A beautiful collection of antique calculating instruments
October 26, 2018 3:09 PM   Subscribe

From the mid 16th century until the 1970s all architectural and engineering drawing was done manually by using pencil and pen with the aid of drawing and other technical instruments. Today most technical drawing is done with CAD and the great instrument manufacturers have all but disappeared and the tools of yesteryear have now become museum exhibits and prized collectors' items.
posted by bq (50 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
This is a fantastic find. I particularlly love this (new word for me) etui.
posted by gwint at 3:14 PM on October 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

We were still teaching manual drafting to engineering students in... let me check... 1989. I know because I took it. No computer engineering degree for you GuyZero until you can freehand a circle, do orthographic projections and can produce fastidious lettering.

OK I realize that it's a long time ago now, but there are still a few draftspeople alive who were taught the old way. It didn't totally die out until the late 80's.
posted by GuyZero at 3:19 PM on October 26, 2018 [7 favorites]

I have a set of drafting tools that my father bought in Germany. Gorgeous. I may, just for curiosity's sake, check their current value.
posted by Splunge at 3:20 PM on October 26, 2018

I took (manual) mechanical drafting as a high school elective in 1997, for some reason.
posted by agentofselection at 3:26 PM on October 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

Planimeters contain dark magic.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 3:29 PM on October 26, 2018 [11 favorites]

The polar planimeter in my dad's office was one of my favorite toys. Here's a video of someone using one. It measures the area of any shape, mechanically, with almost no moving parts, in a way that feels like witchcraft. Using it is remarkably soothing - trace an outline as well as you can, but if you mess it up, just reset and start again, slower this time.

Also in the office was a heavy-duty electric eraser you had to plug into the wall. The refills - white tubes of eraser-material as long as pencils - are no longer in production, and the price for a box of them on Ebay creeps up every year, into the hundreds of dollars. Dad bitterly regrets not filling his closet with spare erasers in 1998 and living like a king selling them to the all the other desperate septuagenarian draftsmen out there.
posted by theodolite at 3:33 PM on October 26, 2018 [11 favorites]

I took (manual) mechanical drafting as a high school elective in 1997, for some reason.

Same reason I took shorthand in 1985? ( I also took touch typing, which served me much better over the years... )
posted by mikelieman at 3:36 PM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Our high school taught hand drafting as late as 2001. I took web design instead because it was an easy A.

My grandfather was a civil engineer for Caltrans for his whole career, during the time of great expansion of state roads and bridges. He used many of these tools, kept them after he retired, and someday I will probably inherit them.
posted by muddgirl at 3:42 PM on October 26, 2018

It didn't totally die out until the late 80's.

I took it in 1995. It was a useful skill to learn. I wish they still taught it to engineering students.
posted by Dr. Twist at 3:43 PM on October 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I learned Mechanical drafting the first semester of 89 and CAD in the second.

Just a few days ago I was in a rare bookstore looking at a math for artillery 1943 manual with plastic slide rules in a pocket in the back. Almost spent the $25 to pick it up.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:53 PM on October 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

How planimeters work.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:57 PM on October 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

These come up all the time on shopgoodwill.com and are relatively cheap, though the shipping costs on that site is often a bit high. Just FYI, please don't outbid me on vintage woodworking tools k thx bai.
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:39 PM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh and I graduated High School in 2002 and my Mechanical Engineering degree program included a CAD course that included a few week startup period that was hand drafting of basic shapes to include top, side, plan, and orthographic views. It was probably child's play (ok, it absolutely was) compared to full on drafting done in the old days but the ability to hand draw parts that a machinist could look at and utilize to make that bracket or hinge or rod or whatever is hugely helpful both conceptually and practically.

I have a lettering tool with the stencils that I'll use for drawings that are particularly important... one day.

So, yea, graph paper and proper techniques will never die out altogether though I've always wanted to sit at the elbow/knee of a proper draftsman using one of those tables with all the wire/guidebar devices that are black magic to me. Ditto planimeters, black magic for sure.
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:46 PM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I love this stuff. Also, I'm teaching a section of vector calculus for the first time in a decade, and I'm planning to build a planimeter for a class prop (when we get to Green's theorem). Excited!
posted by klausman at 4:55 PM on October 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

How planimeters work...

