Amazing Magnets Superball kitReview date: 8 November 2002.
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.
Here's something you don't see every day.
It's shiny. It's weighty. It's geometrically... intense. And although it looks like something a Man In Black would use to store spare singularities, you can actually build it yourself.
And, if you get bored with it, rip it to bits and reassemble it into something else.
It's called the "Superball", and it's the biggest magnetic sculpture kit that Amazing Magnets sell.
Amazing Magnets sell neodymium-iron-boron (NIB) "rare earth" magnets in various shapes and sizes, and also sell chrome steel balls. Put the two together and you can make all sorts of baubles.
Every vertex of the Superball is chrome steel, and there are two different sizes - there are 20 5/8th inch balls, and 72 half-inch balls. Every rod in the Superball is a quarter-by-quarter-inch tube magnet, and there are two hundred and seventy of them.
Here's what the Superball kit looks like. Well, this is the kit that Amazing Magnets sent me, anyway. My kit contained exactly enough parts to make the Superball, with none left over, but the kit they list here at the moment gives you 18 more magnets and 44 more balls than the Superball actually needs. Which allows for even more alternate-model flexibility.
You don't get all this stuff for nothing, of course. The kit costs $US77.20 ex shipping.
If that seems a little alarming, there are lots of other options. Amazing Magnets have lots of cheaper products. There are smaller sculpture kits, there are various bulk and combination packs, and practically all of them cost a lot less than the Superball.
Amazing Magnets sent me a few random samples of their other wares, ranging from pinhead-sized tiny-magnets to things the size of a sugar cube that can barely be separated from each other. There are lots and lots of things you can do with NIB magnets of different shapes and sizes, which I talk about in my previous magnet piece; Amazing Magnets seem to be a perfectly good source for these things, and their extensive line of steel balls is a neat addition. They don't have any really huge NIB magnets, but that's really just as well; giant NIBs just want to smash themselves, and you. They're about as fun to play with as alligators.
Never mind the cheap seats. Back to the shiny softball.
The instructions for building the Superball are pretty straightforward, but as I sat down to do it I expected to be annoyed. You'd logically expect building a thing whose parts all either attracted or repelled each other to be a big pain; anybody who's played with NIB magnets before (and I have) will be familiar with their strong desire to go CLICK and turn into a solid Lump-O-Magnets at the slightest provocation.
Building the Superball was, however, surprisingly easy.
The tube magnets help. Because they've got a hole down the middle, they sit neatly on the surface of the steel spheres, always perpendicular to the sphere's centre. The fact that these magnets are only quarter-by-quarter-inchers also helps, because it means their magnetic field drops off more quickly with distance than it would if they were larger. This makes it easier to click together the alternating ball and magnet assemblies that make up the Superball; the magnets don't keep leaping together or flying apart.
Actually, the magnet-and-ball dynamic feels really nice. The very strong surface field of the magnets (these magnets are apparently Grade N40, which means they're a bit stronger than the surplus NIB magnets you usually find for sale on the auction sites) means they stick strongly to the balls, but the balls are highly polished and the magnets have a shiny nickel plating, so the two can slide quite smoothly over each other.
The Superball is, therefore, quite squishy as you construct it; it's easy to shove its geometry around to get everything where it's meant to be, and nothing sticks or grinds. The smooth, oiled feel of magnet-on-steel is hard to describe; it's more like manipulating a computer model of a construction toy than it is like anything that's held together by more prosaic technology.
As you get closer to finishing the softball-sized sphere, it becomes much harder to reshape, and it's very rigid when it's complete. Getting the last ball and/or magnet in place can be a bit tricky, as a result. But it's not as if you're gluing things; you can always try again.
The assembly process, in general, isn't very taxing. If you hold the magnets loosely as you put them in place, they'll spin around to point in the appropriate direction to stop them being bothered by the other magnets that're connected to the same ball. While I was building the Superball, I occasionally heard the click of some part of the thing connecting itself to some other part, but sorting such mishaps out was always easy.
Even with the ball almost finished, it's not hard to deal with problems; if one tube hops into the ball, you can fish it out surprisingly easily with a long thin screwdriver or similar skinny steel object. Poke the driver into the hole in the tube, and the tube'll hop up onto the driver shaft for easy removal.
Amazingly enough, the Superball doesn't have a large external magnetic field. The small magnets, the steel balls, and the semi-random magnet arrangement conspire to give it much, much less monitor-image-bending power than its component magnets have if you stick them together end to end. Waving the Superball around a foot from my monitor noticeably colours the image, but it doesn't come close to inducing a serious purity problem. The Superball is, thus, a safe toy for nerds who live in close proximity to magnetic media.
Rigid the Superball may be, but it's not suitable for rough play. If you drop the Superball or roll it across the floor, at least some of it will probably collapse, and some of the collapsed part will probably end up stuck inside the rest of the ball.
This isn't to say you can't handle the Superball; you can grip it hard without crushing it, and it's perfectly safe to hand it to people so they can gawp at it close up. You just can't throw it to them, unless you're really sure of their catching ability.
Throwing this thing around isn't a great idea anyway, because it weighs 1253 grams (2 pounds 12.2 ounces). You could do someone a mischief with it.
Incidentally, in the process of gaining the abovementioned weight data...
...it struck me that not a lot of people do this in the course of their daily lives.
It's quite easy to remove a small section of the Superball and peer inside. You'll be startled to learn that it looks quite interesting in there.
Looking closer again. There's a 1600 by 1200 wallpaper-sized version of the above image here.
Note that chrome steel is not stainless steel. The Superball's been sitting on a shelf since I built it, and now - more than three months after I first put this review up - all of the vertex balls are noticeably rusty. If I'd always given it a light coat of oil after someone handled it, that probably wouldn't have happened, but I didn't so it did. The magnets are nickel plated and will thus all stay shiny, but the balls can and will rust if not cared for.
If you're looking for a desk ornament that's a lot cooler than most - and highly reconfigurable - the Superball is brilliant. It is my carefully considered opinion that it rocks. It'd be nice if it didn't need rust-proofing, but you can't have everything.
But it is nearly $US80, ex shipping.
You can get yourself an Amazing Magnets sculpture kit for a lot less. A neat little Pyramid within Pyramid will only set you back $US6.97, for instance. And you can buy magnets and balls separately, to make up whatever combination you like.
Or, for about the price of the Superball, you can get a Superpack with four hundred and thirty magnets in it (but no balls).
Amazing Magnets' products are reasonably priced, well packaged, well documented, and very cool. There are lots of surplus NIB sellers around these days, but Amazing Magnets have a slick operation that can provide for all of your alien-bauble-creating needs. If you're looking for a gift for the Geek Who Has Everything, there's a pretty darn good chance that they don't have one of these yet.
Review Superball kit kindly provided by Amazing Magnets.