Mathematics of the Spirograph Robert J. Whitaker
Department of Physics and Astronomy Southwest Missouri State University Springfield, Missouri 65804

^The properties of curves and the means of drawing them is a topic which has held the attention of mathematicians since the time of the ancient Greeks.^
The properties of curves and the means of drawing them is a topic which has held the attention of mathematicians since the time of the ancient Greeks. Mechanical devices for drawing various classes of curves have also received attention over the years. A brief history of curve drawing machines was provided by Rigge in 1926 in his book, Harmonic Curves.1 More recently Cundy and Rollett have described several curve drawing devices which can be readily constructed from simple materials.2 Included is a model for demonstrating that class of curves known as "cycloidal curves." Problems of slippage between parts of the apparatus, however, reduce its effectiveness. Several years ago the toy, Spirograph, appeared on the market.3 This device also produces cycloidal curves and, because of its design, eliminates slippage and also provides a permanent record of the desired curve. A survey of the literature reveals only one article that deals with the Spirograph as an instructional device; Cavanaugh shows how the Spirograph may be used to demonstrate the concept of "greatest common factor."4 It is the purpose of this paper to discuss the mathematics of cycloidal curves and to illustrate how the Spirograph may be used to produce them. Depending on the set available, the reader may easily find other curves that can be drawn with the Spirograph that are not described here. Curves produced by the rotation of circles is a class of curves that has attracted particular attention. One classic example is the curve traced by a point on the circumference of a circle that rolls along a straight line. The curve produced is a cycloid, and its history reveals the names of many famous mathematicians who have attacked this problem.5 Closely related are the curves produced when one circle rolls around another one. In 1878 Proctor described in detail the geometric properties of this class of curves in A Treatise on the Cycloid and all Forms of Cycloidal Curves6 Rigge also discussed these same curves, and mechanical devices for producing them, as one example of harmonic curves. (See Reference 1, pp. 94-121.) Lockwood described these and a number of other curves in A Book of Curves published in 1961.7 He also provided brief notes on the history of many curves. A brief description and summary of a large number of curves has been provided by Lawrence.8 The following discussion has been adopted from all of these references with various modifications.
Mathematics of the Epitrochoid

The terms used to classify cycloidal curves are not always used consistently among

School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988

p. p." a term less used. Geometry of the epitrochoid School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 . rolls along the outside circumference of the fixed circle.) We will be concerned with two examples of these. If the circle. fixed curve." This is illustrated in Figure 1. 146.Mathematics of the Spirograph 555 different authors. Lockwood further notes: "The term trochoid has the same meaning as roulette. It is used more particularly for the roulettes traced by points carried by a circle rolling on a fixed circle.) Rigge refers to these curves as "circular cycloids. First consider the point. any point or line which moves with the rolling curve describes a roulette. (See Reference 1. without slipping. F. (See Reference 8. 96. on the radius of the moving circle tracing a trochoid. p.) In the case of circles rolling on circles. the curve is known as an "epitrochoid. M. along another. although descriptive. (See Reference 8. Lockwood states: "If a curve rolls. 139. P. FIGURE 1.