...reads link. Furrows brow.

So, like we were saying, Dark Magic.
posted by aramaic at 5:04 PM on October 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

These are gorgeous tools and fill me with longing. I... don't even know where to start with this. These are my people. I come from a family of engineers who were also designers, or designers who were also engineers. I still have my grandfather's leadholders and his massive drafting table from pre-WWI, and a set of compasses that were probably my great-grandfather's. I have my father's t-squares, triangular scales, French curves and Rapidograph pens. And I still have most of my own gear. I was hand-drafting until around 1997 because it was still in demand in "design shops", but exposure to CAD started around 1988; in the end (there was an end) I was very proficient in at least seven CAD programs, none of which had the delicious satisfaction of hand-drafting. I adopted, and I was adept, but the plans drawn with CAD had almost none of the breath and artistry of hand drafting.

Random thoughts:

In East Germany shortly after the wall came down, we had marks we had to use or lose. We went to a nearly empty, three-story department store with a tiny engineering display, and I bought a set of tools just because the manufacturer was Richter. I still have my "Richter scale".

One of the very best compliments I ever received was that my hand-lettering should be made into a Letraset font. Remember Letraset?
posted by vers at 5:18 PM on October 26, 2018 [15 favorites]

I've got and still use my grandfather's full set of Riefler instruments from around 1928 or so. He won it as the drafting prize at Glasgow Royal Technical College (now Strathclyde University, my alma mater). Though my grandfather was a fastidious letterer (wish I had some samples of his art-deco inspired technical lettering) I often wonder if there wasn't a wee bit of bias in the award: his dad was the design professor at the college …

Missing from the page is the Drop Bow compass. These are for drawing tiny circles: even with my cheapo Alvin set I can repeatably draw 2 mm circles with ease. I use manual tools for practising patternwork. The great thing about a pair of compasses is that they draw a true circle, unlike most computer drawing packages.

Planimeters are dark magic indeed, but they darkest type of all is the hatchet planimeter. With no moving parts, they can still estimate the area of an irregular shape with uncanny accuracy. I've made one from a bent coathanger, and it worked better than I thought it should. I really should come up with a 3D printed design for one.
posted by scruss at 5:41 PM on October 26, 2018 [7 favorites]

Back in the 90’s I somehow found out that the MIT campus store had some slide rules in stock. I got a 12” bamboo rule in a leather carry case and a circular rule. Both brand new in boxes from Scientific Instruments in Berkeley and from the early 60’s. $20 bucks a piece. At a local thrift shop here in San Francisco I got an Otis King Calculator which is a really long slide rule wrapped on a cylinder. I love this stuff.

For a good look at where these things came from try to find a copy of The Construction and Principle Uses of Mathematical Instruments by N. Bion Chief Instrument Maker to the French King (1758) translated by Edmund Stone. It was reprinted in the 70’s.
posted by njohnson23 at 5:42 PM on October 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm in my second year of wooden boat building school. I was using a set of dividers today. We also have been taught both manual drafting and lofting. We did do a bit with Rhino, which is a 3D CAD program, but all the info about the boat we are building this year comes out of the 1:1 scale lofting we drew out from plans and offsets made in 1945 by our boat's designer.

The drafting tool set I really covet are Copenhagen ships curves, which are like French curves, but with many more varieties of curve. They're very useful when drawing scaled down ship plans.
posted by ursus_comiter at 5:57 PM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I use a technical pencil, graph paper, and an architectural ruler in my job. They are lovely tools and I enjoy using them. But I'm working on moving that part of my workflow to CAD, for the sake of the time savings. All my diagrams get transferred to CAD anyway—why duplicate that effort? And CAD has the potential to save me hours per site visit, which are hours I can use to do more site visits.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:21 PM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Learning how to sketch something in 3d by hand is probably my biggest deficit as an ME right now. Any time we're doing white board brainstorming it is a hilarious mess. I've been thinking about taking a pencil drawing class for awhile, if I can find the time.
posted by muddgirl at 6:52 PM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Like even with a ruler and a compass I'm a mess.
posted by muddgirl at 6:53 PM on October 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you do woodworking and have to mark out a number of equal segments, it's astounding how easy a simple set of dividers make the job. I was happy to see the proportional dividers there too.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:11 PM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

GuyZero: "We were still teaching manual drafting to engineering students in... let me check... 1989."

