Spirograph history and collectors' guide

Original Spirograph by Denys Fisher
Original Spirograph by Denys Fisher

Spirograph is a children's drawing toy. It uses cogs and racks to create elaborate circular patterns. The Spirograph toy was first sold in the UK in 1965 and in the US in 1967.

You can still buy Spirograph today, as the Original Spirograph. Vintage Spirograph sets are also plentiful on eBay.

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Invention of Spirograph

Although the origins of Spirograph go back to Victorian England, the familiar drawing toy dates from the 60s.

Denys Fisher developed a marketable version of Spirograph in the early 60s.

He was an engineer and businessman who supplied precision components to NATO. In the early 60s he explored the Victorian idea of making patterns with cogs and wheels. He tried to improve on what the Victorians did using Meccano gears during his Christmas break of 1962. But his first attempt was unsuccessful. [1]

Fisher's moment of inspiration came when he was listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He used a series of perforated cogs and racks into which a pencil could be inserted. Denys Fisher originally intented to market Spirograph as draftsman's tool, but he later decided it would sell better as a toy.[1]

Spirograph patterns
Spirograph patterns

Spirograph goes on sale

Fisher used his own business to make and distribute Spirograph.

Spirograph went on sale in 1965 in the UK. Denys Fisher may have thought Spirograph might still appeal as an adult drawing tool. The box said "Pattern drawing by revolving stencils - a new invention for everyone". There was no mention of an age limit.

An early appearance on Blue Peter also helped bring Spirograph to national attention and it was soon selling well as a toy.

Very soon it was selling in large numbers. In the first four years Spirograph took the turnover of Denys Fisher's company from £30,000 to £3 million.

Toy of the year

Denys Fisher's creation was loved by adults and children. Newspapers and magazines recommended it as an marvellous toy for older children. Older children meant children over the age of seven.

Spirograph won the Educational Toy of the Year three years running from 1965 to 1967 and became Toy of the Year in 1967. The original version cost £1 15s 6d [about £24 in today's money] from Hamley's in 1966.

Was Spirograph for boys or girls? Claire Rayner, writing in the Daily Mail in 1965, thought Spirograph's mathematical and engineering background meant it was for older children and their fathers. [2]

One of the first children to get their hands on a Spirograph was a four year old Carol Vorderman. The former Countdown presenter said it was her favourite toy. [3]

Spirograph paper, 1960s
Spirograph paper, 1960s

Spirograph was sold in America by Kenner Products, an offshoot of General Motors. It became the number one selling toy in the US for Christmas in 1967. It beat another British company, Lesney, whose Matchbox cars were previously America's top selling toy. (Now I know why Lesney made so many American cars).

Spirograph's geometric and swirling patterns chimed well with the Op Art and geometric designs that were popular in the 60s. They also fitted in fantastically with the psychedelic patterns of the later swinging 60s.

Spirograph was so successful that it started to influence the world of fashion. Op Art and geometric prints were already popular, but Spirograph patterns appeared on evening dresses in black and white printed crepe by John Cavanagh in 1966.[4]

Denys Fisher sold his company in 1970 to General Mills, an American food corporation. General Mills also owned the UK toy maker, Palitoy. The company continued as 'Denys Fisher Limited' in the 70s and Denys Fisher himself stayed on as a consultant.

Spirotot

Spirotot was the first spin-off of Spirograph by Denys Fisher. It was a simpler drawing toy for children aged three to seven. Spirotot launched in 1967 and cost 14/6 (14 shilling and 6 pence) from W H Smith.

The story was that Bob Fieldhouse, who worked for Denys Fisher, took home a gadget he found in his office drawer. His son Martin, aged 4, played with it and found he could draw patterns with it. Fieldhouse then took the gadget back to work and he and Fisher turned it into Spirotot. Denys Fisher may have designed the device and forgot about it.[5]

Or was a it just a great marketing story?

Spirograph variations

Denys Fisher Spirograph 1968 redesign
Denys Fisher Spirograph 1968 redesign

Spirograph is one of the most long-lived classic children's toys. Denys Fisher and successive companies developed the product. These are some of the main variations to look out for:

Super Spirograph

Super Spirograph was a deluxe version with extra cogs and shapes. Denys Fisher introduced Super Spirograph in 1971. According to the box it 'Does everything Spirograph does - and a whole lot more!'.

I loved Spirograph in the 1970s, I had the standard box in 1972. The Super Spirograph kept me busy for hours. Andy

How to use Spirograph

Using Spirograph
The pattern produced with the 150/105 ring and disc 48 with the pen in hole 1. It has 35 points.

