Omicron Ellipsograph

The Omicron Ellipsograph Model 17 was manufactured by the Omicron Company of Glendale, CA, in the 1950s. An oval shape, the ellipse is one of the four conic sections, the others being the circle, the parabola, and the hyperbola. Ellipses are important curves used in the mathematical sciences. For example, the planets follow elliptical orbits around the sun. Ellipses are required in surveying, engineering, architectural, and machine drawings for two main reasons. First, any circle viewed at an angle will appear to be an ellipse. Second, ellipses were common architectural elements, often used in ceilings, staircases, and windows, and needed to be rendered accurately in drawings. Several types of drawing devices that produce ellipses, called ellipsographs or elliptographs, were developed and patented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The U.S. Army purchased several examples of this device for use in surveying and mapping.
The Omicron Ellipsograph is not an elliptic trammel like many of the other ellipsographs in the Smithsonian’s collections. This ellipsograph is a linkage, in particular a Stephenson type III linkage. A linkage is a mechanical device made of rigid bars connected by hinges or pivot points that move in such a way as to produce smooth mathematical curves. The most common types of linkages are used to draw true straight lines. See the Kinematic Models in the Smithsonian’s online collections for examples of other linkages.
In this ellipsograph, a metal bar is attached to two sliding brackets. One is on the stationary bar that runs horizontally across the device and is the major axis of the ellipse. The other sliding bracket is attached to a curved arm. A pencil is inserted through the hole at the top end of the bar. As the pencil is moved, the linkage articulates at five pivot points (the two adjustable sliders and three pivots as seen in the image). This constrains the pencil to move in an elliptic arc. Unlike the elliptic trammel, only half an ellipse can be drawn with this device, making it a semi-elliptic trammel. It can be turned 180 degrees to draw the other half of the ellipse. Although this device cannot draw a complete ellipse in one motion, it does have the advantage of being able to draw very small ellipses. By adjusting the distance between the two slider brackets, the eccentricity of the ellipse can be changed. Eccentricity is a number between zero and one that describes how circular an ellipse is. By moving the slider brackets closer together, the eccentricity of the ellipse is reduced, creating a more circular ellipse. As the brackets are moved farther apart, the eccentricity is increased and a more elongated ellipse is produced.
Several demonstrations of how an elliptic trammel works are available online. Comparing the slider motion of the elliptical trammel and the linkage ellipsograph highlights the similarities of the motion of these two ellipsographs. Both devices constrain the motion of the sliders so that as one moves inward on a straight line, the other slider moves outward on a straight line perpendicular to the first. Thus both types of ellipsographs produce an elliptic curve using the same mathematical theory, but incorporating different physical configurations.
The Omicron Ellipsograph is made of aluminium and steel on an acrylic base. The base is 18.5 cm by 8.5 cm (7 1/4 in by 3 3/8 in). The top bar is 18 cm (7 in) long. The whole linkage rests on the central pivot directly above the company logo. It can draw ellipses with major axes up to 12 inches long.
Antique Drawing Instrument Collection,
John Byant, Chris Sangwin, How Round is Your Circle?: Where Engineering and Mathematics Meet, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 290.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
ca 1954
Physical Description
aluminum (overall material)
paper (overall material)
plastic (overall material)
overall: 5.5 cm x 20 cm x 12.3 cm; 2 5/32 in x 7 7/8 in x 4 27/32 in
place made
United States: California, Glendale
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Science & Mathematics
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Additional Media

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