The university I worked at was still teaching manual drafting (with a white print duplicator no less) in 1996.
posted by Mitheral at 8:20 PM on October 26, 2018

I was being taught hand drafting and rendering in 2000. I loved the deliberate nature of the work but did NOT enjoy rapidograph maintenance. Especially those 00 pens.
My worst moment in my first year was when my prof stopped by to critique an ink wash rendering. She was too nice to speak the truth. “Oh! This is... fun.” At that moment I knew I never would be a watercolor genius.
posted by q*ben at 8:49 PM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

We were still teaching manual drafting to engineering students in... let me check... 1989. I know because I took it. No computer engineering degree for you GuyZero until you can freehand a circle, do orthographic projections and can produce fastidious lettering.

Had to do all this to graduate from high school in 1993
posted by ocschwar at 8:54 PM on October 26, 2018

I draw boats and boat stuff for a living, using Rhino and SolidWorks. My greatest weakness is not having hand sketching skills. I finally took a drawing and painting class, which was great fun but still wish I’d learned some basic hand skills early on. This post also reminds me that I wish I’d taken better care of my father’s nice drafting tools which are now long gone.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:52 PM on October 26, 2018

Wish I had my grand and great-grand-father's drawing tools - they designed mines, bombs and torpedos mainly - family mythology is my grandfather contributed to equal deaths on both sides in WW1 with some new kit he sold to both sides.

I learned hand-drafting at uni in 2000 (alongside CAD) - we spent ages on perspectives, shading, hatching, colouring - and doing cut-and-fill and contours manually too.

I concept in pencil/colour pencils and oddments like flexible curves, shape stencils, and my favourite eraser which is like one of these. All drawing done on butter paper which I buy ream of every few years - it's great for developing designs layer by layer.

Also moving more of this directly to CAD/Artrage but the final design (and what is built and planted - and experienced) is much better when it's hand-drawn first.
posted by unearthed at 1:19 AM on October 27, 2018

I still have my technical drawing equipment set - including a bow compass with a part for drawing in ink - from 1982. I will put up a photograph next week, after reaching my mother's attic.

I miss those days. After tech drawing in high school, I carried on with engineering drawing in college, so have always had a T square, triangles and "stuff" such as paper clamps.

I believe that with the advent of CAD (and mind you, my first job as a graduate engineer was selling CAD workstations) we're losing the details of bevels and curves to the preset minimum curvature already embedded in the software.
posted by infini at 2:15 AM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, what GuyZero said.
posted by infini at 2:16 AM on October 27, 2018

These are my people. I come from a family of engineers who were also designers, or designers who were also engineers.

Yes. I remember Letraset. And, I'm a 3rd generation engineer/designer.
posted by infini at 2:21 AM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another mid-90s drafting student here, in my case it was as part of a technical theatre education. I still break out my t-square and scale rule because we're very slowly restoring a house and it's much easier for me to lay out stuff with pencil than to get everything working right on the computer and somehow transfer that into reality.

(And I'm slowly learning, between this and my dislike of bringing my own reusable grocery bags to the store, I'm turning into a grumpy old man)
posted by AzraelBrown at 5:51 AM on October 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I love these tools, I still have my drawing (drafting) instruments from college in the 70s and mr glasseyes hand-draws architectural plans routinely. Well, he is a stubborn man and not particularly time-aware, in a workaholic way. The drawings and the texture of the paper can be beautiful. I can't imagine him switching to CAD, and it's not uncommon for him when overseeing jobs to correct quantities/measurements that result from CAD-drawn plans. Automatic calculation may be handy but data is only ever as accurate as whoever inputs it.

The great thing about a pair of compasses is that they draw a true circle, unlike most computer drawing packages This is the most surprising thing I've read for ages. What kind of circle does a computer draw??

