Playing Around with Chuck Miller
Will It Go Round in Circles:
The Spirograph Creates Artists of Us All

The original U.S. release of Spirograph, also known as Kenner 401. The box contained paper, a cardboard backer, 22 gears, four pens, ten green-topped pins and a 16-page design book.
The original U.S. release of Spirograph, also known as Kenner 401. The box contained paper, a cardboard backer, 22 gears, four pens, ten green-topped pins and a 16-page design book.

The most wondrous of toys are those that help us fulfill an accomplishment. We may not be able to take on Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai in a battle of bouillabaisse, but we can at least make a tasty little cupcake in an Easy-Bake oven. We could never compete against the brilliant neon displays in New York City, but at least with a Lite-Brite we could build our own faux neon illuminations.

Thus is the case with the Spirograph. I don’t know about your artistic talent, but I can barely draw stick figures. But with the Spirograph, there were millions of artistic possibilities and geometric impressions, all created by rotating a plastic wheel inside ANOTHER plastic wheel, and tracing the wheel's path with a ballpoint pen.

The interior tray and all its components. Spirograph’s first set of trays were made in either red plastic or blue plastic; collectors tend to prefer the blue trays, as they were made in lesser print runs.
The interior tray and all its components. Spirograph’s first set of trays were made in either red plastic or blue plastic; collectors tend to prefer the blue trays, as they were made in lesser print runs.

The magical device has remained in toy stores for over 40 years, and has been u sed for everything from explaining trigonometric functions to gallery artwork. While its uses have been egalitarian and artistic, its original use was for a more serious function.

In 1962, Englishman Denys Fisher was a mechanical engineer, using his expertise with NATO to design improvements in bomb detonation equipment. Using interlocking gears and the point of a pen, Fisher hoped to trace sine and cosine waves by using the gears as a moving stencil. Originally Fisher wanted to market his spiral graphing product to industrial companies, but could find no takers. His family, however, found another use for Fisher’s invention – as an educational toy.

The “Super Spirograph” contained a whole gallery of gears and pieces. Budding artists could select from 16 wheels, two rings, eight arches, four half-wheels, three long rectangles, three short rectangles, a rounded corner rectangle, a triangle, and an L-square – plus the cardboard easel, paper and pencils. Wow.
The “Super Spirograph” contained a whole gallery of gears and pieces. Budding artists could select from 16 wheels, two rings, eight arches, four half-wheels, three long rectangles, three short rectangles, a rounded corner rectangle, a triangle, and an L-square – plus the cardboard easel, paper and pencils. Wow.

Eventually Fisher’s gear-inspired doodles became the “Spirograph” kit, and when Fisher introduced the kit at the 1965 Nuremburg International Toy Fair, toy industry officials came calling. Kenner Toys purchased the rights to Spirograph for American consumers, with Fisher receiving U.S. Patent No. 3230624 in January 1966.

Spirograph was an immediate success – in two years, over 5.5 million kits were sold, making it one of Kenner’s top toys of the late 1960’s. Various other Spirograph-related products were sold, including a “Spirotot” (a Spirograph for younger artists), a “Super Spirograph” (with geared squares and triangles), and various refill packages. Other Spirograph products included the Spiroscope, with a kaleidoscope capable of bringing new depth and view to your Spirograph drawings; a Sparkle Spirograph, featuring glitter pens; and a kinetic art Spirograph in which the pen swings on a pendulum, drawing the pattern with the power of physics.

The British copies of Spirograph, manufactured by The Denys Fisher Toys Group, featured several similar patterns as was advertised in the American edition, as well as instructions on how to create drawings of animals, including the owl pictured on the box.
The British copies of Spirograph, manufactured by The Denys Fisher Toys Group, featured several similar patterns as was advertised in the American edition, as well as instructions on how to create drawings of animals, including the owl pictured on the box.

What Fisher actually invented was a device for drawing accurate and flawless hypocycloid curves. The hypocycloid, the path of the point on a wheel rolling inside a circle, is one of several parametric equations that a Spirograph can create. If the wheel rotates on a flat surface, the curve traced is a cycloid. If the wheel rolls outside another wheel, that path traces out an epicycloid.