These equations may be simplified by noting the identities for the sine and cosine of the differences between two angles and substituting B = (a/b) A. and angle DO’R = (B .A). The equations then become: x = (a + b) cos A .h sin These two equations are general for any radii of the two circles and the distance of P from the center of the rolling circle. The moving circle has center 0’ and radius "b" with b less than a. Again substituting B = (a/b) A. Assume that the centers of both circles initially lay along the horizontal line.A) and y = (a -b) sin A ." This is illustrated in Figure 2. Finally. That is. Angle QOQ’ = A on the fixed circle. Mathematics of the Hypotrochoid [(^-)-] ^ [(^)-] ^ | r /a+b\ ) A | I (1) | ) A | (2) The curve traced by a point. angle RO’Q’ = B. A list of some of these curves is given in Table 1. F. the circle whose center is at 0 and which has a radius "a" is fixed in the position shown. As before. that rolls without slipping along the inside circumference of the fixed circle. we produce several curves that have been given special names.h sin (B . P. on the radius of a circle. Angle QOO’ = angle DO’Q’ = A. the x-coordinate and the y-coordinate of P are: x = (a + b) cos A + h cos [v . angles A and B subtend equal arc lengths along their respective circumferences.(A + B)l. If the ratios of the radii of the two circles are selected in special ways. M. Since there is no slipping. Line O’D is drawn parallel to OQ. The circle whose center is at 0’ and which has a radius "b" rolls around the fixed circle. After rolling.b) cos A + h cos (B . the two circles touch at point Q’. where the angles are expressed in radians. arc length QQ’ = arc length RQ’.A). and angle RO’Q’ = B on the rolling circle.h cos and y = (a + b) sin A . We are now ready to write the equations describing the path followed by point "P" as M rolls around F. from above. and point R on the rolling circle was coincident with Q. so aA = bB. angle RO’D = TT . The equations for the coordinates of P are: x == (a .h sin [v .556 Mathematics of the Spirograph A circle whose center is at 0 and which has a radius "a" is fixed in the position shown. is known as a "hypotrochoid. if we draw a line O’D parallel to OQ. What may seem surprising is the large number of curves produced that appear to be different. we get: School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 .(A + B)] and y = (a + b) sin A . Letting the distance O’P = h.(A + B).

Geometry of the hypotrochoid School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 .b) cos A A. a = = = = Limacon Circle Epicycloid 1. Cardioid 2. A . These are listed in Table 2. B. a 2. / FIGURE 2.Mathematics of the Spirograph 557 TABLE l Special Cases of the Epitrochoid Condi tic»n Name b 0 or 0 b b 2b x == (a .b b a-b v f Y A] . h 1. a a h C. there are several special cases of hypotrochoids. (3) (a - b) sin A - h cos \( ~T~) (4) As with the epitrochoid. Nephroid = = + h cos and y = [( a.

) The number of teeth is marked on each wheel and ring and is used to identify that part. fixed in position. a 5. B. and the wheel with 32 teeth set to roll around it. a 4. These are numbered successively beginning with "No. Figure 3 shows the ring with 96 teeth around its inner circumference. = = 3b 4b 4.558 Mathematics of the Spirograph TABLE 2 Special Cases of the Hypotrochoid Condition Name Ellipse Hypocycloid Circle with radius a Point Line segment (special case of A) Deltoid Astroid A. a 3. b 2. 5. In addition each has a series of holes drilled in it which spiral inward from near the outer circumference to the middle. The Spirograph We are now ready to describe the Spirograph and to discuss how this may be used to draw some of the curves discussed above. 3. The Spirograph consists of eighteen toothed wheels and two annular rings with teeth on both the inside and the outside of each ring. a 2b b = 0 = b = 2b = = 1. a h 1. 1" near the outer edge. 2. (Various editions may have a different number of wheels. FIGURE 3. Photograph of the Spirograph set to draw a hypotrochoid School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 .

(9) Figure 4-A is an example of a curve drawn with the 96 ring fixed and the 32 wheel rolled around it. For the tracing point (which corresponds to point "P" in the above discussion) to return to its starting place the rolling circle. Thus each wheel can roll around any other wheel or around the inside or outside of either ring. Clearly. and the hole selected. Selecting the gear ratio of three to one and letting b = 1. must roll through n complete circles while it rolls around the fixed circle. Although the number of gears that is provided with a set also restricts the number of possible curves that could be produced with a larger number of gear ratios. we may define the curves produced in terms of the gear ratios rather than the radii of the circles producing them. Figure 4-B was drawn with the 96 ring fixed and the 64 wheel rolled. (5) If we make this substitution in equations 1-4. Let us first examine two examples of hypotrochoids. thus h is approximately b. the ring. a large number of patterns of varying complexity may be drawn. . Hence n/m = b/a. equations 6 and 7 become: x = cos A 4. the curve produced will (ultimately) be closed and will be related to the ratio of the number of teeth of the gears used. we get: x = b /<_m - 1^ cos A + h cos | (m ( -1\ A | (6) and y = b (^. the path of that hole is traced on a sheet of paper as that wheel (or ring) rolls around another one. M. Select the hole closest to the circumference on M for point P (hole No. equations 6 and 7 become: x = 2 cos A + cos 2A (8) and y = 2 sin A .2 cos (A/2) (10) School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 . This is a gear ratio of three to two. Comparing Figures 4-A and 4-B we find a strong similarity between the two curves. Solving equation 5 for a and substituting into equations 3 and 4.h sin | m . Depending on the size of the wheel. Some Examples The large number of possible curves that can be drawn with the Spirograph precludes our giving more than a few examples. F.sin 2A. Again letting h = b and letting b = 2. Thus the ratio of the number of teeth of the two gears is proportional to the respective radii of the gears used.\\ A | (7) We are now ready to make the following substitutions and to draw our curve.Mathematics of the Spirograph 559 Each part of the Spirograph is designed in such a way that it has an integer number of teeth around its circumference. each ring or wheel is basically a single gear. Since each gear has an integer number of teeth. 1).\\ sin A . the number is sufficient to make possible a fascinating variety of curves. When a pen is placed in any of the holes. in m complete circles.

