Friday, 18 November 2011

Elephant No. 47: Spirograph

Today was a bit of a hectic day, so I wanted something that wouldn't require a lot of preparation or work. I've had a Spirograph® set for years—it's also been years since I've used it—so I thought I'd see if I could produce an elephant with it.

The technical name for Spirograph is "hypotrochoid drawing set". According to some of the information I read online, sets like this produce mathematical curves called hypotrochoids and epitrochoids. These sound more like Palaezoic organisms to me—then again, I wasn't much of a math whiz in school, and geometry was a complete mystery.

Drawing sets like this, with toothed gears, have been on the market since at least 1908, when the Sears catalogue featured "The Marvelous Wondergraph". Five years later, a 1913 issue of The Boys Mechanic magazine included an article on how to make your own "Wondergraph drawing machine". Interestingly, an instrument called a spirograph was invented by Lithuanian mathematician Bruno Abakanowicz sometime before 1900 as a tool for calculating the area contained within a curved space. 

The Spirograph toy was created by British engineer Denys Fisher—whose company produced it—and was exhibited at the 1965 Nuremburg Toy Fair. The rights were bought by Kenner Inc., which launched it in the United States in 1966. Today the kits are produced by Hasbro.

My Spirograph set is actually one of the originals produced by Kenner. When I first got it, I spent hours drawing psychedelic patterns in the four colours of pen that came with the set: blue, red, green and black. I remember that the worst thing you could do with a Spirograph drawing was let your hand slip. Not only did this cause unsightly jagged lines, but it meant you could never line up the gear properly to finish a particular shape. Very disappointing to a kid.

Surprisingly, they also sell sets like this at the dollar store. I was tempted to get one just do see if it was any good, but I have enough junk in the house. Besides, why buy a cheapie when you already have the deluxe version? 

For today's elephant, I started out with this retro multi-coloured pen, but the design looked terrible when I used multiple colours. It was even worse if I used multiple colours and multiple gears. I think it was because each gear makes a different shape, so there was no visual cohesion, and the visual chaos was only exacerbated when I added extra colours. 

After a great deal of trial and error—and I mean a great deal—I settled on using the purple colour of ink in the multi-coloured pen, and limited myself to a single gear and a single outer ring. 

The first thing to do is to use map pins to secure a ring called a "stator" to paper underlaid with corrugated cardboard.

Next you take a gear called a "rotor", insert the pen in one of the holes, and start drawing. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

I loathed this activity. It was one of the worst things I've tried so far. My hand slipped more times than I can count, which meant I had to go back over things, trying to fit the pen into the right hole and line it up with the right tooth in the outer ring. 

Spirograph also doesn't really lend itself to making a recognizable object, so you have to make a lot of shapes and hopefully overlap them in a way that works. I think I could quite happily have just sat and made pretty shapes with Spirograph, but trying to create an elephant was an exercise in frustration.

For anyone who wants to try this, here are the things I learned:

1. You can't use just any old pen. The nib has to be thin enough and long enough to fit through the tiny hole in the gear, while also connecting with the paper.

2. Make sure to pin the outer ring securely. If you don't, it will move around, throwing your design off register. When you're finished, you can remove the pinholes by rubbing them with your fingernail from the reverse side of the paper.

3. Use heavy paper. I started with regular sketchpad paper, but the repeated scratching of the pen tore through it almost immediately. I ended up using heavy watercolour paper, and it still nearly went through in a couple of places.

4. Be prepared for eye strain. There's something very discombobulating about looking at these sort of moiré patterns for more than a few minutes.

5. If your hand slips (and it will), it's better to add another pattern over top the messy one, rather than trying to correct the slip.

6. The closer the hole you've chosen is to the centre of the gear, the smaller and tighter the design will be.

7. The helpful guide in the lid of the box is definitely your friend. However, it will not tell you what variation of the design you'll get. You could get a ring that looks like a doughnut, or a ring that looks like a daisy, from the very same gear. You can see the range in my elephant, which was all done with the same gear, but using different holes.

I don't mind the final result, but I doubt I'll ever try drawing an actual figurative object with Spirograph again. I think there are computer programs for that.

Elephant Lore of the Day
A 2002 elephant-tracking iniative in the African nation of Mali revealed some interesting things about the migration patterns of a trio of highly endangered elephants.

Using radio-tracking devices, researchers recorded the exact migration route of the elephants. During the course of a year, the elephants covered a total of 450 kilometres (280 miles)—the largest known migration route of any elephants in Africa. 

Interestingly, the elephants' migration route covered a complete counter-clockwise circle. Moving south and following the rains, the elephants managed to unerringly negotiate the long distances between watering holes.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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