E Wolff & Sons’ Patent Limnoscope

This post is a slight segue from my normal ‘pencil specific’ posts, towards a ‘pencil-adjacent’ post. I don’t intend on doing this too often, however, should I come across something manufactured and/or marketed by any of my favourite pencil makers, it might find its way onto this blog.

I have highlighted my penchant for all things ‘Wolff’ before and so when this item came across my desk I realised I would get as much fun from investigating it, as I would from actually using it; not that I plan on using it much anyway – this item falls firmly into the ‘display item’ category. Tangentially, it appears that I have developed an unintentional Wolff ‘shrine’ in the pencil room; on reflection, not totally a bad thing.

binko wolf 3

First things first – I am aware that the advert above refers to the ‘Spectrograph’ whilst I have referred to the ‘Limnoscope’ in my post title. This isn’t an appalling typo on my part; indulge me, and I’ll get there, I promise. Note that at this point in time (July 1874), Wolff was the sole licensee and manufacturer.

I admit, I knew nothing about a Spectrograph or a Limnoscope until very recently. As it turns out, there is a whole world of collectors out there who are all about vintage drawing instruments. This isn’t a rabbit hole I fancy going down, but given as this one was made by Wolff, it piqued my interest.

binko - 05.12.1872

The advert above from December 1872 was as early a reference as I could find which actually predates the various patents below by some years. This is to be expected as patents filed this early in the UK are stored in hard copy at the British Library and not scanned into the online archives. I have it on my to-do list to go and take a look for the first registration, but given the current lockdown, my day out will have to wait.

The idea is pretty simple, but actually a very clever way of reproducing images. Essentially, the Spectrograph is a take on a Camera Lucida. Henry Binko’s patent amendment of June 1911 sets out how his variation would work:

binko patent 1910 -2

A folding drawing-board a has its parts so joined together by hinges that, on opening out the board, a space b is left between the parts of just sufficient width to support a sheet of reflecting glass d to be used for copying a drawing

The Derbyshire Times ran an advert suggesting that the use of the Spectrograph could be a career opportunity – £5 in 1881 is about £621/$759 in 2020 money and 4 Shillings is about £13/$16; not a bad ROI!

binko - 26.02.1881 - derbyshire times

This is a surprising change, as the device was originally marketed as a toy for kids rather than a professional drawing tool. Funnily enough, the copy at the end of this advert from 1872 is retained in when advertising to professionals instead of children.

binko - 25.04.1873 - brecon county times

William Ford Stanley’s book from 1888 – A Descriptive Treatise on Mathematical Instruments also makes reference to the fact that it was initially a toy. A copy of this book is available on Google Books if you want to read into this kind of thing a bit more.

binko patent 4

The version that landed on my desk is the Limnoscope. The typography is fantastic, especially when you consider this would have been hand drawn. The tab on the right hand side was to hold a pencil. There is some discolouration to the front, but nothing to write home about. Dimensionally, it’s 145mm squared, give or take.


What appears to have happened (and I admit, i’m speculating quite wildly) is that the Spectrograph was being sold elsewhere, for example by Messrs Goring (supra), despite Wolff being the sole agent. By 1878, the relationship had come to and end and Wolff ceased to be sole agents.

The advertisement below suggests that this was by mutual arrangement, however, i’m not so sure how mutual this was at the end. Wolff went on to patent the Limnoscope and even used the same copy for their advertising, which is a little cheeky, but sure.

binko wolff2

The advert below is from 1889, again a little early for me to find a soft copy of the patent, but once I am able to go dig out the hard copy I will update this post to get the dates in place.

binko wolff 2

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

The internals have seen better days and its previous owner unfortunately broke the glass inside. This does not affect its workings however and it seems pretty stable. I have no concerns that it will fall out and so I don’t intend on getting it replaced. If I were looking to fix it up and bit and sell on, it would be an easy enough fix. The piece of cork on the left of the picture would have originally held the drawing pins/thumbtacks.



So does it work? The lighting wasn’t great at my desk but even in the dull light I was still able to see the the ghost image clear enough to reproduce. If you had very good light you could easily get the detail showing well enough to replicate. Of course everything you reproduce is a mirror image, and so back to front. I wonder how many copies of pictures are out there which are actually back to front versions of the original!

By 1912, Henry’s wife (and quite possibly widow) Leonora had applied to patent the Spectrograph in the United States and by 1914 it was officially patented across the pond.

binko patent 1

binko patent 2

I’m trying to come up with a way to properly display all the various pencil related bits and bobs that have ended up in my possession, maybe once I have something put together i’ll put some pictures up on here. I know for sure that this little item will always be on display.

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