The Digital Harmonograph

A fun JavaScript animation inspired by a Victorian contraption

Don Cross
Don Cross
Jan 14 · 6 min read

Recently I learned about the harmonograph, a nineteenth-century device that uses a system of pendulums to draw intricate designs on paper. It is an elegant idea that comes in many varieties. A common type of harmonograph involves three pendulums: one that moves a sheet of paper around in an ellipse, and two others that move a pen around onto the paper. Here is an example by Karl Sims, a digital media artist who provides wonderful instructions for building it:

Three-pendulum rotary harmonograph by Karl Sims (used with permission).

I thought it would be fun to create a computer simulation of this kind of harmonograph. Here I present JavaScript code that runs in a web browser to draw images based on the behavior of three mutually interacting pendulums. Along with the math and physics, we will cover a few helpful tricks about animation in the browser environment.

The Behavior of a Single Pendulum

  • If there is no friction, a pendulum traces a repeated elliptical path.
  • When there is friction, the radius of the path decays (gets smaller) over time. After enough time, the pendulum’s movement becomes insignificant.

A Frictionless Pendulum

A frictionless pendulum moves along an elliptical path.

The position vector P represents the location of the pendulum bob at a given moment in time. In this frictionless model, P travels around the same elliptical path indefinitely. The shape of the ellipse is defined by the constants a (the semi-major axis) and b (the semi-minor axis). At a time t, the location of P is indicated by the following pair of coordinates:

Here, F is the frequency of rotation in radians/second, and K is the starting angle (or phase) in radians. To be clear, these angles are conceptual. They are not literally measured on the depicted plane, because the general ellipse is not a perfect circle. The important idea is that each time the value (Ft+K) increases by 2π, the point P has traveled another revolution around the ellipse.

Adding Friction to the Model

Here, R is a non-negative real number called the decay constant. If R=0, there is no friction, because e⁰=1. If R>0, then as the time t increases, the exponential factor decreases asymptotically to zero. A small positive value of R emulates a small amount of friction, causing the curve to spiral in very slowly. A larger value of R causes higher friction, so that the inward spiral happens faster.

So now we have a mathematical model for a single pendulum. We have at our command five tunable parameters, a, b, F, K, and R, to make a variety of spiraling shapes.

Combining Multiple Pendulums

To trace the harmonograph shape, we calculate the three (x, y) vectors for the three pendulums, then add them together. That is, add the three x coordinates for the three pendulums to produce a net x coordinate, and do the same thing with the three pendulums’ respective y coordinates. The resulting (x, y) pair indicates the location of the imaginary pen on the imaginary paper at the time t.

A sample frame from the harmonograph animation.

The Animation Algorithm

For each animation frame, I follow the approach outlined above to iterate over a series of time values t. Thus in each frame of the animation, the code draws an entire harmonograph doodle, starting with t=0 and increasing t by a small amount, and connecting the consecutive dots with line segments on the HTML canvas. The drawing stops when the exponential decay has made the graph spiral in smaller than an arbitrary threshold.

In each subsequent animation frame, I change the three phase angles (the K constants) at different linear rates, so that the three pendulums start at different mutual phases. This causes the harmonograph shape to morph gradually over time. See the function MakeHarmonograph in the code listing below.

The sliders beneath the animation allow you to adjust the three frequencies (the F constants) for the pendulums. You will notice that the shapes look more “smooth” when the the ratios of frequencies are close to integers, and more “crazy” when the frequency ratios deviate away from integers.

Real, physical harmonographs share this integer-ratio tendency. Their pendulum frequencies are adjusted by moving the weights up and down on their suspension rods, and they require adjustment to make pleasing patterns.

Summary of the Simulator Code

The animation proceeds by using the requestAnimationFrame function to repeatedly schedule a callback every time the browser is ready to render another frame of animation. My callback is the function timerTick, which draws one frame via the function Render, and then schedules itself to be called again in the next animation frame.

In each animation frame, the code creates a Harmonograph object whose constructor accepts an arbitrary list of Pendulum objects. The code is flexible. You can change it to use any number of pendulums, not just three. It proceeds to calculate a series of pen positions for incremental values of t, until friction slows down the pen to a certain small radius.

To make the colors more interesting, I render the spiral shape using a radial gradient that transitions from red gradually to blue. I tried drawing each line segment with its own calculated color, but this dramatically hurts performance. Gradients are much faster because they allow me to draw the entire shape with a single call to context.stroke().

Code Listings

The stylesheet is important for making the canvas fit the browser’s client area. It also prevents annoying flashes when the user taps the canvas on a touch-screen device. Here it is:

Most of the interesting stuff is in the JavaScript file harmonograph.js:

So there it is. I hope you enjoy playing around with the harmonograph simulator, and also, I hope you can learn from and adapt the code for your own fun projects. Feel free to ask questions, and I’ll do my best to answer.


JavaScript in Plain English

Learn the web's most important programming language.

Don Cross

Written by

Don Cross

Husband, computer programmer, yoga teacher, cat servant.

JavaScript in Plain English

Learn the web's most important programming language.

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