|The harmonograph was a machine for making automatic abstract drawings. It was invented in the nineteenth century by mathematician Jule Lissajous. You can read a lot more about harmonographs on this web page, where our featured image comes from.
It’s striking that the first harmonographs used light on a screen as their “drawing” medium, since today it’s natural to think about building a harmonograph using software rather than a physical apparatus. I made a very crude one using Processing in about ten minutes, producing the image below with just a few lines of code; if you know about Processing you can play with a rather more sophisticated one than mine here.
Last year, however, artist Anita Chowdry, working with technicians at CSM, built a splendid harmonograph entitled “Iron Genie”. There’s a continuous tradition of such machines, mostly using the pendulum principle, from children’s toys to Jack Tait’s complicated mechanisms.Although the software approach is efficient, how the drawings are made remains mysterious, hidden behind the screen. Mechanical versions, on the other hand, make the mathematical principles at work legible.
These figures have connections with some of the themes our currently-running Strange Spaces course are about to investigate: dimensions, pursuit curves, thread constructions and curvature. There are also some connections with sound and music, as Anthony Ashton points out in his nicely-illustrated book, and perhaps even dance. Harmonograph figures also inspired some mystics of the time, including Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. But all these are topics for another day…