What do you get if you cross Alan Turing with the London Olympics?

IMAGE: The Universal Tea Machine, Smout Allen and You+Pea with Iain Borden.

According to British architects Smout Allen, the answer is a very variable cup of tea.

Their Universal Tea Machine, designed at the Bartlett School of Architecture in collaboration with You+Pea and Iain Borden, is “a gargantuan cross between a tea-making device, a primitive computer and a pinball machine.” It will be inaugurated on Friday, July 27, as part of Mayor Boris Johnson’s amusingly named “LOOK & FEEL” initiative for the 2012 London Games, which also includes more than 25 kilometres of bunting, some carousels, and a variety of over-sized sporting equipment left scattered around the city as if by the gods of Mt. Olympus themselves.

IMAGE: A giant shot-putt, part of the Mayor of London’s Incredible Installations series.

The Universal Tea Machine will dispense up to 2,000 free, freshly made cups of tea each week from its temporary home next to a giant screen streaming Olympic coverage in Victoria Park, Hackney — but you will only receive a nice builder’s brew with milk and sugar, as opposed to a dry tea bag with three sugar lumps or a cup of hot milk and water, if you can perform binary addition.

That’s because, while half of the tea machine is a Heath Robinson-style assemblage of laser-cut aluminium wheels, pinions, and springs that flick sugar cubes, open hot water taps, and tip milk cartons, the other half uses hockey balls, over-sized fluorescent-painted marble runs, and logic gate flippers to create a functioning binary adder.

IMAGE: The Universal Tea Machine, Smout Allen and You+Pea with Iain Borden.

Would-be tea drinkers will have to perform five sequential additions correctly in order to produce a perfect cuppa. If you are numerically illiterate, like me, this will be no easy task. Mark Smout walked me through it over the phone:

There is a spinning drum at the top, which will show a number that you have to arrive at using the five numbers that are available to you: 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16.

So, if it shows the number 17, you’d pull the 16 lever and the 1 lever. Then the machine will drop a teabag in your cup, and the drum will show the next number — say, 21. You’d have to pull the number 4 lever, to add to the 17 to make 21 — at which point, you’d get a splash of milk. Then you might be given the number 28, and you’d have to pull the 4, the 2, and the 1 for a sugar.

And so on, twice more, for water and a stir.

IMAGE: The Universal Tea Machine, Smout Allen and You+Pea with Iain Borden.

Mistakes lead to potentially disastrous repercussions: your cup will miss out on one part of the tea assembly line and get an extra of another, so you may end up with a lot of milk and no hot water, or two sugars but no teabag at all. If you don’t take sugar and have a Master’s in mathematics or computer science, Mark suggests that you could deliberately perform that calculation incorrectly and hope to receive just a double stir — but the risk of a milky cuppa is real.

IMAGE: Sandra Youkhana of You+Pea peaks through the number 16, during the fabrication of the Universal Tea Machine.

The Universal Tea Machine is obviously a lot of fun, but it also continues an important thread in Smout Allen’s previous work: designing extremely complex, dynamic systems, whether it be flood-control infrastructure or Earth-Moon interactions, in such a way that their workings are somehow spectacularised, becoming accessible and engaging to non-experts.


VIDEO: Lunar Wood by Smout Allen.

The team copied the giant sawtooth mechanism for lifting the balls up to the top from a children’s penguin race game, there are little flags at the logic gates that pop up to tell you when you’ve released a number correctly, and everything is brightly coloured and oversized.

IMAGE: The Universal Tea Machine under construction.

“With Turing’s centenary,” explained Mark, “there was also a lot of talk about children not learning any computing language in school and, indeed, not knowing how binary functions are performed, even though it is the corner stone of computing. We thought we would try to build something that would allow kids — and adults, under the guise of letting their children play with it — learn about that stuff in a fun way.”

IMAGE: A giant concrete cake created by Westby & Jones in collaboration with Bompas & Parr.

The UTM is currently being fabricated by Westby & Jones, whose previous work includes a collaboration with Bompas & Parr on a brutalist birthday cake for the Barbican, and Ollie Palmer, of ant ballet fame.

Inevitably there have been some hiccups: food safety regulations require that the delicate clockwork machinery of the tea-making apparatus be hosed down each evening and none of the official Olympic food and beverage sponsors seem to be able to supply sugar cubes. Meanwhile, rising material costs have produced a sort of inverse Moore’s Law effect, cutting the device’s planned computing power in half.

IMAGE: The Universal Tea Machine, Smout Allen and You+Pea with Iain Borden.

But Mark Smout was quietly confident that, come next Friday, he’ll be one of hundreds wearing a poncho and enjoying a hot cup of tea while watching Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony on the big screen in Victoria Park. “After all,” he added, “what could be more British than queuing for a slightly dodgy cup of tea in the rain?”

UPDATE: Check out this video of the Universal Tea Machine in action!