For other uses, see Whirligig (disambiguation).
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A whirligig is an object that spins or whirls, or has at least one member that spins or whirls. Whirligigs are also known as pinwheels, buzzers, comic weathervanes, gee-haws, spinners, whirlygigs, whirlijig, whirlyjig, whirlybird, or plain whirly. Whirligigs are most commonly powered by the wind but can be hand or friction powered or even powered by a motor. They can be used as a kinetic garden ornament. They can be designed to transmit sound and vibration into the ground to repel burrowing rodents in yards, gardens, and backyards.
1 Types of whirligigs
1.1 Button whirligigs,
1.2 Friction and string whirligigs,
1.3 Wind-driven whirligigs,
2.1 Etymology of the word,
2.2 Origins and evolution,
2.3 The modern scene,
2.4 Whirligigs as art,
2.5 Whirligigs in literature,
2.6 Whirligigs in the movies,
2.7 Whirligigs as folk art,
Types of whirligigs:
Whirligigs can be divided into four categories: Button, Friction, String and Wind Driven.
Button whirligigs (also known as button spinners and buzzers) are the oldest known whirligigs, requiring only a piece of clay or bone and a strip of hide. Native American cultures had their own version of this toy 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.
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. Button whirligigs are often seen today in craft shops and souvenir stores in the southern Appalachian Mountains
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 left.
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 (ca. 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:
See also: Bamboo-copter
The actual origin of whirligigs is unknown. Both farmers and sailors use weathervanes on an ongoing basis and the assumption is one or both groups are likely 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 weathervane which dates to the Sumerians in 1600-1800 BC, is the second component of wind driven whirligigs.
In 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 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 hobbyhorse on one end of a stick and a four blade propeller at the other end.
For reasons that are not clear, 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 2
A book published in Stuttgart in 1500 shows the Christ child in the margin with a string powered whirligig.
The Jan Provost attributed late sixteenth-century painting ''Virgin and Child in a Landscape'' clearly shows the Christ child holding a whirligig as well.
The American version of the wind driven whirligig probably originated 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". 3. 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 from the southern Appalachians 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.
The modern scene:
Whirligigs as art:
Whirligigs have become art. A number of museums now have collections, or examples in their collections.
Whirligigs in literature:
William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, uses the whirligig as a metaphor for "what goes around, comes around."
O. Henry wrote a short story called "The Whirligig of Life", about a mountain couple who decide to divorce and the events that lead to their remarriage told from the perspective of the judge.
Lloyd Biggle, Jr. wrote a novel titled The Whirligig of Time as part of his science fiction series featuring Jan Darzek, a former private detective.
In Whirligig, a novel by Paul Fleischman, a boy makes a mistake that takes the life of a young girl and is sent on a cross country journey building whirligigs.
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.
Whirligigs in the movies:
In the movie Twister, Helen Hunt's aunt Meg (played by Lois Smith) has a large collection of metal kinetic art whirligigs in her front yard to warn her of approaching tornadoes.
Whirligigs as folk art:
When whirligigs became recognized as American folk art isn't clear, but today they are a well established sub-category. With recognition folk art whirligigs have increased in value.
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 the 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 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.
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Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license