthetic impression of sand–and instead, creating a visible electric current effect with the likes of a mad scientist. Jason then suggested to incorporate plasma globes: the ones sold in toy stores which hold a current if you stick your finger to it. I really dug the idea and thought it resonated with the original vision–big thanks to Jason for the inspiration!  

Beyond aesthetic, I hope for the design to express a deeper message, one that evokes a philosophical questioning of time…

In popular Western culture, time is a construct to organize our lives. This conception permits us to quantify the physical world around us. While effective, this system naturally distracts an individual from the present with thinking in the past or the future. The ideologies of some cultures, however, treat the nature of time as an illusion. For example: in the Buddhist tradition, liberation from time and space is considered the essence of living.  In this state of being, time is only an ever-existent unfolding of the present. Even some science supports the idea of a “static” world; it is only our desire to interact with our physical environment that necessitates an incremental system of time.

My intention is to use woodwork aesthetics to evoke this atmosphere. The hourglass’ surrounding structure will be designed with enough area for various figure&symbol&image designs that represent the envisioned philosophy.


The focal point, though, will be the plasma-generated electric effect. I believe the character of plasma globes express my desired message given its substitution for the finite-behaving sand.


More than anything, though, I hope this piece evokes a fun and imaginative spirit–drawing one’s attention toward creative design!


Materials and Process

This project will require the following materials:

  • Wood
  • Wood stain and finish
  • Glass with hourglass form
  • Two plasma globes
  • Two 9V batteries + misc. electronic supplies

The woodworking process will require some challenging design efforts. I am hoping to learn about creating artistic design images via CNC machines, and will need to seek out advice in this area. Besides dimension and design, the wood structure must house the electric circuits and provide enough area for woodworking. Stain and finish will be applied as a finishing touch.

Another challenge for this design will be finding an hour(glass) with the appropriate form to enclose the plasma globes. I might have to re-purpose some glass material if the right hour(glass) cannot be found.

There are many online tutorials on disassembling plasma globes and applying an independent power source. However, plasma globes work because of its interaction with gasses in its vacuumed environment.  My design must ensure that the hourglass provides the appropriate environment to produce the plasma effect.



In order to complete this project by the assigned deadline, I have created a tentative schedule to follow.

3/9 : Acquire all materials

3/16: Build critical component (hourglass with installed plasma globes)

4/6: Complete drill paths for CNC machine

4/13: Complete woodworking and test design

4/20: Prepare final design and presentation





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8 Comments. Leave new

  • Derek Sikora
    March 9, 2016 12:28 pm

    It may be a good idea to look into contacting glass blowers to help bring this idea to life. I feel like trying to do modify glass you currently have may very difficult and frustrating. youll be surprised with how cheap some artists will blow a piece of glass! For professional advice try contacting ASG (Allen Scientific Glass) but try to contact local blowers for custom pieces. Just a Thought!

  • Thomas Brunsgaard
    March 7, 2016 7:42 pm

    If you are unable to deconstruct and re-engineer the neon globes, would you be able to capture your aesthetic by stacking two of the globes? You could remove the plastic base for each globe, and repackage them into the wooden style base you are looking for.

  • Peter Brunsgaard
    March 7, 2016 12:22 pm

    I love your interpretation of time and how you plan to relay it in your project! As far as making the electric shock ball work, I wonder if you could take advantage of the different densities of noble gases versus air to try and make it work?

  • Sreyas Krishnan
    March 7, 2016 12:21 pm

    Really cool idea. It would be incredible if you could make the plasma globes yourself, but I can see that being out of scope. Looking forward to see it!

  • For the frame work, You could ask Mike (shop guy downstairs in the ITLL) to use the lathe and do some sort of vertical columns and then do some laser cutting on the top and bottom pieces of the hour glass if you are thinking of making more of a traditional looking hourglass frame.

  • Elyse Skinner
    March 7, 2016 12:18 pm

    This seems like a really cool project. I like the idea with time and electricity. I am a little confused on where you got your different inspirations and how they will all combine together. Your different ideas seem a bit disconnected and I think you should find something that really links them together.

  • Katie Hortik
    March 7, 2016 12:17 pm

    This is a really unique idea. I think you should make sure to include colors and randomness with your final design!

  • Jason Mcgrath
    March 4, 2016 6:41 am

    The concept of creating a timepiece that combines ancient symbolism and modern technology is sure to evoke a unique perspective of time itself. The overarching concept of a light based hourglass could go a variety of ways depending on the technical approach chosen. LED’s edge lighting an hourglass constructed of acrylic layers could give an interesting step-wise effort – somewhat mindcraft-esque. Whereas a more traditional hourglass (even repurposed) filled with tiny white LEDs that fade up & down could create an effect like fire flies utilizing crowd intelligence to track time.

    One thing I would try to stay very aware of is the results of juxtaposing the intricate wooden carving aesthetic with lighting effects. When done well, this may have potential to enhance the story around the time piece. But it could easily become misconstrued, weakening the symbolism, the lighting effect, and the overall coherency of the object. My first instinct would suggest to only integrate the wooden carvings if you go with a warm tone LED fire fly effect. If you go with the tesla coil / plasma coil effect, it could be interesting to see end caps featuring some cryptic sci-fi insignia. But overall, I thing that unless the carvings will be diffusing light, including such a feature would deter from the basis concept. You have the opportunity to create a minimalist high-design object. And while there is often a temptation to cram in more explicit imagery, doing so can muddle the user experience.

    When looking for hourglasses, you may want to buy a Karmin Rashid designed coin bank. Here’s the link:


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