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

Find a Drawing Machine


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.

The four major classes:

The Plotters are:

Pantographs:The original Xerox copier, capable of reducing, enlarging, and mirroring an original drawing.

Roulette Geomoetry (Spirographs):Drawing cycloids, epicycloids, hypocycloids, trochoids, and involute curves. You might know it as a Spirograph, but its history goes way back.

Ellipsographs: Machines for drawing ellipses, in more methods than you could imagine.

Geometric Drafting: Tools assisting in making complex curves for mechanical drafting.

Signatures/Handwriting: Automated signature machines, handwriting duplication, and machines for synthetic script.

Harmonographs & Pendulographs: A stylus at the end of a swinging pendulum.

Integraphs: Mathematical drawing instrument for plotting the integral of a graphically defined function.

Coordinates/Etch-a-Sketch: Manually controlled X-Y axis plotter. You know, an Etch-a-Sketch.

Perspectographs: Automating linear perspective drawing.

Surveying/Topography: Automatically generating topographic maps.

Anamorphosis: Machines for drawing anamorphic illusions or oblique perspectives.

The Virtual Image drawing machines are:

Camera Obscura: Small hole (or lens), plus a dark room (or box) equals an inverted projection of real life.

Camera Lucida (Prisms): A beam-splitting prism on the end of an adjustable stand. Look straight down into the edge of the prism and you see your subject and your hand at the same time. Perfect for tracing from life.

Camera Lucida (Mirrors): Combinations of mirrors and glass to create a virtual image for tracing. Like the prism camera lucida, but using mirrors instead.

Mirrors: Concave mirrors focus an image of a bright scene onto a surface in a darkened room.

Glass/Spectrographs: Using reflections to create virtual images for tracing.

Shadows/Silhouettes: Shadows: the oldest everyday virtual imaging technology.

The Delineators are:

Perspectographs: Your stylus movement corresponds to a traveling sighting element. It’s a complex operation coordinating your eye and your hand, mediated by the machine.

Offset Pointers (Board Parallel): A sight aligns a pointer to tracing from life while the stylus draws on the adjacent drawing board.

Sighting Pantograph: A combination of Board Parallel Offset Pointers and Pantographs to manage real-time scaled drawings from life.

Physiognomy: Tracing the human form, directly from humans.

The Coordinate Translators are:

Sighting Grid: A gridded mesh to break down a scene into digestible chunks to draw.

Dürer's Door (Sportello): A length of string. A swinging door. Lute optional.

Orthographic: Translating perpendicular points for dimensional accuracy.

Jamnitzer's Device: For drafting perspectives of imagined design objects.

Offset Pointer (Sight Parallel): A sighting element parallel to a stylus plotting points on a perpendicular board.


Each drawing machine post is accompanied by a set of tags listed to the right of the image. Click on a tag to find all related machines. Tags are organized by search interests: Author or inventor name, time period, design features, drawing goals, and relevant themes. Use the list below to launch tag-specific search result pages for easy browsing.

Machine Features, or, How Does it Work?

Uses a prism | Uses lenses | Uses shadows | Uses gears | Uses mirrors

Uses string: Whether used as physical mainfestation of invisible perspectival vectors or as part of pulleys, string is surprisingly useful for drawing machines.

Uses mechanical linkages: For complex movement, stiff members connected through pivoting points provide a wide array of actions.

Uses a pointer: Many drawing machines convert the artist's hand movement into machine-generated drawings. Often, these machines employ an user-held pointer to trace a path. The tracing action triggers the machine to perform the drawing.

Uses machine-held stylus: The machine holds the stylus that draws.

Guides artist-held stylus: The machine controls or limits the stylus still in the user's hand.

Uses reflections: Different than "Uses mirrors" in that these employ partially-transparent reflections from glass.

Uses a physical picture plane: A board or other solid plane that "catches" the drawing. In contstructing linear perspective, vectors intersect an imaginary picture plane which is where the three-dimensional world is flattened into two dimensions. When drawing from life with a perspectival machine, there is often a flat board with your paper—that's where the drawing ends up.

Uses a screen: Not a computer screen. This "screen" refers to any flat but transparent or transluscent surface used for looking through to achieve a drawing. The screen is the surface that "catches" or flattens the view for easier drawing. Sighting grids are a basic example of this.

