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Posted on Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 9:18 a.m.

Art meets invention meets alternative energy in downtown 'Whirlydoodle' installations

By Bob Needham


Tim Jones demonstrates one of his Whirlydoodles in downtown Ann Arbor recently.

Angela J. Cesere |

Small windmills with changing colored lights are brightening the downtown Ann Arbor landscape this winter. But the man behind the “Whirlydoodles” has much bigger ideas for them.

Tim Jones works as a lawyer, but he moonlights as an inventor. And his first patent already shows potential: spinning doohickeys that use the wind to power LEDs that change color as they speed up.

About 20 Whirlydoodles have been installed on light poles around downtown Ann Arbor. But Jones hopes that’s just a beginning: He’d love to see his creations organized into a larger public-art installation. And he’d also like to see them advance the debate over the potential of wind energy.

“Ann Arbor’s the kind of place you can test something like this,” said Jones, 50, a Jackson native who has lived in the Dexter area for about 10 years.

He said he basically stumbled on the Whirlydoodle concept: “One of the theories of invention is you see a need and solve a problem. I’m kind of the reverse.”

A Whirlydoodle is basically a small windmill. The wind catches the blade and spins, creating energy that generates the power for the lights, whose colors change with the wind’s speed and direction.


A Whirlydoodle attached to a light pole on Washington Street.

Angela J. Cesere |

Jones has spent about $2,000 of his own money on the project, he estimates. Thanks to the involvement of Dave Konkle, energy programs director for the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, several of the devices now sit on light poles downtown.

Initially, Jones hopes to generate some interest and raise awareness of the potential for wind energy. “It starts the conversation about clean energy in a different position,” Jones said, ultimately leading to more understand and acceptance of the concept.

Some of the poles have placards leading to Jones’ Whirlydoodle website. So far, most of the response—including an informal survey on the website—has been positive, he said.

“I think that it really helps people to understand clean energy and some of the possibilities—and some of its limitations,” Jones said.

Now, he envisions more and larger arrays, including some that he's donating to the Hands-On Museum. Ultimately he'd like to see a temporary public-art installation involving a thousand or more of the devices, perhaps on a hillside, which wouldn’t even be noticeable during the day or when the wind was still. The devices could be sold when the installation came down, which would minimize the cost.

“It’s simple, it’s safe, it’s been a tremendous amount of fun, and people enjoy it,” Jones concluded. “I think it has potential for changing people’s opinions.”

Anyone interested in Whirlydoodles should check out Jones’ Whirlydoodle website. And anyone interested in buying one (or more) can contact Jones at

Bob Needham is director of entertainment content for Reach him at or 734-623-2541, and follow him on Twitter @bobneedham.



Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 9:01 p.m.

I have questions: Has this "Art" been approved by the "Art Comission"? Was a permit obtained prior to installation? Why do several poles have placards, (free advertising) for Mr. Jones? Has any Zoning been violated? Have any installations been in an "Historic District"?


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 8:24 p.m.

The reality is that wind energy doesn't make sense in Ann Arbor. The average wind velocity in A2 is inadequate to generate enough power to make wind to electricity conversion cost effective. There are many areas of the state that are relatively cost effective, such as just offshore or onshore the Great Lakes areas. Let's spend government money where we get a decent bang for our buck.


Thu, Feb 9, 2012 : 4:49 p.m.

Joe I am talking about spending money when it can save us money. Where wind energy is cheaper than fossil fuel it is silly not to spend the money where we get a good ROI.

Joe Wood

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 11:11 p.m.

"Let's spend government money where we get a decent bang for our buck." Since we are broke, (federal gov.), let's just not spend any $ on wind energy at all. Private sector should lead the way.

Wolf's Bane

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 7:32 p.m.

Whirlydoodle: Cat toys for drunks!


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 7:27 p.m.

Whats so great about these? Just a larger version of those collegiant hand held fans that light up your college or sports team name that they sell in the gas station for 7 bucks.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 6:42 p.m.

If you're distracted by one of these, you shouldn't be driving in the first place. Do these same people crash their car whenever they see a police car driving with its flashing lights turned on?


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 5:04 p.m.

I think these are pretty neat. I would love it if they did power the street light as well, actually I'd love it if it were the street light... seeing that Ann Arbor is one of the big culprits of over-lighting, aka "light pollution" (ever try to do astrophotography in, or near town, you can't). These whirlygizmos might even be more awesome if they were attached to the Huronal, activated by the wind blown from city council!


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 5:36 p.m.

Zing! Nice.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 4:13 p.m.

whirrlygig is what they are historically called


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 4:12 p.m.

They may not save the world, but they're a fun addition to downtown. Just as long as they don't become ubiquitous. Then they might be annoying. As for distractions, once you've seen them once and know what they are, they're no longer a distraction. Christmas lights are a far bigger hazard - at least these don't camouflage traffic signals.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:58 p.m.

Distracting? How could anyone be more distracted while driving than driving with a cell phone up to the ear? I bike through downtown daily and wondered what those little guys were at Washington and Main. Cool idea!

Are you serious?

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:43 p.m.

If only all the other distractions - cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians, animals, etc. - would just stay home and leave the roads to me, I could enjoy my driving experience, including the Whirlydoodles!

Peter Baker

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:34 p.m.

If these are distracting to drivers, surely it's far more important to get rid of the far more numerous billboards lining roads and highways.

Bertha Venation

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 6:22 p.m.

Or perhaps get rid of the drivers who have an inability to concentrate on their driving.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 4:02 p.m.

Yes! Also get rid of those pesky store signs. Reading while driving is the ultimate distraction.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:31 p.m.

I like it Tim, please keep up the good work.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:25 p.m.

Are you kidding me? A distraction? That's like saying we have to stop the birds from flying around when you drive, or wind blowing tree branches or the rain/snow/hail from falling. How about limiting the number of other cars on the road or how many pedestrians can be walking down the street at any given time. You know, one more might make driving too dangerous due to the added distractions. A dangerous distraction is something that takes your eyes off of the road for more than a split second. The whirleydoodles are so subtle I barely notice them and sometimes not at all.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:23 p.m.

I'd be more impressed if the thing actually powered the object to which it's attached.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:13 p.m.

These things are a dangerous distraction to drivers, especially ones in less well-lit areas like on the bus stop at Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. and Main St. I think they're spiffy and cool, but drivers don't need more things to take their eyes off the road. I don't understand why these are being allowed to remain up!


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

And the whining begins.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:18 p.m.

It's incredible.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:07 p.m.

Next to UofM football whining is A2's favorite past time

Ron Granger

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 2:57 p.m.

I'm sure the epileptics will find this a great addition to main street.

Ron Granger

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 2:53 p.m.

Won't someone think of the birds? These scare them away. And the birds who cannot see them, or who are startled and fly into them, could be injured. These are more kid toys, not art. How long until these become a vehicle for advertising? Scattered billboards? And as someone else said, flashing lights are distracting to drivers.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 2:47 p.m.

I was wondering what those were, aside from the obvious. Pretty cool, imho.

Ron Granger

Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 3:12 p.m.

Obvious is the word. You can get a patent for anything these days. These have been on bicycle wheels for years. That these happen to be wind powered does not make them sufficiently different.


Wed, Feb 8, 2012 : 2:46 p.m.

Do we need more distractions trying to drive downtown? Are Hawk lights and crosswalks enough?


Thu, Feb 9, 2012 : 1:01 p.m.

get a life nimby