The original Spirograph

A collection of plastic gears and colored pens caught the attention of a generation of youngsters in the 60’s and 70’s. If you were patient, you could create some amazing drawings that would look great festooning your bedroom walls. But it did require patience, something that not all of us came by naturally.

A British electronic engineer named Denys Fisher invented Spirograph in 1962. In the tradition of Super Glue, Velcro, and Teflon, it was created for a strictly-business use which ended up making its mark as a lighter-weight product.

Fisher’s family noticed that one of his geared creations aimed at manufacturing industrial products made some cool patterns in you traced their motions. They convinced him that he had one cool toy on his hands, and he listened.

Eventually, Kenner Toys grabbed the design and started marketing it in 1966. It sold untold millions, including two sets bought by my wife and myself when we were tots.

The tool required patience, indeed. My problem, being a hyperactive child (i.e. a future Type A), was that I would go too fast and screw the drawing up. Eventually, I learned to patiently and slowly trace the mathematically set routes and create some cool images.

The best toys would teach a lesson. This one did just that.

You also learned that math didn’t suck. I always hated math, it was by far my worst subject. Yet, the gorgeous patterns you created were based on good old math. The fact fact that you could vary the size of your drawings by using different holes on the geared wheel was an almost transcendental bit of knowledge. You walked away realizing that math could be applied in ways that were pretty cool.

Spirographs are still available in vastly inferior forms to its glory days when it was a very hot item. The cheap Chinese-made versions are an insult to its legacy.

In fact, the numerous Java-based Spirograph applets all over the web are a more honorable tribute to this classic plastic toy. They make full use of the mathematical principals which Mr. Fisher uncovered so many years ago.

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