Uses a viewfinder: Anything you put your eye up to for stablizing your vision or focusing your scene for drawing.

Plots points: These machines generate points on your page based on its mechanic functions. To finish the drawing, you manually connect the dots after the machine locates them.

Makes a projection: "Projection" refers to any ghost image generated for tracing. This can include prisms, mirrors, or glass reflections, as long as the apparatus generates an image for tracing.

Made from system parts: Machines made using existing kits for assembly; Lego and Meccano, for example.

Is stereoscopic: Machines that draw in 3D.

Draws orthographically: In design drafting, orthographic projection is used to make measured scale drawings, usually for fabrication or construction. Unlike perspective where lines converge at a vanishing point, orthographic projection maintains parallel vectors.

Why was it made?

Automated drawing: Minimal human input. While many machines on this site reduce the human component to drawing (such as Roulette Geometry machines where you turn the crank and the drawing comes out), the Automated Drawing tag refers to machines with which the human makes no meaningful contribution to the output. This typically refers to pendulum-based machines where gravity does the heavy lifting (pun intended), and surveying machines that register topography automatically.

Linear perspective: During the linear perspective revolution in the early Renaissance, drawing machines were both practical tools and didactic instruments. The mathematics were complex; illustrations of machines were published to illustrate the principles behind perspectival drawing construction. These machines typically employed strings or rods as phsyical manifestations of light vectors, or boards and screens as physical versions of the virtual picture plane.

Draws from life: A machine that helps you make accurate representational drawings of the real world. From large landscapes to microscopic images, drawing from life is one of the major reasons drawing machiens exist. Artists seeking verisimilitude, scientists requiring accurate documentation or designers recording for construction have all historcially employed machines to draw.

Makes copies: Before mechanical reproduction began in earnest in the 19th century, making a copy of something was not automatic. These drawings machines are copiers, most of which are pre-photography.

Enlarges & Reduces: Making scaled copies. These two features are usually seen together; a machine that makes something bigger is likely to also have capacity to make something smaller. This does not include machines that by definition must reduce the subject, like how a camera obscura reduces real life into a small room or box. Only machines with the explicit function of enlargment and reduction qualifies here.

Virtual image: Ghostly projections, glass reflections, prismatic image manipulations and shadows are all virtual imagery. These machines conjur a real-time ghost image, usually for tracing.

Used for design drafting: Design drafting requires precise and measurable scaled drawings. Most people are familiar with compasses and protractors, but this tag refers to machines that provide either specialized drawing output (like ellipsographs) or obviate the need for complex and time-consuming drafting (like the integraph). These machines are particularly relevant to architecture, industrial design, naval architecture, fashion, graphic design, surveying, cartography, and any field where precision in drawing is required.

Illustrates mathematical principles:"Illustrates" is not necessarily the best term, as some of these machines exist to perform mathematical functions. But to the uninitiated, these machines provide remarkable visualizations of complex mathematical principles. From geometry to phsyics, these machines take concepts typically rendered in astract formulas and manifest drawn mathematical visualizations.

Surveying tool: These machines specialize in taking vast landscapes and precisely compressing them into measured or data-based drawings. This tag references machines with explicit surveying functions. For example, the camera lucida's precise prism can assist the surveyor, but only camera lucidas that have been designed for surveying receive this tag.

Who made it?

Author Name: This tag references the inventor or author of the drawing machine. At times, the author referenced in this tag is the artist who made the image, or the maker of a derivative device. Whenever possible, the tags will also name a predecesor inventor if the image author credits or reproduces a previously-published machine.
(Expanded author/inventor search coming later in 2015)

Where was this published?

An advertisement | A reference book | An encyclopedia | A patent | A treatise or monograph | A catalog

From Garcia Collection: I have spent years collecting machines, orginal engravings and woodcuts, and miscellany related to drawing machines. This tag identifies artifacts in my personal collection.

When was it made?

Time Period: Searching chronologically? These tags will help you browse by time.

1500s | 1600s | 1600-1650 | 1650-1700 | 1700s | 1700-1750 | 1750-1800 | 1800s | 1800-1850 | 1850-1900 | 1900s | 1900-1950 | 1950-1975 | 1975-2000