Students’ geometry sets are one of the greatest mysteries in history! What are they for? Why are there 7 instruments in there which you never use? What’s the use of a set square anyway? We test out the Helix Oxford Geometry Set, a range of school geometry sets made for kids, and try to unravel all these arcane secrets. School geometry will never be the same again.
Reviewing Helix Oxford, Maped, Classmate and DOMS Geometry Sets
Vishal: Hello and welcome to Stationery Test Drive. This week we are looking at a School Geometry Box. I’m Vishal.
Samir: I’m Samir.
Minjal: This is Minjal.
Vishal: We’re looking to entertain our viewers and our readers and our gamers on this show which today we will hopefully do by showing you the high school geometry instrument box. We have one here and in some ways this one is THE BOX! It has a beautiful logo – It’s a man running with a sock, seemingly on a stick, and it says used all over the world! I mean socks are pretty universal I must say.
Origin and Design of the Helix Oxford Geometry Set
Samir: So the Oxford Set of Mathematical Instruments – Complete & Accurate, this box has said this for about 100 years. Which is when the Helix Company in the UK invented this particular set of instruments. All of these instruments have existed, some of them for thousands of years.
Vishal: Let’s show them! It comes with a nice timetable. My god, I haven’t seen one these for years and with good reason. It’s given me bad PTSD of some kind. There’s a set of useful symbol in units, and now let’s talk about the actual instruments.
Samir: Yes, the Helix Oxford Instrument Box has always had a timetable, it has always had these basic instructions on how to do some constructions and some geometry. It has always had the two set squares, a compass, a protractor, a ruler or a straight edge, depending on where you are, a sharpener, an eraser and also a little pencil. The divider is something that was added into the box only when it was introduced to the rest of the world. Strangely enough I don’t think the UK editions originally had this. The Helix Company was started somewhere in the 1880s, I believe and they started off manufacturing wooden rulers.
Vishal: In fact I seem to remember that the early ones that I would have gotten, they had a very a blonde wood ruler.
Samir: I think we would have bought our first Oxford boxes somewhere in the 80s, I think, and those did have a very thin wood ruler.
Vishal: I don’t really think of it as a geometry set because I almost never ended up using anything besides the compass and the protractor.
Samir: And it’s actually right to think of it as a compass box because after wooden rulers the first thing that Helix actually invented was this particular compass in the set. This design of compass for drawing was patented by them somewhere in the 1890s. All of these have patent numbers actually embedded in the metal, which is quite unique and probably cost them a lot to do this but because it’s traditional they continue to do it.
Minjal: Also when we were growing up in India, the Helix Oxford Geometry Set was never available. In India most of us used the Camlin orange-yellow tin set in the 80s and 90s.
Vishal: We grew up in the middle-east and I guess because of the British influence there we had access to some of this stuff. There’s a lot of history here but this particular picture is also historical.
Samir: Yes, this building, I believe is the Balliol College which is part of the Oxford University and it’s a 750 year old building and this has always been on the cover of these boxes.
Vishal: It would be interesting for us to figure out because this is a drawing of the Balliol College, probably done in pen and ink. Are compasses just a 100 years old? They are ancient, aren’t they?
Samir: Yeah. I think compasses have been around for a very long time purely because people have been drawing circles for a very long time. And they were they were not depending on putting pots upside down and drawing lines around them.
Minjal: I’ve been reading a little about how Euclid was the one who actually came up with the practical geometry that we use.
Vishal: To the point where we just call it Euclidean geometry.
Minjal: Correct, so are rudimentary versions of these instruments still around or does anybody know if there were wooden compasses?
Vishal: I mean there must have been, I think they still are, in nautical terms, I’ve seen.
Divider and Compass Tools in the Geometry Set
Samir: In fact the thing that you need to realize is that this compass is a modern technology improvement on this divider. The divider, it’s essentially a caliper. An instrument of this sort has probably existed for many thousands of years because you cannot build anything, any of the large structures we have, stone structures, brick structures that have existed for thousands of years, without using calipers to measure distances.
The addition of the pencil to the compass is probably fairly modern. As I said what we used as a measuring device for thousands of years was just probably a metal version of the compass or before that a wooden version, where you just measured distances. So you would essentially, measure the distance between two points and then you would measure that against something like a ruler and that’s how it would work.
The idea of attaching a drawing or a writing implement to it and then drawing circles is probably much more recent than we think it is. In the good old days when you were working on things that were not the size of a paper but architecture you would have just used string as your compass, so to speak. You’d just nail the string into one end of the ground here, this would be a string and you would attach a chalk or whatever to the other end and you would literally draw a circle.
