Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reinventing the Wheel

My friend Yvonne always thinks of the cleverest gifts, and about a year ago she surprised me with a book by Jessica Helfand called Reinventing the Wheel. It's a compendium of all those wonderful rotation devises so many companies have sold or given away as advertising through the years. Helfand writes at length about the origins of these wonders. They go back hundreds of years, were first used primarily as astronomy charts, and were called "volvelles." The math wheel above dates to the 1920s, and somebody learned their lessons well enough to earn a gold star in each corner of the wheel.

This colorful wheel from 1931 features 40 Wonders of the World on the reverse.

This rather Art Deco wheel dates to 1932, when Myanmar, Thailand and Iran
were still Burma, Siam and Persia.

This 1933 nail gauge had a "loop" at the top so that it could be hung
in the nail section of a hardware store.

World War II saw a lot of these spotters, for airplanes, ships, insignia, etc.

This wheel looks decidedly Victorian, but it was actually designed for Holt, Rinehart & Winston by Aaron Heller in 1973. It's a spelling aid - the middle letter is stationary, while the beginning and ending letters revolve to form new words.

I enjoyed the book so much that I started rummaging through my own materials to see if I had a wheel, too. And here it is - my proportion wheel, which I still use occasionally for scaling items. I'll bet you've got a "volvelle" or two at your house.

Reinventing the Wheel is a most entertaining book, with wheels on everything from gestation periods for breeders, to presidential quizzes, to good old color wheels. And needless-to-say, it is richly graphic!

A Winterhouse Edition
Princeton Architectural Press


  1. Oh these are fun. I remember when this book came out.

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