Antique Harmonograph Drawings

The title-page of the book

The title-page of the book

An artist who had seen some of my previous posts recently gave me a tip-off about an antiquarian harmonograph book at a local Bloomsbury bookshop …. need I say more? Of course I bought it – and I would like to share some of its fascinating content. This slender book, measuring 12″ by 9″, gilt-edged with a red cloth binding,  is dated by its author’s preface at 1893, and is simply entitled “The Harmonograph. Illustrated by Designs actually Drawn by the Machine by H. Irwine Whitty, MA”  The context of this book is wonderfully clear in Whitty’s preface, and I can do no better than to offer some excerpts from it:

” In January 1892, the Norwich Science Gossip Club, of which I had the honour to be President for that year, held a conversazione to celebrate its coming of age, having just completed its 21st year. It was suggested that the Harmonograph would probably be considered an interesting exhibit; and this suggestion, joined to the fact that I had long been desirous to construct the machine for myself, gave the necessary stimulus….

“My readers will, I trust, bear in mind that every one of the curious and beautiful figures which are presented has been separately drawn by the machine itself. Under these circumstances absolute accuracy of every figure contained in the whole fifty volumes, of which the issue consists, is unattainable, and, if two copies are compared, small differences in corresponding figures can be seen…

“Furthermore, he will fall under the influence of a rare fascination….with unabated interest do I watch the pen making its intricate and mysterious rounds, passing through cycle after cycle, and laying down curve within curve, with such beautiful precision as to render almost impossible the conception that the whole complicated operation has for its inspiring cause the regular monotonous swing of two great lumps of lead.”

H. Irwin Whitty’s fascination and delight with the machine that draws is as pertinent today as when he penned his elegant prose more than 120 years ago. Picturing the meetings of the gentlemen of the “Norwich Science Gossip Club” evokes scenes from an H.G. Wells novel; we can fast forward to our present, with a discussion by Kalliope Monoiyos in the Scientific American blog Symbiartic, in which she ponders the perennial question “Can machines produce art that moves us?”

According to Whitty, the harmonograph “was first constructed by Mr. Tisley, of the firm Tisley and Spiller, the well-known opticians… It consists of two heavy pendulums, each of which swings in a plane at right angles to that of the other.” It is however worth noting that the generally held assumption is that the harmonograph was invented by Hugh Blackburn, Professor of Mathematics at Glasgow University, sometime in the 1840s.

antique harmo 3

Whitty’s two-pendulum instrument was fitted with a glass-pen – which may have contained a reservoir along its length to allow a steady flow of the violet ink in which the plates are drawn. The images are astonishingly fine and precise, each drawing presented on a smooth piece fo paper measuring 3 1/4″ by 2 3/4″. The plates are pasted onto boards which are bound into the book, carefully labelled according to the ratio of the pendulum frequencies and their musical counterparts, and protected with a tissue insert.

antique harmo 2

The text is very detailed and informative, nevertheless Whitty finishes with characteristically self-effacing remarks: “All the task the author set himself was to lay before a few friends the productions of the fascinating machine which gives its title to this little volume…This latter part has been done “with rough and all unable pen”, but if he has succeeded in giving them some little pleasure, he will have succeeded in accomplishing the main object of his work.”

It certainly has given pleasure, and I thank Mr. Graham Day, the artist who alerted me to its existence, for putting the opportunity to own this beautiful little volume my way.

Update: I have now uploaded a PDF containing scans of the full text and illustrations of this book. You can access it in the “Harmonograph Resources” section of my official website.