Drawing Instrument on the Design of Henry Johnson, Volutor

Drawing Instrument on the Design of Henry Johnson, Volutor

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This is a brass instrument for drawing spirals, particularly the Ionic capitals on columns drawn by architects. A horizontal brass beam is marked in inches. The inches are divided to thirty-seconds along one edge of the beam and tenths along another edge. At one end of the beam, near zero, is a holder for a pen or pencil points. Both points are in the case that houses the instrument. At the other end of the beam is a reel made of bone that is wound with string. A support that slides along the beam carries a brass framework with two small wheels. One end of the support also has a pointer that marks the center of the spiral. Atop this is one of four brass cones, a ceramic and brass vertical column, and a brass and bone handle. The thread from the spool winds around grooves in the cone. Turning the handle releases the thread and moves the pen or pencil point in a spiral.
Also included are two hollow brass pieces, a brass disc with a central hole, and a small, metal-lined wooden box. The box fits in a separate compartment. The entire instrument fits in a wooden case lined with green velvet. A mark on the object reads: The Volutor. (/) H. Johnson’s Patent (/) 1858.
Henry Johnson was a wine merchant in London. He invented not only the Volutor but a deep sea pressure gauge. Both were shown at the International Exposition held in London in 1862.
William Joseph Booth, A Description of the Volutor..., London: Judd and Glass, 1859. According to this publication, Henry Johnson authorized F. Hoffmann of Clerkenwell to manufacture the Volutor. Booth read his paper at the 1858 meeting of the British Association in Leeds.
Joseph Booth, “On an Improved Instrument for Drawing Spirals,” British Association for the Advancement of Science Report of the Annual Meeting [for 1860] , 30, 1861, pp. 60-61.
London International Exposition, The Illustrated Catalogue of the Industrial Department..., London: Her Majesty’s Commissioners, 1862, 2, pp. 17-18.
Susan Piedmont-Palladino, Tools of the Imagination: Drawing tools and Technologies from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006, pp. 16-17.
“Henry Johnson,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 39 #4, February 14, 1879, p. 227.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Drawing Instrument
Date made
date made
ca 1860
place made
United Kingdom: England, London
Physical Description
metal, brass (parts material)
bone (handle material)
wood (case material)
felt (lining material)
string (control material)
overall: 8.5 cm x 29.8 cm x 20 cm; 3 3/8 in x 11 3/4 in x 7 7/8 in
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Drafting, Engineering
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Single Drawing Instruments
Science & Mathematics
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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I have a Johnson's Volutor dated 1857. That date appears on several i have examined in European collections. Where your copy has bone parts mine has ebony. The spiral cones are generally in pairs with 2 wide and 2 narrow cones providing for 2 different spiral accelerations. The pairs permit drawing left and right hand spirals.

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