This device, named after physicist Sir Isaac Newton, is a well-known science toy that operates on the principle of conservation of momentum and energy. If someone is an executive, they almost certainly have one on their desk. In fact, it nearly signifies "executive". There may be other executive office toys (Lava Lamps, Stress Balls, Rubic's Cubes), but there is something about the Newton's Cradle that especially reminds us of the executive's seat of power, influence and control.
Perhaps it is the fact that they have time to play with something useless, amusing and especially hypnotic (even for an executive toy), unlike everyone else, who is, nose-to-the-grindstone, focused on productivity. Maybe there is the fact that many models are Made Of Shiny
and are often chome-like, echoing the popular image of the sleek, Ascetic Aesthetic
hypermodern office furniture that we have popularly associated with executive corner offices since the early 70s. Plus, it offers that oh-so-executive functioning of operating with a single swipe or stroke: even when operating useful objects, executives seemingly never do more than press a button or sweep their hands over a panel, or sign their names. We often think of this "single stroke of the hand" as synonymous with "executive" as well.
Perhaps it is they way the device symbolizes their power: over us, over the direction of the company, or over the world itself. This may be a Corrupt Corporate Executive
. Especially if they are a technology executive or a media executive.
Another purpose for the cradle is for the executive to fiddle with it while somebody is talking, to signify their lack of respect for the speaker or short attention span. This may be a Pointy-Haired Boss
. Especially if they are a technology executive or an entertainment executive.
Nevertheless, the ball clicker often shows up in fantasy sequences that involve the balls being substituted with helpless beings in some form. Having the balls be replaced with skulls or heads seems to be a common subtrope.
Maybe it is supposed to reflect a scientific, analytical mindset, or a love of balance and order (represented by the "every action has an equal and opposite reaction" science behind the toy)...
It may also just be a kind of sloppy shorthand. Sometimes it may signify something, but other times it just may be the props department saying, "Fancy chair, check. Fancy desk, check. Clicky thingy, check."
Interestingly, as MythBusters
' Adam and Jamie showed, this actually only works as a desktop item. It does not work on a grand scale.
See also The Thing That Goes Doink
- A Beano annual features The Numbskulls having been put into a Newton's cradle instead of the balls. They are not happy about being bashed about.
- In Thorgal, an old scientist was seen working on one of these.
- The Kryptonians in Superman II are seen with one after they take over the Earth.
- One of these is on the desk of Sidney J. Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy. One of the clickers actually stops mid-air when time stands still.
- In the X-Men movies, Magneto isn't actually an executive, but being a villainous mastermind, the effect is mostly the same. Interestingly, the metal balls in his Newton's cradle aren't actually operating via inertia-- he's simulating the effect with his telekinesis, and they're actually floating in midair. When he leaves the room and is no longer paying attention to them, they fall to the floor.
- The second Iron Man film has a one and a varation of one. First played straight with one serving as both Funny Background Event and Most Annoying Sound (Tony's trying to talk over the incessant tick-tick-tick) until he finally removes it. Later on when he gives control of the company over to Pepper, He tries to talk to her from across the desk but this perfectly balanced spinning doohickey that serves a similar aesthetic function is blocking his view. He finds it extremely annoying and asks if he can move it, but she says no.
- At the end of "The Concrete Jungle," a short story in The Laundry Series, Bob enters his boss Angleton's office to find him messing with one. Two of the balls are the severed and shrunken heads of the story's Big Bad and Dragon.
- In Discworld, Death, who has little grasp of why humans do things and tends to seize on the most peculiar things and then miss the point, has a toy on his desk with a single ball bearing and a large slab of metal. The bearing hits the metal and stops. That's it. (In the Animated Adaptation of Soul Music, this was replaced by the skulls version.)
- The Nine Inch Nails video for Only is based around executive office toys. One of these represents the percussion and there's one of those boards full of blunt pins that everyone sticks on their faces (ew).
- I know there was a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where Joel (or was it Mike?) invents a hat that's a scaled-up Newton's cradle, with the wearer's head serving as the center ball. (I don't remember which episode this was. It may have been the sketch from The Brain That Wouldn't Die where everyone invents a Nice Hat for the film's recently-disembodied head.)
- The MythBusters crew tried making a wrecking ball-sized Newton's Cradle, perhaps the largest one ever built, but found that scale matters: they could not achieve the energy transference of the smaller-scale models.
- The Simpsons. When Homer starts his internet business he sets up a home office on the dining room table, including one of these. His "business" consists largely of him sitting at the table playing wih it.
- Sponge Bob Square Pants. When Patrick goes into one of his "office dreams", he has one of these.
- In the animated Diskworld miniseries Soul Music, Death has one made of little skulls.
- In Futurama, "The Day The Earth Stood Stupid", a dumbed-down Prof. Farnsworth sticks his head between the balls of a Newton's Cradle as they go back and forth on his skull. "Ow! Ow! I'm a genius. Ow!"