The Newton's cradle, 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, Rubik'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 chrome-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. If there's no one around to ignore, this can simply signify boredom.
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." Or it can just give the writers a chance to make a joke about "balls".
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".
- The third Volvic commercial shows that tyrannosaurus Alan owns a Newton's cradle with skulls rather than balls, alongside other office-like equipment.
- 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.
- Swamp Thing: Alan Moore's run gives one to General Sunderland, mostly as a metaphor for his methodically cold-blooded plan to liquidate anyone who knows anything about the titular hero (notably, Swampy's "death" at the end of Moore's first issue is intercut with panels of the marbles clicking back and forth). Moore's second issue uses the cradle for a purely visual effect - basically a crude filmstrip, with every marble reflecting a different millisecond of the General's screaming face as a vengeful Swampy comes Back from the Dead with bloody revenge on his mind.
- In Thorgal, an old scientist was seen working on one of these.
- Story Shuffle: "Coda" mentions one being on the desk of a Princess, where it's slightly unexpected.
- Storks: Hunter, the baby-hating CEO of Cornerstore, has a Newton's cradle with baby birds instead of metal balls.
- Act of Valor: The rick smuggler Christo has a Newton's Cradle on his yacht table, and it shaking is how he realizes US Navy ships are getting closer.
- 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.
- Iron Man 2 has a one and a variation of one. First played straight with one serving as both Funny Background Event and annoyance (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.
- Pacific Rim: As Humongous Mecha Gipsy Danger battles the enormous Kaiju Otachi, a missed punch crashes into an office building, tearing through desks, cubicles, and other furniture and comes to a stop just far enough to tap a Newton's Cradle on a desk and start it clacking.
- In Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, Captain Harris has a Newton's cradle in his office. When Proctor fiddles with it, Harris says, "Don't you ever touch my balls without asking!".
- The Kryptonians in Superman II are seen with one after they take over the Earth.
- In X-Men, 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 magnetokinesis, 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.
- At the end of "The Concrete Jungle," a short story in The Laundry Files, Bob enters his boss Angleton's office to find him messing with one. Two of the balls are the 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.)
- In the second book of Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, "The Hammer of Thor", the Hotel Valhalla manager, Helgi, is shown to have one on his desk, which is otherwise empty.
- In The Boys (2019), Billy meets up with a former associate in her office. She has a Newton's cradle on her desk which he starts playing with while comparing the balls to his grandfather's "bollocks flopping in the wind". His friend is not amused about this comparison.
- iCarly: One episode has Spencer build a large scale version made with bowling balls that manages to work.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000: In the episode The Brain That Wouldn't Die, there's a sketch where the cast create gimmicky hats for "Jan in the pan", who's recently been reduced to a disembodied head. Mike creates a "kinetic ball hat", a scaled-up Newton's cradle with the wearer's head serving as the center ball. Mike describes it as "A real conversation-starter!"
- 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.
- Parks and Recreation: In "Galentine's Day", Ben, Jerry, and Tom confront Harvey, a sleazy tent-rental company owner, in his office. Ben dramatically announces that Jerry will be watching Harvey like a hawk for future code violations, only to see that Jerry is playing with the Newton's cradle on Harvey's desk and hasn't been paying attention.
- In one episode of Taskmaster, Kerry Godliman brings in one, which Alex Horne calls by the trope name. Greg goes on to say "Executive Ball Clicker" is his nickname for Alex.
- The video for "Worth It" by Fifth Harmony depicts the members as high-power executives pushing away male workers, interspersed with close-ups of a Newton's cradle moving.
- The music video for Nine Inch Nails' "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).
- An episode of The Puzzle Place starts off with the gang looking at one and Leon explaining how it works.
Ben: It's just like my brothers. Only we do it with tickling.
- In the Animal Crossing games, a Newton's Cradle is one of the items your Villager can collect. When placed in his/her house, your Villager can activate the cradle by touching it. Raymond the business-man style cat also has one in his office.
- Control: In keeping with the "creepy, supernatural bureaucracy" vibe of the Oldest House, there are Newton's Cradles on many desks throughout the game that Jesse can interact with to make them start bouncing. There's a whole row of them set up in a lab they use to test the phenomenon of synchronicity.
- Going Under: A collection of Block Chains, chained blocks hanging from the ceiling, can appear in this formation in True Founder Styxcoin, and have no friction, continuing forever, with the ability to damage beings that stand too close to either end of the clicker.
- Police Quest III: The Kindred: Criminal psychologist of the LPD Dr. Sidney Aimes has a Newton's cradle on his work desk, which the game mentions is for "mindless executives". Using the hand icon on it makes him ask "Would you mind not playing with my balls, please?"
- In the first major cutscene of the game Psychonauts 2, we see that Raz has one of these inside of his cubicle after he's become part of the Psychonauts, albeit one with small brains instead of metal balls. Though it turns out this, along with everything else about the stiflingly corporate looking Psychonauts HQ seen in the cutscene is a false construct designed to keep Dr. Loboto under control while Raz and the other agents (and Lili) probe his brain for the identity of his boss. It doesn't last long.
- ZombiU: In the E3 2012 trailer, we see that a businessman who Ate His Gun has a ball cradle on his desk, among other things.
- In Subnautica: Below Zero, a sci-fi version of the Newton's Cradle labeled "executive toy" that uses magnetic levitation instead of strings can be found in an executive office in one of the abandoned Alterra bases. You can also craft one yourself, but true to the trope, it's a waste of rare and important survival resources for a bauble with no real utility.
- 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!"
- The Simpsons. In "Das Bus", 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 with it.
- SpongeBob SquarePants. When Patrick goes into one of his "office dreams", he has one of these.
- In the animated Discworld miniseries Soul Music, Death has one made of little skulls.
- In Hey Arnold!, Principal Wartz has one on his desk that he plays with sometimes. In one episode when Curly take over Principal Wartz's office, he too plays with it and the clacking balls can be heard over the school intercom.