In 1999, Dennis Ippolito, a teacher in Stamford, Ct., used a Spirograph and several graphing calculators to teach students about parametric equations. Eventually the students discovered the mathematical formulas inherent in Spirographs to create both artwork and function, then wrote programs on their graphing calculators to recreate the Spirograph patterns on a TI-83 calculator. Ippolito later wrote about the experience in several magazines and journals, including School Science and Mathematics (November 1998) and The Mathematics Teacher (April 1999).

Although artist Ian Dawson’s previous artwork include the fusing of various plastic items into a mixed-media collage, he also specializes in Spirograph art; this 2000 piece, a80, s2000, a 73 by 73n ink on gesso on primed board, show’s the artist’s talent.
Although artist Ian Dawson’s previous artwork include the fusing of various plastic items into a mixed-media collage, he also specializes in Spirograph art; this 2000 piece, a80, s2000, a 73 by 73n ink on gesso on primed board, show’s the artist’s talent.

But since this isn’t a column called “Enjoying Trigonometry with Chuck Miller” (we can save that one for the Journal of Mathematics and Calculations), let's get back to the artistic side of Spirograph. Kenner actually anticipated the rise of the scrapbooking hobby by suggesting that Spirograph users create their own collection of Spirograph-generated art. “Use Spirograph to create designs on materials for embroidering, to decorate stationery, greeting cards, trading cards, lampshades, textiles and many more. Make your own album of ‘Spirographics.’ Show it to your family and friends … compare theirs with yours.”

In fact, several commercial artists, including New York’s Judy Pfaff, Seattle’s Jeffrey Simmons and the United Kingdom’s Ian Dawson, have exhibited Spirograph or Spirograph-influenced art in gallery shows. “Using the popular children’s toy, Dawson makes fresh and clean drawings in blue ballpoint pen on meticulously prepared panels,” said artist-reviewer Jeff Crane of Dawson’s 2000 New York gallery show. “The regularly spiraling shapes are as fascinating now as they ever were.”

Need more paper, pens or design ideas? No need to buy an extra Spirograph kit; Kenner also sold Spirograph refill packages, like the one seen here.
Need more paper, pens or design ideas? No need to buy an extra Spirograph kit; Kenner also sold Spirograph refill packages, like the one seen here.

Scrapbookers also love Spirograph, as the decorative finished patterns lend themselves to fascinating and attractive background art and borders. In some cases, scrapbookers replace the tracing paper with tinfoil, tracing the patterns with a ballpoint pen or pointed stylus. The resulting image, on the tinfoil's reverse side, will show a raised Spirograph pattern.

The original U.S. Spirograph set, marked U.S. 401, comes with 22 gears, a tablet of paper, an easel upon which the paper and gears can be safely pinned, several green-capped pins, and four colored markers. While replacement gears, pins and boards can be found by cannibalizing any Spirograph set, the kit's ballpoint pens seldom survive. After 35 years of inactivity, the pen’ ink coagulates. In a pinch, one can use a needle-nosed ballpoint pen; if you're looking for a replica of the original pens, Stylus Writing Instruments sells replacement pens, as well as other parts for various board games. Contact them at: STYLUS WRITING INSTRUMENTS, 25800 Sherwood, Warren, MI 48091, Phone: 800-968-7882.


These various intricate designs were part of the initial “How to Draw with Spirograph” booklet included in 1960’s Spirograph boxes.
These various intricate designs were part of the initial “How to Draw with Spirograph” booklet included in 1960’s Spirograph boxes.



As for Spirograph’s creator, Denys Fisher, he used the Pirograph invention to create his own toy company in England, The Denys Fisher Toys Group in 1965. In its first year of operation, the company made £30,000 in profit. By 1967, thanks to licensing Spirograph to Kenner and to other companies, Fisher realized over £337,000 in profits. Three years later, the Denys Fisher Toys Group was sold to General Mills, and Fisher was a wealthy man. In 2002, the inventor of the Spirograph passed away at the age of 84, but his design toy still lives on in the imaginations and conceptualizations of millions of artists, mathematicians and designers.

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