Again solving equation 5 for a and substituting. the results are identical. That is. point P is not exactly on the circumference of the rolling circle. A hand calculator reduces the time. A hypotrochoid with a three to one gear ratio drawn with the Spirograph. Proctor and Rigge demonstrate geometrically that properly selected radii of two difference circles which roll in the same circle will produce identical curves." As it is.2 sin (A/2). 45. 44. pp. 117-120. it would have produced a "hypocycloid.h sin [(? ) A] [(^)A] School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 . we obtain: and y = b (^ -) (^) \n cos A h cos sin A . pp. of performing the calculations. We may similarly modify equations 1 and 2 for the epitrochoid.) Figures 4-A and 4-B do not appear identical because the value of h is not exactly b. A hypotrochoid with a three to two gear ratio drawn with the Spirograph. (See Reference 6. these curves are only close approximations. it is instructive to actually plot the curve represented by these equations. A table is constructed which includes the two angles and the values of the two coordinates. if not the tedium.560Mathematics of the Spirograph FIGURE 4-A. (11) Comparison of equations 8 and 10 and of 9 and 11 also reveal interesting similarities. While one may verify the above equality geometrically. and y = sin A . FIGURE 4-B. a deltoid.) (See Reference 1. Figure 5 shows the resulting curve. If it were. Whether one uses equations 8 and 9 or equations 10 and 11 to calculate the coordinates of P.

differing by the differences in our approximation of h = b. And letting the gear ratio again be three to one. We can easily find by testing that any combination of three to one gear ratios produces the same curve. so we can again write h == b = 1. these equations now become: x = 4 cos A . (13) Figure 6-A is an example of a curve with the 72 wheel fixed and the 24 wheel rolled around it.cos (4A) (12) and y == 4 sin A ~ sin (4A). A deltoid plotted from Equations 8 and 9 or Equations 10 and 11 Selecting the hole closest to the circumference on M for point P (hole No. The curve produced is approximately an epicycloid. School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 . We can also see that three revolutions of M are required to revolve around F once. 1). only the size of the curve is different. h is approximately b.Mathematics of the Spirograph 561 FIGURE 5.

we must use the equations for the hypotrochoid. The inside of the larger gear is now rolling around the smaller one. Therefore. One Modification of the Spirograph The design of the Spirograph is such that only curves can be drawn in which h is less than b.cos A (14) and y = 4 sin (A/4) . An epitrochoid with a three to one gear ratio drawn with the Spirograph FIGURE 6-B. A larger wheel may be attached to the top of a smaller one. three pins. An epitrochoid with a three to four gear ratio drawn with the Spirograph As with the hypotrochoid. a spacer of modeling clay or some similar material is placed between the two moving wheels. cut from small wooden match sticks. The gear ratio is now three to four. In order to prevent slipping of these two wheels and to keep the centers the same. equations 3 and 4 become: x = 4 cos (A/4) .562Mathematics of the Spirograph FIGURE 6-A.sin A. and we let h = b = 4. However. (15) The result is shown in Figure 6-B. Making the same substitutions as before. allowing the tracing holes of the larger one to extend beyond the edge of the rolling wheel. In this case we keep the 72 wheel fixed and rotate the 96 ring around it. with some small modifications one can also draw curves with h larger than b. The differences in appearance between the two curves again being caused by the approximation of h = b. To prevent rubbing of the larger rolling wheel against the fixed wheel. The equality of Figures 6-A and 6-B and their equations may be verified in the same way as those developed for the hypotrochoid. can be run through the tracing holes of each wheel to hold the School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 . we can also produce identical curves with a different pair of gears.

