Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines

© 2004 Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Ralph C. Merkle, Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 2004.


3.10 Taylor Santa Claus Machine (1978)

Following Shoulders’ original suggestion in the early 1960s of particle beam-based replicating machines (Section 4.7), Theodore B. Taylor’s concept of the “Santa Claus Machine” was reported in a popular book on advanced space technology published in 1978 by Nigel Calder [1041]. This is the only known extant source on Taylor’s idea.

Calder first quotes Taylor, a well-known nuclear physicist and advocate of arms control and small-scale solar energy production on Earth, as follows: “It’s possible to imagine a machine that could scoop up material – rocks from the Moon or rocks from asteroids – process them inside and produce just about any product: washing machines or teacups or automobiles or starships. Once such a machine exists it could gather sunlight and materials that it’s sitting on, and produce on call whatever product anybody wants to name, as long as somebody knows how to make it and those instructions can be given to the machine. I think the name Santa Claus Machine for such a device is appropriate.” Using his own words, Calder then describes the concept in more detail:

“As visualized by Taylor, the machine will operate automatically, without any immediate involvement of human beings. Its central principle will be the sorting of the raw material into all the individual chemical elements which it contains. That will be done by a giant version of the mass spectrograph – an analytical instrument from the physics laboratory which converts material into a beam of ionized (electrified) atoms traveling in a vacuum (Figure 3.32). It then deflects the beam with a magnetic field. Because lightweight atoms accelerate and swerve more readily than heavy atoms the various elements and isotopes in the beam can be sorted, atom by atom.

“In space, nature will provide a ready-made vacuum, allowing the mass spectrograph to be scaled up into a large refining plant.* But it will need big magnets. In Taylor’s scheme these may be superconducting electromagnets, working at low temperatures and offering no resistance to the flow of electric current; alternatively, a large machine near the Earth may exploit the weak but extensive magnetic field of the planet itself. At reasonable distances from the Sun, and certainly in the vicinity of the Earth and the Moon, ample power for the Santa Claus Machine will come from solar energy. In the windless vacuum of space one can build large yet flimsy mirrors, like gleaming parachutes. They will focus enough sunshine to vaporize rock. Out among the distant planets, where sunlight becomes feeble, the Santa Claus Machines will run by nuclear power.

* The use of electromagnetic enrichment for bulk materials processing was also discussed by Forrester et al [991] in 1978, and was anticipated by similar methods for isotopic enrichment (e.g., the Calutron [992]) that had been in use since the 1940s [993-995]. By 1980, military particle beam line currents of 104-105 amperes in space-deployed hard-vacuum-environment devices were widely anticipated [996].

“To live up to its name, the Santa Claus Machine must make the stocking-fillers, from the stockpiles of very pure materials created by the mass spectrograph. The materials can be recombined or mixed to make any compound or alloy. According to Taylor, the manufacturing processes will be quite different from what one sees going on in a steel mill or car factory on the Earth. They will take full advantage of the vacuum and weightlessness of space – for example, making parts simply by revaporizing the selected materials and depositing them on moulds. Given a suitable range of automatic tools and process controls in the system, people will simply have to ask for what they want, and tell the machine how to make it.

“Santa Claus Machines in space will supply raw materials and manufactured goods to the Earth. In the beginning, when operations in space are still costly, the products will have to be ones that are very expensive on Earth, in price per pound, and yet command very large markets. In Taylor’s opinion, one may have to talk of markets of hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars a year. The most attractive products will be materials like aluminum and titanium which require a lot of energy for their separation. Some of the lunar rocks are far richer in titanium than the titanium ores on Earth. In the long run, practically any material, pure or mixed, will be cheaper and easier to make in space using extraterrestrial sources. For Taylor, the most appealing benefit of large-scale production in space will be its disconnection from the Earth’s biosphere, which will be relieved of pollution. Taylor’s proposal for total separation of the elements means that all of them will come out of the same melting pot, in proportion to the amounts present. Potentially more precious than gold and platinum will be the extraction from extraterrestrial materials of the elements indispensable to life – hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and so on.

“Apart from serving the Earth’s inhabitants, Santa Claus Machines will have a much wider role in developing the resources of the Solar System. They can orbit the Earth, the Moon or the Sun or latch on to asteroids, the minor planets. Re-adapted to conditions of gravity and wind, they will be able to sit on planets or the moons of planets and gradually transform them. Their manufactured products can include space settlements for human habitation – and even new Santa Claus Machines.”

In recent times, a few researchers [1120] have used the term “Santa Claus Machine” in connection with the field of rapid prototyping using Solid Freeform Fabrication [997-1000] and similar technologies (Section 3.20). The famous “replicator” of the science fiction television and movie series “Star Trek” [1001, 1002] also functions as a Santa Claus Machine, having the ability to quickly manufacture food and eating utensils, organic material such as flowers, inorganic materials such as clothing, metallic objects, and even other machines – though never in any episode, to our knowledge, another exact copy of itself.


Last updated on 1 August 2005