Kinetic sculpture was an international phenomenon, though its roots were primarily European. The term "kinetic sculpture" does not indicate any specific style.
The first example of kinetic sculpture is credited to Marcel Duchamp, with his Bicycle Wheel produced in 1913. Besides being an example of kinetic art it is also an example of a readymade, a type of art that Marcel Duchamp made a number of varieties of throughout his life.
In the 1920s the Eastern European artists Naum Gabo and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy began to experiment with kinetic sculpture that resembled machines. Shortly thereafter the American Alexander Calder invented the mobile, consisting of a delicately balanced wire armature from which sculptural elements are suspended.
Kinetic sculptures are examples of kinetic art in the form of sculpture or three dimensions. In common with other types of kinetic art, kinetic sculptures have parts that move or that are in motion. Sound sculpture can also, in some cases, be considered kinetic sculpture. The motion of the work can be provided in many ways: mechanically through electricity, steam or clockwork; by utilising natural phenomena such as wind or wave power; or by relying on the spectator to provide the motion, by doing something such as cranking a handle.
The 1950s and 1960s are seen as a golden age of kinetic sculpture, during which time Alexander Calder (inventor of the mobile) and George Rickey pioneered kinetic sculpture. Other leading exponents include Yaacov Agam, Fletcher Benton, Eduard Bersudsky, Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Ganson, Starr Kempf, Jerome Kirk, Len Lye, Ronald Mallory, Jean Tinguely, and the Zero group.
Kinetic art encompasses a wide variety of overlapping techniques and styles.
Jean Tinguely's kinetic junk sculpture Homage to New York in 1960 destroyed itself in the Museum of Modern Art's outdoor sculpture garden. Metamechanics has a specific meaning in relation to art history, as a description of the kinetic sculpture machines of Jean Tinguely. It is also applied to, and may have its origins in, earlier work of the Dada art movement.
A mobile is a type of kinetic sculpture constructed to take advantage of the principle of equilibrium. It consists of a number of rods, from which weighted objects or further rods hang. The objects hanging from the rods balance each other, so that the rods remain more or less horizontal. Each rod hangs from only one string, which gives it freedom to rotate about the string. A popular creator of mobile sculptures was Alexander Calder.
An art car can be considered a kinetic sculpture by definition, in that it is a piece of art that moves by a petroleum-powered engine.
A kinetic sculpture race is an organized contest of human-powered amphibious all-terrain works of art. The original and longest race is held annually since 1969 in Humboldt County in far northern California. Participants compete for three days over 42 miles of land, water, sand, and mud. Other races are held annually in locations throughout the United States, and in Australia.