A whirligig is an object that spins or whirls, or has at least one part that spins or whirls. It can also be a pinwheel, spinning top, buzzer, comic weathervane, gee-haw, spinner, whirlygig, whirlijig, whirlyjig, whirlybird, or simply a whirly. They are most commonly powered by the wind but can be hand-, friction- or motor-powered. They can be used as kinetic garden ornaments, and can be designed to transmit sound and vibration into the ground to repel burrowing rodents.
Button whirligigs, also known as button spinners and buzzers, are the oldest known whirligigs. They require only a piece of clay or bone and a strip of hide. The ancient Greeks had their own version of this toy, called an iynx, and Native American cultures had another in 500 BC. Many a child of the Great Depression from the southern Appalachians and Ozarks remembers a button or token, or coin and a string as the primary spinning toy of their youth.
Button whirligigs are simple spinning toys whereby two looped ends of twisting thread are pulled with both arms, causing the button to spin. Button whirligigs are often seen today in craft shops and souvenir stores in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Buzzers are button whirligigs that make a sound which can be modulated by how quickly the button is spinning and by the tightness of the string. A buzzer is often constructed by running string through two of the holes on a large button and is a common and easily made toy.
A buzzer (buzz, bullroarer, button-on-a-string) is an ancient mechanical device used for ceremonial purposes and as a toy. It is constructed by centering an object at the midpoint of a cord or thong and winding the cord while holding the ends stationary. The object is whirled by alternately pulling and releasing the tension on the cord. The whirling object makes a buzzing or humming sound, giving the device its common name.
American Natives used the buzzer as a toy and, also ceremonially, as to call up the wind. Early American buzzers were constructed of wood, bone, or stone, and date from at least the Fourche Maline Culture, c. 500 B.C.
|North American buzzers, buzzes, etc.|
"A Buzzer of Bone"
"Whirligig Made from
a Large Button"
Friction and string whirligigs
String-powered whirligigs require the operator to wrap the string around a shaft and then pull the string to cause the whirligig's motion. String whirligigs have ancient origins. The bamboo-copter or bamboo butterfly was invented in China in 400 BC. While the initial invention did not use string to launch a propeller, later Chinese versions did. The first known depictions of whirligigs are string-powered versions in tapestries from medieval times.
Friction whirligigs, also called gee-haws, depend on the holder rubbing a stick against a notched shaft resulting in a propeller at the end of the shaft turning, largely as the result of the vibration carried along the shaft. The motion needed to power a friction whirligig is very similar to rubbing sticks together to create fire. Friction whirligigs are another staple of craft shops and souvenir stores in the Appalachian Mountains.
A wind-driven whirligig transfers the energy of the wind into either a simple release of kinetic energy through rotation or a more complicated transfer of rotational energy to power a simple or complicated mechanism that produces repetitive motions and/or creates sounds. The wind simply pushes on the whirligig turning one part of it and it then uses inertia.
The simplest and most common example of a wind-driven whirligig is the pinwheel. The pinwheel demonstrates the most important aspect of a whirligig — blade surface. Pinwheels have a large cupped surface area which allows the pinwheel to reach its terminal speed fairly quickly at low wind speed.
Increasing the blade area of the whirligig increases the surface area so more air particles collide with the whirligig. This causes the drag force to reach its maximum value and the whirligig to reach its terminal speed in less time. Conversely the terminal speed is smaller when thin or short blades with a smaller surface area are utilized, resulting in the need for a higher wind speed to start and operate the whirligig. Whirligigs come in a range of sizes and configurations, bounded only by human ingenuity. The two blade non-mechanical model is the most prevalent, exemplified by the classic Cardinal with Wings illustrated at right.
Etymology of the word
The word whirligig derives from two Middle English words: whirlen (to whirl) and gigg (top), or literally "to whirl a top". The Oxford English Dictionary cites the Promptorium parvulorum (c. 1440), the first English-Latin dictionary, which contains the definition "Whyrlegyge, chyldys game, Latin: giracu-lum It is therefore likely the 1440 version of whirligig referred to a spinning toy or toys.
Origins and evolution
The origin of whirligigs is unknown. Both farmers and sailors use weather vanes and the assumption is one or both groups are probably the originators. By 400 BC the bamboo-copter or dragon butterfly, a helicopter-like rotor launched by rolling a stick, had been invented in China. Wind-driven whirligigs were technically possible by 700 AD when the Sasanian Empire began using windmills to lift water for irrigation. The weather vane, which dates to the Sumerians in 1600–1800 BC, is the second component of wind-driven whirligigs.
In early Chinese, Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman civilizations there are ample examples of weathervanes but as yet, no examples of a propeller-driven whirligig. A grinding corn doll of ancient Egyptian origin demonstrates that string-operated whirligigs were already in use by 100 BC.
The first known visual representation of a European whirligig is contained in a medieval tapestry that depicts children playing with a whirligig consisting of a hobby horse on one end of a stick and a four-blade propeller at the other end.
For reasons that are unclear, whirligigs in the shape of the cross became a fashionable allegory in paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. An oil by Hieronymus Bosch, probably completed between 1480 and 1500 and known as the Christ Child with a Walking Frame, contains a clear illustration of a string-powered whirligig.
The American version of the wind-driven whirligig probably did not originate with the immigrant population of the United Kingdom as whirligigs are mentioned in early American colonial times. How the wind-driven whirligig evolved in America is not fully known, though there are some markers. George Washington brought whilagigs home from the Revolutionary War. What type is unknown.