Vishal: Okay and I think people still do that. I’ve seen people use strings on construction sites quite often.
Samir: Yeah, like plumb lines and those still use strings as a measuring device.
Minjal: So this Helix Oxford set would essentially be something that kids in high school use, right? This is not a technical geometry box?
Samir: No, and in fact Helix invented this very much for an educational reason somewhere in 1921 or so and when they did, there wouldn’t have been a box like this available even for technical people. So in some ways maybe there were plenty of technical people who used this as kind of an inexpensive version of it.
Vishal: Speaking of non-technical people we are somewhere in between technical and non-technical and what we do on the show every week is that we look at these kinds of tools, but we also do our own artwork or our bring our own skills. We’re artists, we’re calligraphers, we’re designers and we come up with pieces highlighting and using these sorts of instruments. We’ve each done one. Minjal, why don’t you show us yours?
Samir: And the idea behind what we do here is that we don’t plan on what we are going to use them for. We each come up with our own idea, our own interpretation, independent from each other so that we can see what we all come up.
Yin and Yang Symbol Art with DOMS & Classmate Geometry Set Tools
Vishal: Yeah and most of the time, we’ve not even shown each other these before they’re on camera. So I’m seeing this for the first time, very good use of..
Minjal: ..the only instrument that I really can use.
Vishal: I think both you and I ended up using just the compass. I did it for a more illustrated effect, you have done a wonderful Yin Yang symbol, perfectly constructed I must say and Samir?
Samir: I also chose to do a face.
Portrait Illustration with Helix Oxford Geometry Set Tools
Vishal: So we’ve each approached this from a different perspective. Samir yours is sort of the most geometric and portrait, Minjal yours is the most geometric and mine is, well, you wouldn’t be able to tell that it was made with the compass in some ways. And I should explain that I used the compass as guidelines. I put down with a pencil several concentric circles and then went over it with a fine liner, so it’s not a perfect geometric use but I would not have been able to do this without a compass.
Minjal: But that is actually a very unique use of the geometry box.
Samir: I think in fact these three are a good range of what you can do with the geometry box. You can either make something that is completely geometrical and that’s the the most traditional and the most valid way of using the original set of instruments. Then you can take it a little away from pure geometry and then you kind of try to make things out of those geometrical shapes and then you have used it to make a very illustrative thing, but using the geometry only as like the starting, the veneer of it, the scaffold.
Vishal: Which is actually the opposite of how you would use geometrical shapes in constructing drawings. Usually you would use it to create as you did, the structure of the face. Whereas I drew the face in my free hand way and then created the textural guidelines using the compass. I used this more modern compass, by a company called Maped, I think that we’re saying that right. They’re an acronym, aren’t they?
Samir: Yeah, it’s a French company and in fact Maped now owns Helix.
Vishal: Okay, so these are cousins of a sort! The good thing about the Maped, other than it looking fantastic, is that it’s very well constructed from aluminium, and unlike this one from Helix where you can barely get this pencil in and it’s a very small, very tiny, very specialized pencil. In fact I remember that in school if you lost this pencil, you pretty much couldn’t use this anymore because you couldn’t buy pencils of that size.
Samir: Some of the thicker gauge pencils wouldn’t go in.
Vishal: Even a regular Staedtler or an Apsara what we have, Nataraj now. Whereas this one I can use my trusty Pentel Graph which you will see in an upcoming episode.
Minjal: Samir did you end up using all the instruments in the box because it looks like you have more than Vishal and I did.
Abstract Portrait Art with Helix Oxford Geometry Set Tools
Samir: I attempted to use all of them. I think I could have easily done without using the protractor in this particular case. Although a protractor is obviously a very useful instrument but I generally stuck to kind of 90 degree and 45 degree kind of angles here, so I ended up using these to construct the angles because you have 45 degrees, 90 degrees.
So the interesting thing about these set squares is that they’re probably the two things in a geometry box which even most students do not end up using. Not their fault because mostly we’re just never taught or told what they’re for.
Vishal: I was never really taught how to use them. I was told that, oh you can use them to make parallel lines, but don’t worry about it, that’s only if you get into engineering.
Samir: Now the problem with most modern sets of set squares is that if you can see these closely they have kind of a bevel at the edge. Now as time has gone by these have become purely aesthetic and they have been made smooth, whereas originally I remember I had a set when I was growing up where the bevel was literally like a step, so that these two would fit in.
Vishal: They would lock together.
DOMS and Classmate Compass Tool Test
Minjal: You see now the other thing I want to point out, is you’ll used the Helix which obviously from what you’ll have discussed so far seems like a really good brand, and the Maped. Now what I had with me was this Classmate and Doms brand.