) Since the rim of the fixed wheel interferes with the tracing.9 The aesthetic appeal of such curves is one that has held the fascination of writers on the subject for many years. The 72 wheel was again fixed and the 24 wheel rolled around it. These curves are one possible kind produced by pairs of gears used in machines. School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 . (It would prove interesting to explore the curves that would be produced if the centers of these two circles were not coincident. They also illustrate one form of harmonic motion that appears in certain problems in physics. One example of this is shown in Figure 7. The 75 wheel was fastened on top of the 24 wheel as described above.Mathematics of the Spirograph 563 two wheels relatively fixed with respect to each other. Conclusions The Spirograph is a useful device to demonstrate the properties of cycloidal curves. with the missing part of the curve left unfinished. An epitrochoid with a three to one gear ratio drawn with h greater than b. and the No. the parts of the curve that lie inside of it can be drawn in by hand. the thrill of seeing a curve developed as an "old-fashioned" mechanical device draws it cannot be replaced with a computer printout. FIGURE 7. 1 hole on the 75 wheel was used for the tracing.

School Science and Mathematics Volume 88 (7) November 1988 . Meyer Library at Southwest Missouri State University for their assistance in obtaining several of the references cited above. large numbers of Midwest mammoths and mastodons said "Yes" to Michigan. their interest is one that deserves consideration by teachers and their students at many levels of instruction. Proctor. Cundy. and Co. Lockwood. 2. 2nd ed. Harmonic Curves. J. 1926. He also extends his thanks to William E.. Richard A. New York: Dover Publications. 1972. reprinted as Principles of Mechanics and Dynamics. 1967. 1961. Dennis. Acknowledgments The author expresses his appreciation to the staff of the Interlibrary Loan Department of the Duane G. # # # Did Salt Deposits Attract Mastodons to Michigan? In the centuries just before they became extinct. H. Whitman. E. braving severe glacial cold to reach Michigan salt licks and springs. They may be approached from the standpoint of pure geometrical construction. says a Michigan State University Museum professor. P. 66-93.564 Mathematics of the Spirograph The analysis of these curves is one that can be approached at many levels. Some Historical Notes on the Cycloid. Inc.. 7. 52-54. Kenner Products Co. London: Cambridge University Press. American Mathematical Monthly 50: May. H. William E. for example. Ohio 45202. 47-48. suggests Dr. 1912. 5. Lawrence. 66-69. Thomas for the photograph reproduced as Figure 3. A. A. Cavanaugh. they may be analyzed from their parametric equations. Driven by a vital need for salt. 6. 1961. Omaha: The Creighton University. E. 1943. A Book of Curves. Part I. Indiana and Illinois near the end of the last Ice Age. A Treatise on the Cycloid and all Forms of Cycloidal Curves. The Spirograph and the Greatest Common Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press. The reasons for producing them may be based on purely aesthetic considerations. A Catalog of Special Plane Curves. Thomson. Revised ed. Green. 9. London: Longmans. J. Inc.. Sir William (Lord Kelvin) and Tait. 1962. While science has no satisfactory explanation for their extinction. Alan Holman. the elephant-like beasts trekked in from Ohio. Mathematical Models. 4. William F. Mathematics Teacher 68:162-163. 1878. Cincinnati. 3. Treatise on Natural Philosophy. See.. References 1. 309-315. that vital need for salt may have contributed. copyright. 8. New York: Dover Publications. However these curves are described. Peter Guthrie.. Martyn and Rollett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. or they may be approached mechanically from a consideration of the sizes of the gears necessary to produce them. Rigge.

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