I'm properly mathlexic, so the use of a slide rule is beyond me, but I still think they are beautiful, enigmatic instruments serving the mysteries of the gods of practical mathematics.

Rotring pens! mr glasseyes has to send away for them, he must be one of the company's three remaining customers.
posted by glasseyes at 7:47 AM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

The silverware drawer -- it's full of planimeters!
posted by klausman at 8:44 AM on October 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Rotring pens! mr glasseyes has to send away for them, he must be one of the company's three remaining customers.

Actually... I brought back my old set of 3 (so expensive when you're in college!) with brown and black ink but I must send them for fixing after so many decades. Will mail you for the address
posted by infini at 8:46 AM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

So expensive
Weren't they!? I think mine were all of, I dunno, £1.25 actually i forget how much each. And you could buy all the fiddly little internals separately.
posted by glasseyes at 10:06 AM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I keep think 1982 was like, 5 years ago or something.
posted by glasseyes at 10:09 AM on October 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was in Bangalore and 1985 was the first year I had to purchase these things. My entire monthly allowance for rent+life was probably converting into the price of that set you linked ;p Thank god for parents abroad.
posted by infini at 10:46 AM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

£1.25 was probably before they converted to the decimal system no? ;p
posted by infini at 10:46 AM on October 27, 2018

 What kind of circle does a computer draw??

Usually something made from four Bézier segments. When you're making anything other than fourfold pattern constructions, any intersections with lines and circles outside the cardinal directions just don't line up. Easiest way to tell if your circles aren't is to draw a circle, duplicate it, rotate one through an arbitrary angle (preferably not a multiple of 15°), then take the difference of the two objects. If there's anything left over, your circles aren't proper. F'rinstance, Inkscape just left me with 132 nodes of oddness when I did that. I now use polygons or stars for my construction lines, and things go so much better.
posted by scruss at 11:17 AM on October 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

'Tis strange
posted by glasseyes at 12:49 PM on October 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have one of those thornton slide rules and must rescue it from the garage before my wife throws it away as scrap.
posted by Burn_IT at 3:07 PM on October 27, 2018

point of order, those Rotring Art Pens are from the 90s at the earliest.

I still have my early eighties Mars technical pens. Bet the ink is well dried. Smoothest nibs ever milled.
posted by mwhybark at 6:27 PM on October 27, 2018

Love this post! Back in high school I had pretty much decided on architecture, law, or medicine as a career. My mother suggested that if I was interested in architecture I take a drafting class so I could learn some of the technical aspects of that career. One of the best things that I did; since most of my classes were college prep type subjects, that was my only exposure to shop class; in retrospect I should have taken a lot more of those classes, as I am always envious of people who can make things with their hands and have them turn out perfectly. The school I attended had drafting machines, but they were saved for the advanced classes, so I mostly learned old school drafting with T-squares, triangles, French curves, and such. As I mentioned, I really enjoyed the class; both because it let me hang out with a different group of students than I usually did (and who tended to be less studious and more fun) as well as giving me an appreciation for how things are made; having to draw various components of a foundation, for example, helped me understand what is involved in building a house that will last. And to this day I can look at a blueprint and get a good idea of how the finished structure will look, a skill I was surprised to learn is not that common. (I still remember the smell of ammonia from the whiteprint/blueprint machine we had back in the late 70s.). When I started drafting class my mother let me use a wonderful set of drafting tools she used in the late 1940s/early 1950s when she was in high school. Of course I was an ignorant teenager and wanted a new, less shiny (matte finish seemed to be standard back then, as opposed to the chrome plating on the classic tools) and so I got a decent set of Staedtler tools, but in retrospect they were probably nowhere near as nice as the ones my mother let me use.