Vishal: These are both brands in India and so you’ll find similar price pointed things.
Minjal: Yes, these are very popular with high school children, it’s basically high school stationery.
Vishal: These are the things that the cool kids used to bring into school or something like.
Minjal: See as far as coolness is concerned, yes maybe they’re good looking boxes.
Samir: But again this is exactly what I was talking about. The Oxford set squares still have a little bit of a bevel, however, both Classmate and DOMS set squares have none, so you can’t actually use them as well to make a parallel line.
Minjal: No. Also the point I want to make is, this DOMS compass actually has a blunt edge. How can you do any kind of geometry with a compass that has a blunt edge? If this is what school children are using, I think they’re going to end up hating math just like I do, because really, no angles, no constructions are going to make sense.
Vishal: I mean the DOMS compass is very pretty and it’s nicely machined and all that but the fact is that it’s not actually usable.
Samir: But the thing we’re probably not considering is, is it like are they making this as a feature? Like is it supposed to be safer?
Minjal: Now, as far as the Classmate compass is concerned, the tip is sharp, but if you look at this pencil holder, it’s terrible.
Vishal: Oh, that is terrible. Having a screw choke like that is much better than having a threaded thing which barely has anything to work against.
Minjal: Yes, this is very flimsy because it’s also actually managed to gouge and make marks on all my pencils.
Samir: Okay, so the problem is that this thing is overengineered and too fancy.
Vishal: I mean there is such a thing as too much engineering and being too clever. For me the Maped is the best compass I’ve ever used. It’s simple, it works with pens, it works with pencils, most pens, you can’t use very thick pens on it. I know that there are more precise instruments that have a crossbar in between where you don’t actually move these manually, you just twist the crossbar.
Samir: And those are sort of proper instrument boxes that are meant for artists and designers, which we will probably cover at some point because they are quite different. I mean they have all the same instruments as this but they’re on a different level of precision.
Minjal: So yes, I’m going to tell mothers if the Camlin box is still available, the geometry box, orange yellow Camlin Geometry Box in India, please buy that. Do not buy Doms or Classmate geometry boxes, they’re great brands, they make great stationery products, maybe geometry boxes are not their forte.
Vishal: I mean I think the problem here is that they’ve done too much for them.
Samir: I think geometry boxes are one of those things that we all take for granted and every kid has one and as we’re learning with some of the things I showed you, there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. It’s unfortunate that we aren’t taught these things in the school that forces you to buy these boxes.
Vishal: Yeah, because I remember being with kids including myself being put out of class because we didn’t have a geometry box, and having to stand out there. You know, we survived school, we did not thrive in it, certain other people who shall not be named, who are on this show maybe they did.
But what we’re trying to say I guess in summation is that at least get a good compass, like a good Maped compass, you can just buy it separately. It fits pencils, pens, it’s really nice and you don’t need to do very geometric things in it, although this is great and I would suggest that everyone looks up pattern making.
Samir: Yeah I think if you want to really learn how to use geometry box, you need to learn it with things like the Helix or Maped because these are the basics on which you build more creative looser things.
Vishal: Yeah and so we have shown you a whole range of things. So you can make organic things, organic-looking things with mechanical basis, that is the basis of most drawings and most good drawings in the world that you think of as lively and and you know beautiful, whether they’re the Renaissance paintings.
Samir: Yeah they all started with guidelines that are kind of similar to this.
Vishal: Look up any construction drawings from your favorite old masters, you will find that they have used circles and squares and things like this. So yeah, learn about compass boxes, I’ve learnt how to use set square in this very episode, so I will try to incorporate that into my work, especially for things like making comics.
Minjal: Samir maybe you should do a tutorial for how to make a drawing like this because this is really interesting.
Vishal: We can do that, we’ll have that either on our our own channel. Samir has a channel on YouTube, so do I or we can have it here on Inky Memo. Let us know in the comments, what you would actually like us to do with the geometry box.
Vishal: You can find all of us online, at the social media links that we’re showing you as well as our own websites. You can sign up to the Inky Memo newsletter at inkymemo.com, where we talk about things like this very often and stay tuned to more episodes of Stationery Test Drive, where like I teased we will be looking at an eraser very soon, and then again like a compass box you don’t think of it as an artistic tool but we will be putting it to that use. So see you next time, thank you for joining us, I’m Vishal.
Samir: I’m Samir.
Minjal: I’m Minjal.
Vishal: And until next time, divide and conquer!
Get the Helix Oxford Geometry Set
1. Oxford Helix Maths Set with Storage Tin – https://amzn.to/360G6At
2. Maped Study Geometry 10 Piece Set – https://amzn.to/3J6cSyM