The original Spirograph had a range of small cogs, two toothed rings and two racks. It was supplied with four coloured pens in black, red, blue and green. The original pens were supplied by Tallon. They were similar to the Bic Crystal pens. You could buy special Spirograph paper for drawing on.

To use Spirograph place a plain sheet of A4 paper onto a thick corrugated cardboard base. Then pin one of the large wheels or racks to the paper using four drawing pins.

Then line up one of the smaller geared cogs against the ring or rack and put a coloured pen into one of the cog's holes. You can use the inside or outside of the ring. Then turn the smaller cog, using the pen. This will draw a pattern if you keep a steady hand.

I found it also helped to hold the ring as they can move and spoil the pattern.

With just one cog and one ring and the pen in position 1, the patterns varied between just two points in an elipse to 105 points.

The instructions gave you some examples, but many more combinations could be produced with experimentation and imagination.

Where to buy vintage Spirograph

The best place to buy old versions of Spirograph is eBay. There is a lively trade in Spirograph sets from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

See also

Can you buy Spirograph new?

Yes, you can get a modern version of Spirograph made by Flair Leisure Products. It looks to have a fewer cogs then the original, but the concept looks the same - see the Original Spirograph

More on Spirograph

There is a Wikipedia article see - Spirograph on Wikipedia

There is a Facebook group about Spirograph

See also Spirograph on eBay

What other toys did Denys Fisher make?

Denys Fisher developed a building toy called Stickle Bricks in 1969 before the take over by General Mills. Denys Fisher Limited continued to make creative toys. The company marketed Etch-a-Sketch in 1970 and also produced another drawing toy called Roter Riter as well as Potter's Wheel. The company also made Sketch-a-Tune, a musical toy, around 1970.

Denys Fisher Limited produced a number of board games, some based on popular TV programmes of the 70s, such as 'On the Buses' and 'Dad's Army'. Denys Fisher Limited also made action figures from popular shows, including Dr Who and The Six Million Dollar Man.

In 1971 Denys Fisher Limited employed prisoners at Thorp Arch Open Prison, near Boston Spa in Yorkshire to pack its toys ready for Christmas. The prison was very close to the Denys Fisher factory on the Thorp Arch Trading Estate. The prisoners put the toys and games into brightly coloured sleeves ready to be sent to mail order firms. The prisoners complained that they worked seven days a week, plus two nights' overtime for just 45p (that's just £4.50 in today's money) and four extra cups of tea.[6]

Cyclex

In 1981 Denys Fisher himself developed another drawing toy called Cyclex. Cyclex was based on advanced trigonometry. On the box Fisher explained that he used a computer called Triggy to help him design the toy.

A similar toy called Cyclograph was also sold in the 1980s by Kenner Parker.

References

[1] 'Denys Fisher - obituary' published in The Times 26 October 2002

[2] 'Toys that children really want' by Claire Rayner, published in the Daily Mail 11 November 1965 page 12

[3]'Drop the dolly, boys' toys help girls to succeed' by Charles Oulton, published in the Daily Express, 12 December 1997

[4] 'Second day of the London collections', published in The Times 20 January 1966, page 24

[5] 'Little Martin has them all going round in circles' by William Greaves, pubished in The Times 4 December 1967, page 10

[6] 'Santa's Slaves' by Rupert Morters, published in the Daily Mirror 25 November 1971, page 13.

Your comments on Spirograph

"I am not convinced Denys Fisher was the original inventor of the toy known as Spirograph. His plastic templates were original and he probably did invent the name Spirograph."

Wilfar Mystic Designer, was this the original Spirograph?
Wilfar Mystic Designer, was this the original Spirograph?

"However, in the thirties there was a toy called 'Mystic Designer' which produced virtually the same results. It was made by a company called Wilfar based at that time at Wilfar Buildings, Liverpool 1. The original box it was in had on it a British Provisional Patent Number of 36158."

"Unfortunately no more information has come to hand but I would be interested to hear about any updates." Michael Cox

Mystic Designer, detail
Mystic Designer, detail

Hi Michael, The Wilfar Mystic Designer certainly looks to do much the same thing as Spirograph, although you do do not need the device with the handle. Retrowow

"Hi I loved spirograph in 1970 I had the standard box the in 1972 the super spirograph they kept me busy for hours. I would like to get hold of then again is it possible to purchase them again. Love it!!! Best Regards Andy." andrew

Hi Andy, You can get new versions of Spirograph. Look for MB Spirograph or Hasbro Deluxe Spirograph. They are different from the original. If you are looking for an original Spirograph, eBay is probably the best bet. Retrowow

"I also had a toy in the 1930s that did the same as the spirograph, but the wheels were tin. My shaky memory says the name was 'hootenanny' sp.? I used colored pencils to great effect. in the 60s we bought a Spirograph for out daughter." harriet roeder

"I loved this as a kid and am trying to get it for my grandson. This is so great for the one who can not draw and it makes you feel like you can draw. thank you so much" gloria

"hello sir, I am fond of spirographic creations. The information provided by you is inspiring but lacking enough pictorial presentation about tools used which are new for me. kindly tell me some thing about metellic spirographs which must be durable more then then the plastic once. thanks." pradeep

Hi Pradeep, Sorry I'm not familiar with the metal spirograph. The original spirograph had plastic cogs. Perhaps you are thinking about a professional drawing tool. Retrowow

"Mr. Retrowow or stephan There was a metal hootenanny or spirograph. I can't remember exactly when I used it - if as a kid or when my kids were young. It was very sturdy, the base was green and you inserted various pencils for all kinds of colored spiral effects. I would buy one now if I could find one. Maybe some of your readers still have one. Thanks for your time. " Frank Glick

" I have one of those called hootenanny. We had great fun in my childhood making all kinds of designs. There is nothing like a grand old metal toy made in the 20's." Carolyn

"I recently bought an old 1980's set in a charity shop for the princely sum of £2.50. It is unopened with the original plastic wrapping still on it, is it worth anything?"

"Hi everyone I am an avid collector of vintage art design devices. First of all before the spirograph was invented other devices which were used to create the same designs were used and came in a variety of titles, first was the 'WONDER-GRAPH' created in 1907,then the 'HOOT-NANNY' in 1929 later known as the Magic-Designer, then the DIZZY-DOODLER in 1949 made in Dallas Texas, Then the Japanese made 'MAGIC PATTERN' in the 1950s, Other devices which were motorized were also created before the Spirograph, such as The Design-o-graph in 1967, and Marx Co. made the Design-o-marx & Design-All which was much like the spirograph, there where also others created such as the Spiral-o-graph made in Germany, The Super-Circle-Designer was created by Lizbeth Whiting in 1967. The scientific name for the patterns these devices create are know as HYPOTROCOID PATTERNS, set can be purchased on Amazon.com" A.Jorden

"Very enlightening and beneficial to someone whose been out of the circuit for a long time." Kris

Add your comments on Spirograph



"Hi there,

I got 2 different sets as a child. One I think was a copy, it was called "Create-a-graph" and contained 15 wheels, 4 odd shaped gears, 2 rings, 1 rack and 1 swing bar. I've tried to find the manufacturer but there isn't a clue to be found. Later I got a Parker Spirograph set with 18 wheels, a frame and a ruler. The parts of these two were interchangeable, same teeth size. Thankfully I kept both and they are nearly complete still.

I just got inspired to get them out and try them again. Then I decided to see what was still available these days. In the Netherlands, there's a set from MB that uses magnets. It includes a metal base board, 3 templates you can keep in place using the 3 included magnets, and 7 gears. I was a bit disappointed when I first saw it, but decided to give it a try. When I unpacked it the disappointment grew because the gears had bigger teeth so I couldn't use the old parts with the new set, which is what I'd hoped. I did give the new set a try and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, it does give nice results and it is easier to use than the old set for 2 reasons, one is the magnets which do work very well to keep the sheet in place under the template, and two is that they've added an edge above the teeth on the templates, which means the gears don't slip out as easily (if you'd like I could send some pictures to explain). The bottom line is that it's not as great as the original in possibilities (less gears, bigger teeth which means less detailed spirographs, and the ring template is much smaller) but for children especially it is easier and it still gives some nice results. But I wouldn't trade it for my old sets." Karin van den Berg 23/11/2010

"When I grew up in the 1950's - 1960's I played with a "Hootenanny" that had belonged to my much-older sisters - a heavy red metal base about 9 inches square with a crank at the corner that turned a turntable about 7 inches in diameter.

There were two other mini-turntables about 1.5 inches in diameter on a side opposite the crank that were also geared to the turntable. The mini-turntables had half-inch tall posts that could be positioned at any of 8 different points on the mini-turntables.

One of the mini-turntables could be relocated; there was a lever that reached across underneath that allowed you to move it to vary the distance between the 2 mini-turntables.

Finally, there was a two-armed pencil holder. Each arm was about 6 or 7 inches long had 15 or twenty holes along its length. You'd put each arm on one of the posts of the mini-turntables, and a pre-cut round piece of paper on the center large turntable. The paper had 3 notches to align with tiny arms at the edge of the turntable, so the paper would turn with the turntable instead of sliding.

