Wikipedia describes Spirograph as a “geometric drawing device that produces mathematical roulette curves of the variety technically known as hypotrochoids and epitrochoids.” While that all sounds very important, I doubt that any kid who has ever played with a set ever cared what a hypotrochoid or epitrochoid was. They only knew that simple pieces of plastic could help them make amazing designs in a matter of seconds. While the toy/drawing device has faded from the memory of many adults, their children and grandchildren are discovering Spirograph for the first time, which is quite the feat given that Spirograph isn’t electronic and can’t be played on the computer screen. (At least, not yet.)
Celebrating over 57 years, Spirograph has changed somewhat over the years, but today, you can buy a set that looks just like the one you had when you were a kid. But more on that in a bit.
The story of Spirograph goes way back to 1827, when Peter Hubert Desvignes, an architect and engineer created what was known as a “Speiragraph”, a device to create elaborate spiral drawings. Originally, the device was created to prevent banknote forgeries with variations of roulette patterns. In the late 1880’s mathematician Bruno Abakanowicz invented a similar device used for calculating an area delimited by curves. However, it was British engineer Denys Fisher who is credited with inventing the Spirograph. (Right Image: Wikipedia)
“After building the earliest versions of the mechanism using Meccano (a popular model construction toy in the UK), [Fisher’s] children encouraged him to market it as a toy,” says Brent Oeschger, a creative consultant for Playmonster who currently makes the full line of Spirograph. “Fisher applied for a US patent in 1964 and the patent was awarded in 1966. Fisher first exhibited the Spirograph in 1965 at the Nuremberg International Toy Fair and produced it in Britain. Kenner, Inc., acquired U.S. distribution rights, introducing it in this country in 1966 as a creative toy for drawing ‘a million marvelous patterns.’”
Spirograph is hard to describe. It’s not really a toy, but it’s not really a craft kit either.
“The real magic of Spirograph is that, at its core, it is really a technical instrument,” says Oeschger. “In the same way that a drawing compass allows you to create a circular path around a fixed center point, Spirograph uses moving gears to rotate that path as it is orbiting around the center point. The Spirograph wheels and rings each have different numbers of gear teeth built along their perimeters. By varying the ring and wheel combinations you can cause the orbiting drawing path to rotate at different speeds and distances from the center point, resulting in a unique design. This interchangeable piece gear system, combined with different colors and kinds of drawing instruments, allows for truly endless design possibilities and unique, one-of-a-kind designs.” (Image right: MichaelFrey/Wikipedia)
If you are of a certain age, you might remember that the early versions of Spirograph included pins which were used to lock the Spirograph rings into place on your paper so that the pieces would not slip out of position as you were drawing. This was also intended as a way for young artists to switch pen colors and gears easily.
However, as consumer safety standards in the US toy industry advanced in the 1970’s, the pins were no longer a safe option for use in Spirograph sets and Spirograph had to rely on other ways of securing the pieces to the paper.
“Sets of the 70’s and 80’s had plastic frames that were placed under the paper and locked into the rings with pieces that poked holes in your paper,” says Oeschger. “This is the kind of set I had as a kid, and I hated that my paper had ugly holes and your pen skipped when it passed over the piece underneath.”
“Sets produced in the 90’s and 2000’s gradually began to rely on big plastic drawing desks as a solution to lock pieces in place. The inclusion of these desks resulted in a necessary reduction of the number of gears and wheels in order to off-set the component cost impact. These Spirograph sets gradually began to be positioned for younger consumers only and were often sold alongside pre-school toys.” (Image left: Playmonster)
In 1987, the Tonka Corporation acquired Kenner Inc. Then in 1991, Hasbro acquired Tonka. Sometime later, Hasbro licensed Spirograph to Kahootz Toys. At that time, Oeschger served as Associate Vice President of Design at Kahootz Toys, of which he was a partner.
“When we partnered with Hasbro to relaunch the Spirograph brand in 2012, the first thing we wanted to do was to return the consumer deliverable to the original,” says Oeschger. “That meant including all of the original wheels and gears. However, we obviously could not also return to using the pins, so we set out to find a better solution that provided the same function as the pins without the safety concerns.
“The solution came by chance as we were posting papers with idea sketches onto our wall. Without a corkboard, and not wanting to use pins that would damage the wall, a half-used pack of wall-tack putty in a drawer provided the ‘Ah-Ha’ moment…..a way to securely stick the rings to the paper in a temporary way that left no marks or holes on your design! With this breakthrough, we were able to return Spirograph to the original configuration and get started on innovation from there.”
Today, there is a resurgence with Spirograph even with adults. Heather Holm speaks fondly of her set on her blog, Spirographicart.com.
“The only toy I still have from growing up is a Super Spirograph. It has survived many moves and a fire. The box cover disappeared long ago, so the wheels and rings and other bits sit in their plastic tray with improvised protection…I don’t personally know anyone else who has an original Spirograph set. Just people I’ve met through this blog.”
And they do respond!
“Thank you so much, Heather! Your website kind of infected me now with all the wonderful information,” says one reader. “So glad I found your site! Lots of really helpful and inspiring ideas,” says another.
Spirograph also has some pop culture connections.
“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,” says Nostalgia Central, a website dedicated to “the way things used to be.”
In a 1995 The Simpsons episode, a mysterious Dr. S., who lived in the Spirograph factory, had an interesting theory about the correlation between the decline of Spirograph and the rise in gang activity.
In 2019, Playmonster acquired Kahootz Toys and offers an amazing array of 17 different Spirograph sets from which to choose from, some of which you will no doubt remember. The Original Spirograph Design Set comes in a tin instead of a box, the Spirograph Retro Deluxe Set comes in an exact replica of the original Kenner set (minus the pins) and the Die-Cast Collector’s Set contains 10 metal die-cast drawing pieces with nine golden wheels and one golden wheel.
The company also offer its newest, Spirograph 3D set. This set includes nine classic Spirograph pieces, two pairs of 3D glasses, three fine-line pens, two 3D sticker sheets, a 3D graph pad, a 3D pattern pad, 10 classic design sheets and a classic guidebook.
Yes, I got a chance to play with the set myself and it brought back a bunch of memories. I really like the addition of the putty instead of the pins too! The set also brings back the love of the old red and blue 3D art form and it’s pretty cool that you can create these new designs yourself!
“Spirograph products can be found online and in retailers all across the country and internationally, from big mass market chains to independent toys stores, museum gift shops, drug stores, airport shops and more,” says Oeschger. “We have strategically developed a range of product configurations, themes and price points which allow us to deliver that amazing Spirograph experience to consumers where-ever we meet them.”
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.