An archive of optical/mechanical/automated drawing machines/devices/aids


Contact: info@drawingmachines.org
Archive project by Pablo Garcia
Site built by Brannon Dorsey

What is this site?

DrawingMachines.org is an archive of optical/mechanical/automated drawing machines/devices/aids.

This site’s goals:

DrawingMachines.org attempts to simultaneously be scholarly, technical, engaging, inspirational, and, most of all, useful. Every attempt is made to satisfy the academic art historian, the artist, the designer, the tinkerer and the student. If you are looking for historical or technical information, this site aims to satisfy both. This is a reference site, but aimed at different audiences interested in drawing.

This site represents over five years of independent research on drawing and the histories of art and technology. The sources vary from patents to centuries-old primary sources, meaning this site attempts to be authoritative and comprehensive about the history and applications of drawing machines.

DrawingMachines.org is a media archeology project. A what? Jussi Parikka defines it like this:

Media archaeology [is] a heterogeneous set of theories and methods that investigate media history through its alternative roots, its forgotten paths, and neglected ideas and machines that still are useful when reflecting the supposed newness of digital culture.

Part historical, part instructional, DrawingMachines.org is your place to learn about the history of drawing technologies.

What is a Drawing Machine?

“Drawing machine” is shorthand for any device/apparatus/mechanism/aid/instrument that draws or assists in the act of drawing. Since the early 1400s when linear perspective set an ambitious agenda of using mathematics and geometry to codify vision, artists, scientists and invetors have created devices to assist in drawing. And this is not limited to "drawing realistically from life." Prisms attached to microscopes, gears and linkages joining forces for complex geometrical drawings, and intricate, specialized drafting tools are also drawing machines.

The ground rules:

What isn't a Drawing Machine?

A drawing must be drawn: photography and inkjet printers are ways to mechanize the image-making process, but they are not drawing machines. Drawing is the slow reveal, the gradual accumulation of contours and marks into an image.

“To draw” has distinct meanings with a common, physical theme. “Draw” is related to the Old English “drag”, and all of the varied contexts for both the verb and noun “draw” are related to dragging or pulling. “A cart drawn by two horses”, “draw the curtains”, “draw a blank”, draw inspiration from”, “draw a crowd”, “draw you into the conversation”, and compound words like “withdraw”, “drawdown”, “drawback” are all related to pulling or dragging. Sadly, “draw” also applies to “he drew his gun” and “she drew her last breath.”

In this larger etymological context, producing a picture by making lines and marks — to draw — literally means to pull or drag a pencil or pen across a surface. It is a physical act. It is active pursuit, emphasis on pursuit. You chase, seek, and pursue the final drawing.

If you draw, then you know this is true. Drawing requires refined coordination between the eye, the hand, and the dozens of muscles in between. Drawing the likeness of something or someone requires patience; the hand drags the pencil along a contour path laid out by the eye. A drawing appears slowly, requires foresight and improvised reaction to the emerging picture.

Photographic cameras and printers are imaging tools, but they don't draw.

Are there really 500 years of drawing machines?

Drawing changed in the early Renaissance thanks to Filippo Brunelleschi. Some time around 1415, he developed a mathematical method for rendering realistic views known as linear perspective. This technique remained unpublished until Leon Battista Alberti produces On Painting in 1425. In it he not only describes at length the complex method for drawing a perspective, he outlines a “shortcut” in the last chapter. He calls it il velo: the veil.

This veil I place between the eye and the thing seen, so the visual pyramid penetrates through the thinness of the veil. You know how impossible it is to imitate a thing which does not continue to present the same appearance, for it is easier to copy painting than sculpture. Therefore the veil will be, as I said, very useful to you, since it is always the same thing in the process of seeing.

To wit: make a physical screen to "catch" the three-dimensional subject onto a two-dimensional plane. The concluding chapter in the first treatise on linear perspective introduces the first drawing apparatus.

Since then, artists, inventors, designers, mathematicians and scientists have produced a stunning array of drawing machines.

How do I use this site?

Making a drawing machine? Writing a paper on drawing machines? Need an image for your art history lecture? This site can help.

The front page is organized into 26 categories in 4 classes. These divisions are of my own devising; there is no official, time-worn classification system for drawing machines. I created these distinct categories to help organize material spanning five centuries and diverse fields like art, science, design, warfare, architecture, etc.

To browse, click on any category on the front page. Each category has a page describing the general attributes and history of the machine. Below, machines in that category will be listed for closer examination.