By the mid-18th century weathervanes had evolved to include free moving "wings". These "wings" could be human arms; pitchforks; spoons, or virtually any type of implement. The 1819 publication by Washington Irving of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow contains the following description: "a little wooden warrior who, armed with a sword in each hand, was most valiantly fighting the wind on the pinnacle of the barn".
By the latter half of the 19th century, constructing wind-driven whirligigs had become a pastime and art form. What began as a simple turning of artificial feathers in the wind advanced into full-blown mechanisms producing both motion and sound. Unfortunately, both the exposure to the weather and the fragile nature of whirligigs means very few wind-driven whirligigs from this era survive. The period between 1880 and 1900 brought rapid geographic expansion of whirligigs across the US. After 1900, production seemed for the most part to center on the southern Appalachians. Craftsman there continued to produce whirligigs into the 20th century. During the Great Depression a resurgence in production by craftsman and amateurs was attributed to the need for ready cash.
Today whirligigs are used as toys for children, as garden structures designed to keep birds or other garden pests away, as decorative yard art and as art.
Whirligigs as art
In his play Cupid's Whirligig, Edward Sharpham has the deity of love cast a spell over a group of Londoners so that one falls for another, who falls for another, and so on until the final person falls for the first: a cupid's whirligig.
In the Newbery Award-Winning young adult novel Missing May by Cynthia Rylant, Ob, the main character's uncle, makes whirligigs as a hobby. After his wife who loved the whirligigs dies, the whirligigs continue to move and symbolize the fact that life must go on for Ob.
Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering, and Saad Bhamla, a postdoctoral student at Stanford University built an inexpensive, hand-powered centrifuge in 2016 based on this ancient toy that could help doctors working in developing countries.
As folk art
The photo on the right is of a traditional whirligig commonly found in Bali, Indonesia. They are still available, and are often used in the rice paddies as the sound they make when the wind blows scares birds away. This example was found near Clarkrange, Tennessee, on the Highway 127 Corridor Sale. It represents an interesting example of a combination mechanical and sound producing whirligig.
The propeller, the Balinese farmer and the bull are of tin. The farmer and bull are painted but the propeller blades are not. The body is of hand whittled bamboo, fastened with rusty nails and wire and a single piece of string. There are still pencil marks where various pieces were centered and/or aligned.
The farmer is connected to the shaft of the whirligig by a bamboo stick with an offset where the stick connects to the shaft. The result is: as the shaft turns the farmer's arm lifts from the offset shaft which makes the farmer pull the string which lifts the bull's head. The shaft contains a second feature, a set of knockers that create a bit of music on raised pieces of bamboo. There are a total of six knockers which strike six bamboo plates. The bamboo plates are raised by placing a circular piece of bamboo or something similar between the knockers and the bamboo base. Each rotation causes three knockers to hit plates so the sound is actually different at each rotation. The knockers are nailed in pattern to the shaft.
Whirligigs from folk artist Reuben Aaron Miller and others are considered highly collectable. However, whirligigs' value as folk art has been uneven. At a 1998 auction at Skinner Galleries, a 19th-century Uncle Sam with saw and flag in excellent condition sold for $12,650. At a 2000 auction at Skinner Galleries a 19th-century polychrome carved pine and copper band figure whirligig in excellent condition sold for $10,925 and an early 20th-century bike rider of painted wood and sheet metal sold for $3,450. In 2005, a 20th-century folk art whirligig in good condition brought $2,900 at an auction at Horst Auction Center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
- Christmas pyramid (Similar to a wind driven Whirligig, but with hot air rising from candles)
- Gee-haw whammy diddle
- Whirly tube
- Whirligig beetle
- Beard, The American Boys Handy Book, p. 360: "A Saw-Mill; it was generally made out of the top of a tin blacking-box, with the rim knocked off and the edge cut into notches like a saw. Two strings passing through two holes near the centre gave a revolving motion to the 'buzzer'."
- Kroeber, "The Arapaho: Religion", p 396: "A bone buzzer made of the foot-bone of a cow, and called, like a bull-roarer, 'hateikuuca,' is sometimes used in the ghost-dance to start the singing."
- Skinner, "'Notes on the Eastern Cree and Northern Saulteaux", p. 141: "Bull roarers of several kinds not only serve as amusements but are carried by hunters, who use them to bring the wind. The outfit consists of a central wooden disc or cylinder or of a scaphoid bone of a deer or moose. A string is attached to each side and a grip or handle place transversely at right angles to the end of the string. The whole is held loosely and the central disc revolved until the string is very much twisted. Then, by tightening and loosening the string, the cord unwinds and rewinds itself with great rapidity causing the middle piece to revolve and make a loud, buzzing noise."
- Skinner, "'Notes on the Eastern Cree and Northern Saulteaux", p. 140: "Fig. 50 (50-8052). A Buzzer of Bone."
- Powell, Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 378: "Fig. 376.—Buzz Toy."
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- Bhamla, M. Saad; Benson, Brandon; Chai, Chew; Katsikis, Georgios; Johri, Aanchal; Prakash, Manu (2017). "Hand-powered ultralow-cost paper centrifuge". Nature Biomedical Engineering. 1. doi:10.1038/s41551-016-0009. Retrieved May 15, 2018.
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- Whirligig Carver Inspired by Slovenian Childhood Memories Video produced by Wisconsin Public Television
- Whirligig physics analysed and used to design a cheap centrifuge (paperfuge)