Saturday, September 17, 2011

Before the Spirograph

© Mark D. Ruffner, 2011

I was noticing that my readers seem to enjoy looking at my posting on guilloche, and that got me thinking about our fascination with spirals, and a favorite American toy — the Spirograph! and

If you were of a certain age in 1967, the biggest Christmas present of the year was Kenner's Spirograph. By fitting together a variety of plastic pieces, one could make an endless combination of guilloche patterns, or spirals. Kenner also sold a deluxe model, with many more pieces and the possibility of even more fun creations.

I missed out on the Spirograph because I was well beyond the age of those kids on the box cover; actually I was already away from home.

But in the 1950s, I played with the precursor of the Spirograph — the Magic Designer!

I still have it, box and all.

No plastic here — this was a designing machine! All the parts were metal, and the Magic Designer had the look of an engineering instrument. It came with its own neato paper die cuts for drawing. I still have a supply of those, too.

Below is information on the disc envelope for reordering. Note that the 6¢ postage would have been extra, for special handling!

The Magic Designer was a hugely popular Christmas present in its own time, and I should know. The Christmas morning I received mine, I didn't get much time to play with it because my father and grandfather were having all the fun!

Today I enjoy creating mandalas, which occasionally appear spiral-like. I created the header of this posting on the computer. It's a better tool for such designs, but I wouldn't be surprised if the ultimate Spirograph is yet to come.


  1. Hello Mark:
    How we should have enjoyed the Magic Designer, the like of which, or anything similar, we have not seen before in the UK. Doubtless, with its metal parts, it would be considered potentially dangerous these days and quite unsuitable for children. It is so good that you still have it; we much regret the 'disappearance' [at the hands of parents, we think] of nearly all of our childhood toys.

  2. I also remember somewhat related spin art, in which the paper spun around, and the pens or paint was applied to it or dashed on it. There were big outdoor ones at carnivals, but we had a smaller home version.

    Unfortunately, I am so inartistic that even with rulers, spinners, and Spirographs I am still unable to make a neat-looking design.
    --Road to Parnassus

  3. Hello Jane and Lance: All the Magic Designer's metal parts were well-connected, and beyond being ingested, but as I look at those childhood toys that I was able to save, I am indeed struck by how I was entrusted with so many small (edible) things!

  4. Hello, Road to Parnassus - I vaguely remember the carnival spin art you mention. I suppose with all today's digital toys and apps, it's harder to delight kids, but I know that the sort of game you mention really had a way of firing the imagination.

    I would add as an afterthought that I think some of the best games are the ones that inspire kids to move one step further and make something on their own.

  5. Dear Mark - your destiny to be a designer was obviously established when you were a youngster.
    The Magic Designer is a lovely toy. Clearly, it was a prized possession as you have kept it in such good order.

  6. Hi, Rosemary - I do believe you are correct on all counts! What I marvel at is what a sturdy, heavy-duty and well-tooled toy this is. It was made before our society became enamored of (or perhaps just accepting of) disposable items.

  7. I remember getting a Spirograph. I never had very good results with it and my attempts lacked the precision of the examples that were seen in the ads.

    I didn't know that there was an earlier version of it. Isn't it a pleasure to see the quality, enameled metal?

    It is interesting to know what possessions of childhood have endured and been retained. I still have some of my picture books, especially my Ideals "Night Before Christmas", and a big collection of Lego blocks, and my Golden Book Encyclopedia. I think it is very unusual in these disposable times, that adults save something either for themselves, or to pass on to younger family members as heirlooms.

  8. Hi, Terry - I was an Army brat, so my childhood entailed many packings and moves. As a child, I was constantly required to sort toys and keep only those I cared about the most. That became a lifelong habit (I am constantly editing what I own), and the result is that I retained from my childhood one small box of those things that were most precious to me.

    I think that in a disposable society, almost everything loses some value. Many of my toys were made from high grades of metal, and from wood, and they really stand apart from today's plastic toys for that reason.

  9. Vector Spirograph!

  10. Thanks for the great contribution!

    I encourage my viewers who have the Adobe Illustrator program to visit the site above and try out the step-by-step vector spirograph.

    You'll love it!

  11. I have developed a computer application program to emulate Magic Designer.

    I received mine in 1966. I still own mine. It has been my life's work to combine my two interests of computer programming and Magic Designer. I encourage people to go to my website:

    I have two versions. One version is for downloading and installing on a MS Windows computer (not sure if it works in 64 bit Windows) and a version on the website which works in any modern web browser.

    Please contact me with any questions or comments.

  12. I have good news. My program does work on Windows 7 64 Bits. The problem is that some virus protection software removes my program. Those people should use my browser based version. Thanks.

  13. Hi Mark. Very interesting piece on the Magic Designer! I came upon your blog post because I was searching for a bit of my childhood history, a drawing toy I received in 1964 o 1965. It may have been a version of a pantograph, it was less sophisticated than the Magic Designer. As best as I recall, it was a plastic tray with two plastic disks with gears mounted on it, the discs were connected by a notched rubber belt. The colors were blue and red, or blue and orange. There was a piece that held a pen, but I don't think I ever learned how to use it properly, and the belt broke, so it just sat in an old toy chest for the next 30 years, and I eventually threw it out. Do you or anyone else recall something similar to that from the early 1960's?

    I loved Spirograph when it came out, I was 8 years old, but my older toy seemed as if it was supposed to do something similar. And I have never heard of the word guilloche before, so I've learned something today. Thanks for reading! - Joe Jankowski, Columbus OH

    1. Hello, Joe,

      The first spirograph was invented in the late 19th century by a Polish mathematician and engineer named Bruno Abakanowicz. One of the earliest toys to use his principles was the Marvelous Wondergraph, which came out in 1908.

      Hoot-Nanny, the Magic Designer, which I've showcased, actually was introduced in the 1930s.

      You may have owned the Dizzy Doodler, which was marketed starting in 1949.

      Or perhaps you played with Design-O-Marx, which came out in 1955. It was created by Louis Marx, whom Time magazine named "America's toy king."

      All of this information comes from a great book by Kate Roberts and Adam Scher, "Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s." Kate and Adam were in touch with me after I wrote this posting, and sent me their book after our exchange. It's published by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

      I hope that helps!

    2. Mark,

      Thanks for your response. I did look those items up, and they were not the one I had, but it was fun reading about them. I believe since I first wrote that I have identified the toy I had, it's called a Design-O-Graph, made by Merit. Once I saw it, I knew that was it. I remember trying to draw on it, but the gears and belt didn't move easily, and I didn't have the patience at the age of 6 to stay with it. Eventually I just took it apart out of boredom. Here's a picture of it on eBay:

      Thanks for your blog, I've had fun reading about these toys! - Joe

  14. I had the 'Magic Designer', the metal, 'serious designer'! Loved it & wish I had kept it!!!