The year was 1965, and British engineer Denys Fisher introduced the little ones to mathematics with a set of ridged plastic shapes known as Spirograph (based on an invention by Polish mathematician Bruno Abakanowicz).
Building prototypes of the toy from Meccano, Fisher took the Spirograph to the 1965 Nuremberg International Toy Fair where he sold the US distribution rights to Kenner and followed up by launching his own company to sell the toy in the UK. It was an instant hit.
This amazing toy was nothing more than plastic circles and shapes with plastic teeth along the edges (like gears) that created the most intricate designs when a pen traced the path of the small shape as it rolled along inside the bigger circle.
It seemed so simple, and yet these two pieces of plastic and a pen miraculously created the most elaborate patterns of geometric swirls and shapes. It was dubbed “Toy of the Year” in 1967. More than 45 years later, in 2014, it was again a Toy of the Year finalist in two categories.
The weird thing about Spirograph was that you never knew when you were finished. Ultimately you would just go around and around and around until you eventually ripped a hole in your masterpiece with the pen.
For the younger creative genius, there was Spirotot. Other products in the range included the amped-up Super Spirograph, the Spirograph-themed kaleidoscope known as the Spiroscope, and a glitter pen set called Sparkle Spirograph.
I remember the first Christmas I got a Spirograph. I lay on the lounge room floor all Christmas day drawing patterns while watching Billy Smarts Circus on the TV – and when I ran out of paper I dressed my Action Man in his orange frogman suit and went diving under the coffee table.
Spirograph still excites and educates (albeit subliminally) and has even added a modern twist.
All sorts of crazy neon plastic shapes make up today’s Spirograph, but the concept remains the same: the wonderful, seemingly magical (but mathematically sound) series of ridged circles and ellipses create the best in pre-Einstein years mixed with a little Warhol for good measure.
The curved shapes you create by rolling around the outside teeth of a Spirograph wheel are technically known as “epitrochoids”. The shapes you create by rolling around the inside of a circle are called “hypotrochoids”.
The term “Spirograph” has become so ingrained in popular culture that the distant nebula ‘IC 418’ is also named ‘the Spirograph Nebula’ as its form hints at the patterns the toy generates.