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Mechanical hand lets public smash cop cars

Artist's 7-ton "Hand of Man" steampunk creation makes that old-school Nintendo Power Glove look like child's play.

The "Hand of Man" flashes a peace sign before wreaking havoc on a local police car. Don't worry, it was donated by the 5.0. Eric Mack/CNET

Last weekend in Taos, N.M., I watched a young girl pulverize a police car with just her right hand.

Of course, she had a little help from the 7-ton hydraulic mechanical hand that she was controlling through a sort of glove apparatus mounted to a raised control chair. The mechanical working structure is a creation of local artist Christian Ristow, who first designed the "Hand of Man" for the Burning Man festival a few years ago.

Ouch. (Click to enlarge.) Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

The sculpture was on display for the public to operate as part of ISEA 2012, an international electronic-art festival held in New Mexico this year. (You can see the Crave team's full coverage here, as well as video of a coordinated low-rider ballet in Albuquerque.)

In the great steampunk tradition, the hand is completely analog. No circuit boards or software, just a collection of valves and switches controlling a system of hydraulic finger and wrist joints that work pretty much the same way as that meaty thing on the end of your arm.

Ristow told me he got the idea for the "Hand of Man" after spending part of his twenties staging robotic performances.

"I was having all the fun because I was getting to run the machines," he said. "At a certain point I came up with this idea that I wanted to build something that was intuitive enough and bullet-proof enough to allow anybody to run it."

Ristow initially spent four months building the sculpture in 2008 with a small team, but it broke down frequently and over the next few years he worked to continually strengthen the hand's weak points and improve the design.

On the day I visited in Taos, the "Hand of Man" was up and running for several hours on an old tennis court in the back of Kit Carson park.

The hand is powered by a used 4-cylinder Perkins diesel engine mounted to a hydraulic pump that was originally part of a military cargo plane loader. Ristow added a 10-circuit hydraulic system running 1500 psi with a flow of 15-18 gallons per minute. The whole sculpture weighs 14,000 pounds, not including a handful of full water barrels that are used as ballast to keep it from bouncing around.

To hear Ristow explain the inspiration behind the "Hand of Man," and watch it mercilessly toss around a squad car donated by the Taos Police Department, watch our video below.