To find machines based on specific research interests, go to the FIND page. This site uses tags to help collate material for research. The FIND page lists all tags; clicking on a tag gives you a result page with all relevant machines. Tags are listed in the right sidebar for each machine post. High resolution images are available for download in the sidebar. See next question below for information on image use.

If you are looking for something specific and can't find it, email me and I can try to help.

Can I use your images or text for my research/art/design project?

Absolutely. First, virtually all of the historical visual materials here are in the public domain. This means images taken from books or documents old enough to fall out of copyright*. Images are also from public, copyright-free sources like the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

All material not covered by public domain on this site (original texts, technical diagrams, etc.) made by me is issued with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) license. To wit: Take what you want, do what you want, credit "DrawingMachines.org" as the source, and let others do the same to what you "remix" from this site. And if you're a commercial entity looking to profit from my content? Don't. This license extends only to individual artists, makers, researchers who are looking to make their work better. Question about using the work on this site? Email me and let's talk!

*Please note copyright and public domain laws vary from country to country. It is up to you the end user to determine if your use of historical images from this site fall under your country's copyright law.

Can I get a higher resolution image of that drawing machine?

Each drawing machine post has a sidebar to the right. Under Download Files you can get a ZIP archive folder with high resolution images and, when applicable, a PDF copy of the original source document. For example, this post's Download Folder contains a JPEG format image at 2332 × 1828 pixels and a high-quality PDF copy of the Scientific American page in which the image first appeared. With this you can read the primary source document for contemporary context. The bundle is 5.02MB, indicated on the sidebar before you download.

Note: As the site is still under construction, some machine posts will not have the Download package available. Every historical image on this site has a high resolution version (at least 1200px in the longest dimension with most in the 1800px range). If you don't see the download available, email me and I can help.

Is this site comprehensive and complete?

Heavens no. The collection will continue to grow as the research continues. There’s plenty of room for expansion. Currently there are over 200 drawing machines archived here, from 1500 to the late 20th century, with another fifty machines in my research files to be added soon. Detailed information about each machine, as well as expanded essays on particularly important machines are forthcoming. To make the site complete, technical diagrams and animations will be added later this year. This will assist users in better understanding the magic behind the machines.

That said, I feel confident in saying DrawingMachines.org is the most comprehensive archive of this material in the world. Other resources (reference books, history texts, websites) focus on subsets of this material. For example, researchers on Renaissance art have created resources for optical drawing aids, but exclude post-Renaissance devices. Engineering catalogs contain drafting tools, but don't include historical devices not germane to their audience.

What, no compass? No parallel rule?

I have made some subjective choices in compiling this material. I don't include basic drafting or drawing tools like compasses for drawing circles or drafting boards with parallel rules. Inclusion would be overwhelming, adding hundreds of entries for small variants of common drafting equipment. Since this site is about obsolete, forgotten, or little-known machines, I exclude tools that are familiar and available today. I also don't think people are hankering to understand how a drafting compass works. So I only include machines of some complexity, ingenuity, and historical significance. If you are interested in the history of drafting tools, I recommend the excellent Tools of the Imagination: Drawing Tools and Technologies from the Eighteenth Century to the Present by Susan Piedmont-Palladino.

Similarly, I do not include drawing processes or methods. This site has many machines created to construct drawings based on linear perspective, but the various methods of linear perspective construction are not included here.

What about recent drawing machines?

Good question. Part of the reason this site exists is the recent interest in machines that draw. I say "machines that draw" instead of "drawing machines" because recent drawing machines have been more about autonomous drawing with computation and electronics than drawing aids and tools. Marvelous machines like this, this, and this reintroduce old ideas about mechanized drawing and advocate for drawing as a creative craft. Which is fantastic, as I think everyone should be excited about drawing. But newer machines have artistic intent independent of learning to draw or inventing a useful tool. Often, these machines use technology to talk about technology. That valuable discourse is difficult to plug into an historical archive.

To accommodate these amazing projects, I will add a blog to this site later in 2015 to cover drawing machines made by contemporary artists and inventors. The blog will feature contemporary drawing machines and link them to historical precedents in the archive. Hopefully I will also be able to coax some of these artists to be guest authors and describe their process and interest in drawing machines.

Who's behind this project?

I’m Pablo Garcia. I’m an artist, former architect, and educator. I teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I research, collect, and make drawing machines. You may know me as the co-creator (with Golan Levin) of the NeoLucida, a 21st century update to the Camera Lucida.

This site was built from scratch by the supremely talented Brannon Dorsey.