Reinventing the Wheel: A Design History of the Circle as a Visual Metaphor for Information
By Maria Popova
“Everything rolls, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being,” Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Indeed, it seems that for as far back as we’re able to peer into human history, the wheel has been one of our most central visual metaphors for being. From our early maps of the cosmos to our depictions of time, the circular form appears again and again in the diagrams that changed our world. But what, exactly, makes this simple round shape so powerful and so timelessly alluring?
In Reinventing the Wheel (public library), writer, design critic, and Design Observer co-founder Jessica Helfand considers the rich history of rotational diagrams — the wheel as a visual metaphor and an interactive tool for representing and understanding information, predating print by thousands of years.
Reflecting on the remarkable diversity of rotational diagrams and organizing information — spiral, circular, centripetal — and the wide range of subjects these charts have been applied to — “from bird watching to bridge building to birth control” — Helfand traces the history of this visual trope:
The origin of the rotational chart itself lay in the incunabula, specifically in the early astronomical texts in which paper wheels — or volvelles — were designed as instructional tools. Their function (the idea that the movement of the heavenly bodies required a student to physically turn a wheel to comprehend their meaning) reinforced my earlier suspicion that modern wheel charts had a rich aesthetic, pedagogical, and indeed, interactive legacy. I soon came to see the degree to which contemporary investigations of rotational form not only relate to this history but have grown over time to embrace disciplines including, but not limited to, architecture, music, film, sculpture, and time-based media.
A full understanding of the wheel necessarily has to begin at the beginning: its shape, the humble yet perfect circle. Helfand offers a brief and beautiful history of humanity’s favorite shape:
The circle has no beginning and no ending. It is unbiased, solid and unwavering in its geometric simplicity, denoting unity and eternity, totality and infinity. It represents the image of the cosmos, the cycles of the seasons, the life of man and the orbits of planets around the sun. In astronomy it indicates a full moon; in meteorology, a clear sky; in alchemy it is the symbol for chemical change; in cartography it represents a village, town, or community. Over time and across multiple cultures, the circle has come to represent an ideal of unsurpassable perfection: it eludes mathematical exactness, thereby reminding us that nothing is exact, even in mathematics. In this manner, it is the essence of all that is natural, primordial, and inescapably human.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the rich symbolism of the circle permeates countless chapters of cultural history — ancient Babylon, where legend has it both the 360-degree circle and the 60-minute hour originated; Buddhist mandalas, a sort of pictorial aid for meditation; the Christian scriptures, in which St. Augustine describes the essence of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and it circumference nowhere; and, among countless others, the circular geometry of Byzantine rotundas, paying homage to the heavens. Helfand treks further:
The circle is present in hieroglyphs and ideograms dating as far back as 3000 BC. Its shape has formed the basis for numerous astronomical instruments, including the armillary sphere (used in the seventeenth century to teach the concepts of coordinate systems of spherical astronomy) and the astrolabe (an ancient astronomical “computer” for solving problems relating to time and the position of the sun and stars in the sky); the orrery (an eighteen-century mechanical model of the solar system in which the planets rotate about the sun at correct scale speeds); and the observatory (circular, dome-like structures typically positioned at high altitudes for maximum star and sky visibility.) In the South of England, the circle has informed the design not only of the rock arrangements at Stonehenge, but also of the enigmatic circular corn crops which have mysteriously appeared in the nearby region of Wiltshire each summer. . . .
Circular forms also populated some of the earliest modern computing devices, from the circular tables of Charles Babbage’s seminal steam-powered Analytical Engine of 1833, celebrated as the first computer, to the various wheels and cogs in Vannevar Bush’s “memex.” This rich history of the circle, Helfand argues, exposes its astoundingly essence:
From a formal perspective, it is a geometric vessel at once adaptable, flexible, and pure, simple and streamlined, culturally and categorically neutral. From a symbolic perspective, it is a mutable icon whose symbolic role can be vividly traced through numerous disciplines, including cosmology and cryptography; astronomy and astrology; mathematics, meteorology and medicine. However, from a mechanical perspective, the circle’s capacity to be dialed, rotated, counter-rotated, notched, spun, stacked, sliced, sub-divided, and die-cut reveals a simple yet remarkably sophisticated engineering principle: here, the circle is miraculously transformed from an ordinary piece of static geometry into a dynamic and quite extraordinary interactive tool, one that is able to rationalize large amounts of complex information with remarkable practicality, precision, and purpose.
In the remainder of Reinventing the Wheel, Helfand goes on to explore the history and applications of the circle across many of these disciplines, illustrating each with bountiful visual examples ranging from an antique tax calculator to a Fortunescope to a Soviet weapons whiz wheel. Complement it with Geometry of Circles, the wonderful Philip Glass Sesame Street special from the late 1970s.
Published January 9, 2014