Reinventing the Wheel by Jessica Helfand

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2002

Nuclear Bomb Effects ComputerJessica Helfand’s Reinventing the Wheel is my favorite kind of design book: one part lookie-L@@K-pritty-pictures, the other part explaining what it all means. The book is about information wheels — alternatively called wheel charts, wheel calculators, or volvelles.

Readers my age might remember the circular BAC (blood alcohol content) calculators distributed every three months or so in junior high and high school…spin the wheel to your weight and a certain number of drinks and it calculated how drunk you were. Fat lot of good that did me; I could have done with something a little more useful such as a wheel calculator that determined your attractiveness to girls based on GPA and where your mom bought your clothes (“3.9 and K-Mart? Not looking good…”).

The BAC and Unfashionable Teen Boy calculators aren’t featured in the book, but many other wheels are, including several from the 30s and 40s. My favorites are the Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer (for its complexity), the DeKalb Hybrids “What Your Corn Can Do to Help Win the War” wheel, the Wonder Bread Guide to U.S. Warships, the U.S. Navy Semaphore Signaling Guide (this one is really ingenious), and the colorful hand-made “Cercle Chromatique”, and the surreal Puzzle Pets Letter Wheels.

Helfand has done a really nice job with this fun book. Definitely recommended.

Reader comments

designJul 02, 2002 at 3:33AM

I read the original article in Eye Magazine last year - I like Helfand’s take on interaction - moving away from the square, rectilinear screen.

JeffJul 02, 2002 at 6:19AM

I’ve been waiting for this book to come out! I love these things (an am always peeking under the top ring to see what it looks like.

We use one from the 50s or 60s at home that tells us the proper way to get different stains out of clothes.

j.friedJul 02, 2002 at 1:44PM

The circle is the perfect shape.

pddJul 03, 2002 at 10:38AM

i’ve always loved those things - how lucky i am to work in an office with a mechanical engineer.

ratchetcatJul 08, 2002 at 10:05AM

My favorite disc calculators were the proportion wheels I was introduced to when studying graphic design (and working pre-press). Too useful.

modorneyMar 20, 2003 at 6:57PM

One of my memories is working for an inept boss once. Many of these wheels, and even rectangular slide-rule devices, were bound into industrial trade magazines. For example, a company that made cutting oil would have a calculator that factored the cost of blades, amount and type of material (steel, aluminum,…) being cut, number of saws, cost of labor, and showed how many dollars you saved by using their cutting oil.

Some of these were quite clever. My boss cot one that was a combination caliper/slide rule. The caliper part let you measure the diameter of the paper towel roll in the bathroom, and the calculator let you add and multiply the number of bahrooms, etc. to compute your savings by using this company’s paper towel dispenser.

He went around measuring the men’s room rolls, but he had to talk some of the office girls into measuring the ladies room rolls. The whole project took him two days, in a company with four bathrooms and 140 employees, but I remember it, since it was the last one of these cardboard calculators I saw.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.