Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tinned ecstasy


Let me sing a few words of praise for a British institution that never quite made it to the U.S. -- the Helix Oxford set of mathematical instruments.

Oh, when I was in school we had "pencil boxes," as likely as not made of cardboard and decorated with Disney characters. And maybe they contained a ruler, a compass, and a protractor. But they were birthday toys, cheap gimcracks, used once and soon forgotten. So when I took my young family to Britain for a year in 1968-69, I was unprepared for the Oxford tin-boxed set of instruments that was seemingly the property of every school child.

Nothing Mickey Mouse about this set of instruments. Even the design of the tin box spoke of seriousness -- those Oxford spires! A ruler marked in millimeters. A compass and dividers. A protractor. Two triangles, 45-45 degrees and 30-60 degrees. Maybe a lettering template too.

I wanted one of my own!

Helix has been making these kits for well over a century. The British Empire carried them around the world, to all those countries colored pink on the map I grew up with. Even today you will find them in school bags in Hong Kong and Mumbai. You can even buy them in the market on our little ex-British Bahamian island of Exuma (that's it in yesterday's APOD). I suppose they are part of Canadian tradition too, but they never made significant inroads into American education.

More's the pity.

I was a sucker for these kits. For one thing, my father, the mechanical engineer, owned a real leather-bound set of drawing instruments that I much admired, and later took with me to university for my course in mechanical drawing. But also I had just enough of an introduction to geometry in primary school to catch a Euclidean fever. Once I had seen the beauty of using a compass and straight-edge to bisect an angle, I was hooked. I spent countless hours trying to find a way to trisect an angle; it never occurred to me that I might not succeed where the greatest mathematical minds of the past had failed.