The History of Spirograph

++Please note, anything below is simply from my research online. I may have got some facts or dates wrong. If this is the case please do get in touch - I am always happy to be corrected!++

The History of Spirograph: The Retro Toy that shaped (pun intended) how I make art

Spirograph was one of those toys that as a kid you either loved or were scared of. The clever contraption has been inspiring artists for more than two centuries, with the first Spirograph set appearing in the early 19th century. The word “Spirograph” comes from the Greek words “Spiros” and “grapho”, meaning “propeller” and “to write” respectively. 

Diverse artists such as Salvador Dali, Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian have all produced amazing works of art using the Spirograph, and artists such as myself continue to be inspired by this classic toy. Let's take a closer look at the history of this fascinating toy and find out why so many artists still love it today…

Who Came Up With the Idea for Spirograph?

As with many inventions, it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly came up with the idea for a Spirograph, but we can look to a few different people as potential inventors. The first person we can look at is Johann Samuel Eberhardt, a Swiss mathematician who published a paper in 1843 titled “New and Useful Design for a Drawing Instrument.” Now, the device in Eberhardt’s paper didn’t look anything like a Spirograph, but he was the first person to ever imagine a design for a drawing device that used a “worm” to create line patterns. The second person we can look to is Henry Philpotts, an Englishman who patented a device in 1846 that used a similar design to Eberhardt’s.

18th Century Spiral Drawing Devices

While I can’t pinpoint exactly who invented the Spirograph, I found out about spiral drawing devices as the inspiration behind the toy. Popular in the late 18th century, these spiral devices used a rotating pencil to create spiralling patterns. Although they don’t look like a Spirograph and weren’t as popular, they were the first device to ever use a worm to create line patterns.

In 1827, Greek-born English architect and engineer Peter Hubert Desvignes developed and advertised a "Speiragraph", a device to create elaborate spiral drawings. When working in Vienna between 1845 and 1848, Desvignes constructed a version of the machine that would help prevent banknote forgeries, as any of the nearly endless variations of roulette patterns that it could produce were extremely difficult to reverse engineer. The mathematician Bruno Abakanowicz invented a new Spirograph device between 1881 and 1900, which was used for calculating an area delimited by curves.

Drawing toys based on gears have been around since at least 1908, when The Marvelous Wondergraph was advertised in the Sears catalog. An article describing how to make a Wondergraph drawing machine appeared in the Boys Mechanic publication in 1913.

The 20th Century, and Denys Fisher’s popular Spirograph

Now, we move on to the 20th century and the first hand-cranked Spirographs. The earliest versions of a Spirograph design were created in the late 19th century. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the Spirograph design saw mainstream success.

This is most likely where you’ve heard about Spirograph as it is today: Denys Fisher was an English engineer who invented the plastic spirograph toy that we know and love.

Fisher developed various drawing machines from Meccano pieces, eventually producing a prototype Spirograph. Patented in 16 countries, it went on sale in Schofields department store in Leeds in 1965. A year later, Fisher licensed Spirograph to Kenner Products in the United States. In 1967 Spirograph was chosen as the UK Toy of the Year.

His company, Denys Fisher Toys, was sold to Palitoy in 1970 which was then bought by Hasbro. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Fisher continued to work with Hasbro in developing new toys and refining Spirograph. It has since been sold by Kahootz toys, and most recently, Playmonster.

21st Century Digital Spirograph Apps

The 21st century saw the invention of digital Spirograph apps. These were the same as the classic Spirograph, but they were able to be replicated digitally. There are many different Spirograph apps available, and they’re also a lot less messy than the original Spirograph. The apps use a series of rotating discs to create spiralling patterns. So, while the digital Spirograph apps don’t look like the classic Spirograph, they are the same thing.

The app that I use the most is the Inspiral app from Nathan Friend: what a legend. Be sure to take a look into it should you fancy trying it yourself, I'm super pleased to have actually had a chat with Nathan and send him some feedback about it, not that it needed much! 

So that’s the history of Spirograph, for now!