With the pencil sitting on the paper, you began turning the crank, and all the turntables would turn, pushing the pencil's arms across the paper in all kinds of loops and swirls, etc. that varied depending on all these components -- which holes along the pencil arms were chosen to set down over the posts, which positions the posts were set at on the mini-turntables, how far apart the mini-turntables were separated.

Hours and hours of fun!!!

Thanks for the memory trip!" b delong 03/01/2011

"I guess that was HOOT-NANNY, The Magic Designer -- see http://www.orangebeautiful.com/blog/post.php?post_id=1196" b delong 03/01/2011

"I was involved, with Denys at the start of the spirograph project. Also since he sold his company and sort of retired he developed a simpler easier to use device called 'Cyclex'.I have an early set plus original drawings and letter signed by Denys about the project." Derek Jackson 22/02/2011

"I recently acquired an old toy called a "Design-A-Graph". Very colorful box, looks to be from the 30's or 40's. Had a spirograph as a kid, and loved it to death. I bought this for my collection of odd & strange stuff, but know very little about it.It has one metal plate with various perforations and designs, and sits on a board with a tack pointing up that you position the metal plate over to achieve the different patterns.It is "patent pending", and has no manufacturer info anywhere on the box. Can anyone tell me a little about this toy ? Thanks" Tony 11/07/2011

"I remeber being enthralled with my Spirograph set. I think I must have had one of the fist sets as I was very young at the time; maybe seven or eight years old. I use to spend hours and hours engrossed inmaking the designs appear as if by magic.Any hopes I had of developing an artistic bent from ny Spirograph experiences were very short-lived: I cannot draw or paint to save my life!

I have no idea after all this time ehat happened to my original set; it has been lost in the mists of time. yesterday, though, I was transported back to my childhood when I was lucky enough to purchase at a local auction an ORIGINAL SPIROGRAPH SET just like the one I had as a kid! Excited? You bet I am!

The set I have is complete apart from the coloured leaflets, which is a shame. It also lacks the pack of papar, which is to be expected. If anyone has either of these items to spare or can point me in the direction where I can get hold of them I would be very appreciative." DARMOR 14/07/2011

"After reading memories of peoples enjoyment of Spirograph, I uncovered my set from the cupboard and started re-creating some patterns. I was given my set when I was about 8 or 9 years old, and as I grew older, my interests changed. A few years ago, I saw that Spirograph was still available (albeit in a new presentation box) and I bought a set to see what the changes were. I noticed that the rings are no longer fixed to the baseboard with pins, but are held in place with an orange plastic clip placed under the paper, making a hole in the paper and putting the ring (or rack) over the top.The style of pens has been changed.I must admit I prefered the style of pens in my original set.(The new set was bought in the late '80's or early '90's)" Gordon Taylor 01/09/2011

"I got mine in 1970,in Southern California, the day before we moved to Australia ....boy the kids there were sure amazed! wow...how time flies gang!" Brett 16/04/2012

"Does anyone know if Denys Fisher is still alive and has there been a Biograpy done on him?

Madonna W" Madonna Weaver 08/08/2012

"Sadly Denys Fisher passed away on 12 September 2002. There is a short Wiki article on him: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denys_Fisher" Martin BISHOP 13/09/2012

"I had a hootnanny as a child too! My two sisters and I spent a lot of time with it. I wish I could find one now for my granddaughter (I'd like to play with it too.)" jane 10/11/2012

"My daughter recently bought a used Spirograph set, which seemed complete but is missing the holder. I wish I had an image of this holder, or some idea on how to improvise one. Any suggestions?
Thank you so much for this interesting page. June-Etta" June-Etta 19/01/2013

"I have an original Japanese Magic Pattern from the 1950s. I am wondering if this is a collectible toy and what the value might be. Any information would be appreciated." Linda 06/04/2013

"Just out of curiosity, has anyone done a software version of Spirograph? I loved this toy as a kid, but many a beautiful piece was ruined as the teeth slipped and skipped. In software, you could have "gears" that could not be done physically, such as moving back and forth over the main ring, or changing size as they rotated. Of course, for a kid, there's something to be said for the tactile experience of actually manipulating physical objects..." Phil 07/05/2013

"I Need a pencil arm for a Magic Designer, any ideas on where to find one or a replacement part?" Joyce 21/01/2014

"There seems to be some misunderstanding regarding the history of spirograph, so I'd like to explain it briefly. Denys Fisher was indeed the inventor of "Spirograph" marketed as a toy for children. Years before him, however, Bruno Abakanowicz had already patented the spirograph as a mathematical device (1881). And yet, before him, Peter Hubert Desvignes created Speiragraph (1827), a similar machine built to hamper money forgery." Lucy 17/07/2018

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history
Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history