Fast forward to the present day; my mother is trying to organize all of the stuff that has accumulated in the past 50 years in her house and among many other things we were going through several stacks of artwork she had accumulated. This included everything from preschool artwork from kids and grandkids to a variety of paintings/prints/photos that she had found interesting over the years or had been done by relatives. Included in this hoard were a bunch of pen and ink (I think) drawings of various geometric shapes and technical subjects, all beautifully done. One that jumped out at me was a wonderfully detailed monkey wrench; I asked who had done that and she said that was done by her in high school; and furthermore we had that very same wrench in the garage (which was absolutely true). Since none of her stuff has been converted to digital format I can't easily show you her work, but like good medical illustration, good technical drawing goes beyond photorealism to show details that mere photography misses. The fact that much of it can be done with simple instruments that can fit in the same space as an iPad mini makes it all the more impressive.
posted by TedW at 8:57 PM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

The movie Falling Down has Michael Douglas as a fired engineer who gets revenge on gangs and the frustrations of life, (a kind of 'white rage' movie that was seems to have been ahead of its time).

There's a scene in the beginning where he's putting away all these fancy engineering drawing tools, representing, I assume, his obsolescence.
posted by eye of newt at 12:04 AM on October 29, 2018

Because engineering and architectual drawings were hand drawn, including lettering, the lettering was (and still often is) all capitals, because it is easier to read hand drawn capital letters.

I am an electrical engineer, and electrical engineers still often use all capitals for all their schematic/manufacturing drawings even though it is all done on the computer--in fact it it almost always read on the computer too. Few people ever bother printing anything out.

Well, when I was a small kid, all the freeway signs used to be in all capitals too. But then suddenlty they all changed. It turns out when speeding by at 70mph your mind can read the signs faster when it isn't all capitals, which makes sense since nothing we normally read, books, magazine, newspapers, is in all capitals.

So, knowing this, at the company I work at I bucked the trend and in all my schematics and documents I do not use all capitals for the notes. A few people have looked at it like there something off about it but they can't quite put their finger on it. I guess it is supposed to look like perfectly hand drawn capital letters as engineering drawings have always looked. I've explained all this in detail to those who asked and no one has said any more about it though I'm sure the real traditionalists grumble to themselves afterward. A few others (very few!) have even copied the style.
posted by eye of newt at 12:16 AM on October 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Engineering undergrad at UWaterloo 90-95. Along with first year calc, algebra, chem etc textbooks I had to drop $30-40 on a plastic carrier for a handful of staedler drafting tools, including squares, protractor, circle template, ames lettering guide, eraser shield, 4 hardnesses of pencil, and a sandpaper holder for getting a point on the lead. I enjoyed it well enough (quite meditative) but was never that good at it. And can't hand draw worth a damn, never could. I just flashed back on a memory of practicing arrowhead drawing for a practical test sometime in that first month. I still feel a bit judgy about people who draw short, fat arrowheads...

I still all-caps all my hand markups out of habit although eye of newt now has me doubting myself.

also, had a job in the cdn engineering department of a major chemical multinational in the early 2000's and they still had a cabinet full of letraset including the non-alphabet graphical components: brace brackets, lines, frame corners. Wish to heaven I had lifted a bunch of that stuff for resale. I was telling my kids the other day that we had to buy letraset (in 1995!) to be able to number discontinuous pages in lab reports, and I once got docked a mark because my report was in arial and my (roomates) letraset was a serifed font...
posted by hearthpig at 4:54 PM on October 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure that all-caps lettering is still required by ASME Y14.2, or at least it was required as late as 2008. I don't have a more recent copy of the standard at hand.
posted by muddgirl at 5:11 PM on October 29, 2018

All caps hand lettering still makes sense. It tends to be more readable if the handwriting is less than perfect. That's where the rule comes from (according to my architect friend). What I find weird is that engineering documents are often still all caps even when the document is generated on a computer. In that case, it gets reversed, and it is actually more readable if it isn't all caps. I think computerized all-caps is only being done for historical reasons and because old rules are sometimes hard to change.
posted by eye of newt at 10:21 PM on October 29, 2018

ASME Y14.100 is the ruling standard for engineering drawings in America. If it calls for all-caps, we do all caps, doesn't matter if it's hand-drawn or CAD. There is a subcommittee on line weights and lettering that probably has fascinating working groups.

Of course companies don't have to follow ASME... unless they want to do government contracting, as ASME Y14.100 is a standard contract requirement for technical data packages.
posted by muddgirl at 10:49 PM on October 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older きっと勝つ   |   New music from the Twin Infinitives Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments