Desmond Paul Henry

Desmond Paul Henry

Desmond Paul Henry (1921–2004) was a Manchester University Lecturer and Reader in Philosophy (1949–82) and was one of the first few British artists to experiment with machine-generated visual effects at the time of the emerging global computer art movement of the 1960s (The Cambridge Encyclopaedia 1990 p. 289; Levy 2006 pp. 178–180). During this period, Henry constructed a succession of three drawing machines from modified bombsight analogue computers which were employed in World War II bombers to calculate the accurate release of bombs onto their target (O’Hanrahan 2005). Henry’s machine-generated effects resemble complex versions of the abstract, curvilinear graphics which accompany Microsoft’s Windows Media Player. Henry’s machine-generated effects may therefore also be said to represent early examples of computer graphics: ‘the making of line drawings with the aid of computers and drawing machines’ (Franke 1971, p. 41).

During the 1970s Henry focussed on further developing his own unique photo-chemical techniques for the production of highly original visual effects. He then also went on to make a fourth and even a fifth drawing machine in 1984 and 2002 respectively. These later machines however, were based around a mechanical pendulum design and not bombsight computers (O’Hanrahan 2005).


Henry’s artistic career

It was thanks to artist L. S. Lowry, working in collaboration with the then director of Salford Art Gallery, A. Frape, that Henry’s artistic career was launched in 1961 when he won a local competition at Salford Art gallery, entitled London Opportunity. The prize for winning this competition was a one-man exhibition show in London at the Reid Gallery. Lowry, from experience, knew how crucial such a London show could be in bringing an artist to public attention. In his capacity as one of the competition judges, Lowry visited Henry's home in Burford Drive, Manchester, to view his range of artistic work (O’Hanrahan 2005)

It was at this London show of 1962, entitled Ideographs, that Henry’s machine-generated effects were exhibited for the first time, along with pictures based upon Henry’s photo-chemical techniques which had originally won him the competition prize (ibid). It was this first exhibition of machine-produced effects which led to Henry and his first drawing machine being included in the first ever programme in the BBC’s ‘North at Six’ series and to his being approached by the American magazine Life (later incorporated into Time magazine) (ibid). Henry and his first drawing machine were to be featured in this magazine, but the article was scrapped following the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. The generally positive response his pictures received reflects the zeitgeist of technological optimism of the 1960s (ibid). The Guardian of 17/9/62 described the images produced by this first machine as being ‘quite out of this world’ and ‘almost impossible to produce by human hands’.

Henry’s machine-generated effects went on to be exhibited at various venues during the 1960s, the most major being Cybernetic Serendipity (1968) held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (I.C.A) in London. This represented one of the most significant art and technology exhibitions of the decade (Goodman 1987). In this exhibition not only the effects but also the drawing machine itself was included as an interactive exhibit. Cybernetic Serendipity then went on to tour the States, where exhibition venues included the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts (O’Hanrahan 2005).

This second machine returned from its tour of the States in 1972 in a complete state of disrepair (ibid). Such technical failures were not unusual in electric and motor-driven exhibition items (Rosenburg 1972). More recently, frequent mechanical and/or electronic computer breakdowns contributed to the decision to close Artworks, (The Lowry, Salford Quays, Manchester, U.K) in March 2003 after only three years in operation as a permanent, technology-based, interactive exhibition (O’Hanrahan 2005).

Henry’s inspiration: the bombsight computer

The main component of each Henry drawing machine was the bombsight computer. These mechanical analogue computers represented some of the most important technological advancements of World War Two. However, by the 1960s they already represented ‘old’ technology when compared to the more modern digital computers then available (O’Hanrahan 2005).

The mechanical analogue bombsight computer was employed in World War Two Bomber Aircraft to determine the exact moment bombs were to be released to hit their target. The bombardier entered information on air and wind speed, wind direction, altitude, angle of drift and bomb weight into the computer which then calculated the bomb release point, using a complex arrangement of gyros, motors, gears and a telescope (Jacobs 1996).

It was in the early 1950s that Henry purchased his very first Sperry bombsight computer, in mint condition, from an army surplus warehouse in Shude Hill, Manchester. This purchase was inspired by Henry’s lifelong passion for all things mechanical, which had been further fuelled by seven years serving as a technical clerk with R.E.M.E (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) during World War Two (O’Hanrahan 2005). Henry so marvelled at the mechanical inner workings of this bombsight computer in motion, that he eventually decided to capture its ‘peerless parabolas’ (as Henry termed its inner workings), on paper. He then modified the bombsight to create the first drawing machine of 1960. A second was constructed in 1963 and a third in 1967 (ibid). These machines created complex, abstract, asymmetrical, curvilinear, repetitive line drawings which were either left untouched as completed drawings or embellished by the artist’s hand in response to the suggestive machine-generated effects. Not one of Henry’s machines now remains in operational order (O’Hanrahan 2005).

The drawing machines

Henry's first drawing machine

Each Henry drawing machine was based around an analogue bombsight computer in combination with other components which Henry happened to have acquired for his home-based workshop in Whalley Range, Manchester (O’Hanrahan 2005). Each machine took up to six weeks to construct and each drawing from between two hours to two days to complete. The drawing machines relied upon an external electric power source to operate either one or two servo motors which powered the synchronisation of suspended drawing implement(s) acting upon either a stationary or moving drawing table (ibid). With the first drawing machine Henry employed biros as the mark-making implement; however with the machines that followed he preferred to use Indian ink in technical tube pens, since these effects, in contrast to biro ink, do not risk fading upon prolonged exposure to sunlight (O’Hanrahan 2005).

How the drawing machines operated

Henry’s drawing machines were quite unlike the conventional computers of the 1960s since they could not be pre-programmed nor store information (O’Hanrahan 2005). His machines relied instead, as did those of artist Jean Tinguely, upon a ‘mechanics of chance’ (Pontus Hulten in Peiry 1997, p. 237). That is to say, they relied upon the chance relationship in the arrangement of each machine’s mechanical components, the slightest alteration to which, (for example, a loosened screw), could dramatically impinge on the final result. In the words of Henry, he let each machine ‘do its own thing’ in accordance with its sui generis mechanical features, with often surprising and unpredictable results. The imprecise way Henry's machines were both constructed and operated ensured that their effects could not be mass-produced and would be infinitely varied (O’Hanrahan 2005).

Such imprecise tools as Henry's machines, have been judged by some to enhance artistic creativity as opposed to modern computer imaging software which leaves no scope for artistic intuition (Reffin-Smith 1997). Nor could Henry's machines have been accused of preventing the artist from exercising aesthetic choice. They were truly interactive, like modern computer graphic manipulation software. With a Henry drawing machine, the artist had general overall control and was free to exercise personal and artistic intuition at any given moment of his choosing during the drawing production process (O’Hanrahan 2005).

Both these elements of chance and interaction were in contrast to most other computer artists or graphic designers of the period, for whom the first stage in producing a digital computer graphic was to conceive the end product. The next stage was one where, ‘mathematical formulae or geometric pattern manipulations (were) found to represent the desired lines. These were then programmed into a computer language, punched onto cards, and read into the computer’ (Sumner 1968 p. 11).

Henry’s machine-generated effects

Picture produced by Drawing Machine 1

In 2001 Henry’s machine-generated work was discussed in terms of the use made, since earliest times, of a range of tools for producing similar abstract, visual effects (O’Hanrahan 2001). Once Henry himself had beheld the visual effects produced by his first machine, he then strove to find possible precursors such as the organic forms described in natural form mathematics (D’Arcy-Thompson 1917; Cook 1914). Henry also compared his machine-generated effects to those produced using earlier scientific and mathematical instruments such as: Suardi’s Geometric Pen of 1750 (Adams 1813), Pendulum Harmonographs (Goold et al., 1909) and the Geometric Lathe as used in ornamental and bank-note engraving (Holtzapffel 1973 [1894]).

His inclusion in 1968 in Cybernetic Serendipity enabled him to further contrast his machine-generated effects with similar though less complex and varied ones produced using a variety of tools. These included effects displayed on a visual display screen using a cathode-ray oscilloscope (Ben F. Laposky in Cybernetic Serendipity 1968) and those produced using a mechanical plotter linked to either a digital (Lloyd Sumner in Cybernetic Serendipity 1968) or analogue computer (Maughan S. Mason in Cybernetic Serendipity 1968). However Henry’s drawing machines, in contrast to other precision mark-making instruments like the lathe and mechanical plotter, relied heavily upon the element of chance both in their construction and function (O’Hanrahan 2005).

Henry and fractal mathematics

Henry’s introduction in 2001 to the aesthetic application of fractal mathematics (Briggs 1994[1992]) provided Henry with the necessary terms of reference for describing the chance-based operational aspects of his machines. Fractal mathematics could also help describe the aesthetic appreciation of his machine-generated effects or ‘mechanical fractals’(Henry 2002) as he came to term them (O’Hanrahan 2005).

Fractal systems are produced by a dynamic, non-linear system of interdependent and interacting elements; in Henry’s case, this is represented by the mechanisms and motions of the drawing machine itself (ibid). In a fractal system, as in each Henry drawing machine, very small changes or adjustments to initial influences can have far-reaching effects.

Fractal images appeal to our intuitive aesthetic appreciation of order and chaos combined. Each Henry machine-produced drawing bears all the hallmarks of a fractal image since they embody regularity and repetition coupled with abrupt changes and discontinuities (Briggs 1994[1992]). In other words, they exhibit self-similarity (similar details on different scales) and simultaneous order and chaos. These images also resemble fractal ‘strange attractors’, since groups of curves present in the machine-generated effects tend to form clusters creating suggestive patterns (Briggs 1994[1992]).

Fractal patterns, similar to Henry's machine-generated effects, have been found to exist when plotting volcanic tremors, weather systems, the ECG of heart beats and the electroencephalographic data of brain activity (ibid.).

Henry found in fractals a means of both classifying his artistic activity and describing the aesthetic appreciation of his visual effects. Among the many artists who have previously employed what are now recognised as fractal images, are: 'Vincent Van Gogh’s dense swirls of energy around objects; the recursive geometries of Maritus Escher; the drip-paint, tangled abstractions of Jackson Pollock' (ibid p.166).

Art and technology

Some would argue that scientific and technological advances have always influenced art in terms of its inspiration, tools and visual effects. In the words of Douglas Davis: ‘Art can no more reject either technology or science than it can the world itself’ (Davis 1973, introduction). In his writings Henry himself often expressed his lifelong enthusiasm for fruitful collaborations between art and technology (Henry: 1962, 1964, 1969, 1972).

During the First Machine Age, prior to World War Two, enthusiasm for technological advances was expressed by the Machine Aesthetic which heralded the Modern Movement (Banham 1960). Affiliated art movements of this time which shared aspects of the Machine Aesthetic included: Purism in France, Futurism in Italy (both of which celebrated the glories of modern machines and the excitement of speed), Suprematism, Productivism in Russia, Constructivism, Precisionism in North America and kinetic sculpture (Meecham and Sheldon 2000).

By the 1960s, in the Second Machine Age, technology provided not only the inspiration for art production but above all its tools (Popper 1993), as reflected by the Art and Technology movement in the United States. Adherents to this movement employed only the very latest available computer equipment. In this early phase of computer art, programmers became artists and artists became programmers in order to experiment with the computer's creative possibilities (Darley, 1990). Since Henry worked in comparative artistic and scientific isolation, he did not have access to the latest technological innovations, in contrast to those working, for example, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) (O’Hanrahan 2005).

By the 1970s, the earlier enthusiasm for technology witnessed in the 60s gave way to the post-modern loss of faith in technology as its destructive effects, both in war and on the environment, became more apparent (Lucie-Smith 1980). Goodman (1987) suggests that it is since 1978 that a second generation of computer artists may be recognised; a generation which no longer needs to be electronically knowledgeable or adept because the ‘software does it for them’ (Goodman 1987, p. 47). This is in contrast to Henry who had to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to manipulate and modify the components of the bombsight computers in order to construct the drawing machines (O’Hanrahan 2005).

During the 1980s, the application in computers of the microchip (developed by 1972) increased the affordability of a home computer and led to the development of interactive computer graphics programmes like Sketchpad and various Paintbox systems (Darley 1991). During this period, computer art gave way almost completely to computer graphics as the computer’s imaging capabilities became exploited both industrially and commercially and moved into entertainment related spheres, e.g.: Pixar, Lucas Films (Goodman 1987). The computer once again became, for some, an undisputed artistic tool in its own right (Goodman 1987).

This renewed enthusiasm in the computer’s artistic possibilities has been further reflected by the emergence towards the end of the twentieth century of various forms of cyber, virtual, or digital art, examples of which include algorithmic art and fractal art. By the twenty-first century, digitally produced and/or manipulated images were exhibited in galleries as veritable works of art in their own right (O’Hanrahan 2005).


Henry’s drawing machines of the 1960s represented a remarkable innovation in the field of art and technology for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the bombsight analogue computer provided not only the inspiration but also the main tool for producing highly original visual effects (O’Hanrahan 2005). Secondly, his machines’ reliance on a mechanics of chance, as opposed to pre-determined computer programmes, ensured the unrepeatable and unique quality of his infinitely varied machine-generated effects or ‘mechanical fractals’ (O'Hanrahan 2005). Thirdly, the spontaneous, interactive potential of his drawing machines’ modus operandi pre-empted by some twenty years this particular aspect of later computer graphic manipulation software (ibid).

Picture produced by Drawing Machine 2

Finally, Henry was never artistically inspired by the graphic potential of the modern digital computer (ibid). He much preferred the direct interaction afforded by the clearly visible interconnecting mechanical components of the earlier analogue computer and as a consequence of his drawing machines also. This was in stark contrast to the invisible and indirect workings of the later digital computer: ‘the mechanical analogue computer, was a work of art in itself, involving a most beautiful arrangement of gears, belts, cams differentials and so on- it still retained in its working a visual attractiveness which has now vanished in the modern electronic counterpart; … I enjoyed seeing the machine work…’ (Henry, 1972).

In view of these considerations, Henry’s drawing machines may be said to not only reflect the early experimental phase of Computer Art and computer graphics but to also provide an important artistic and technological link between two distinct ages of the twentieth century: the earlier Mechanical/Industrial Age and the later Electronic/Digital Age (O’Hanrahan 2005).

See also


Adams, George (1813), Geometrical and Graphical Essays, W& S.Jones, London. (Courtesy of the Science Museum Library, London).

Banham, Reyner (1996 [1960]), Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Architectural Press, Oxford.

Briggs, John (1994[1992]), Fractals: the Patterns of Chaos, Thames and Hudson, London.

Cambridge Encyclopaedia (1990), Crystal, D. (ed.), 'Computer Art' by David Manning, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 289.

Cook, Theodore (1979[1914]), The Curves of Life: An account of spiral formations and their application to the growth in nature, science and art, Dover, New York.

Cybernetic Serendipity,[] (1968). Reichardt, Jasia (ed.), Studio International, Special Issue, London.

D’Arcy Thompson (1961[1917]), On Growth and Form, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge .

Darley, Andy (1990), ‘From Abstraction to Simulation’ in Philip Hayward (ed.)(1994[1990]) Culture, Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century, John Libbey& Company Ltd. London, pp. 39–64.

Darley, Andy (1991), 'Big Screen, Little Screen' in Ten-8:vol.2, no.2: Digital Dialogues, (ed. Bishton), pp. 80–84.

Davis, Douglas (1973) Art and The Future, Praeger, New York.

Franke, H.W (1971), Computer graphics, Computer Art, Phaedon, Oxford, p. 41.

Goodman, Cynthia (1987), Digital Visions: Computers and Art, Abrams, New York.

Goold, J., Benham, C.E., Kerr, R., Wilberforce, L.R., (1909), Harmonic Vibrations, Newton & Co., London.

Henry, D.P. (1962), A New Project for Art. Unpublished article submitted to Today 04/03/62.

Henry, D.P. (1964), ‘Art and Technology’, in Bulletin of the Philosophy of Science Group, Newman Association, No. 53.

Henry, D.P (1969), ‘The End or the Beginning?’ in Solem (Manchester Students’ Union Magazine) pp. 25–27.

Henry, D.P (1972), Computer graphics: a case study. (lecture given to Aberdeen University art students).

Holtzapffel, John Jacob (1973[1894]), The Principles and Practice of Ornamental or Complex Turning, Dover, New York.

Jacobs, Peter (1996), The Lancaster Story, Silverdale Books, Leicester.

Levy, David (2006) Robots Unlimited-Life in a Virtual Age, A.K.Peters, Wellesley, U.S.A, pp. 178–180.

Lucie-Smith, Edward (1980), Art in the Seventies, Phaedon, Oxford.

Meecham, Pam and Sheldon, Julie (2000), Modern Art: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London.

O’Hanrahan, Elaine (2001)(interview) ‘Intercultural Drawing Practice: the Art School Response’ In Jagjit Chuhan, (ed.) (2001), Responses: Intercultural Drawing Practice, Cornerhouse Publications, Manchester, pp.: 40-47.

O’Hanrahan, Elaine (2005), Drawing Machines: The machine produced drawings of Dr. D. P. Henry in relation to conceptual and technological developments in machine-generated art (UK 1960- 1968). Unpublished MPhil. Thesis. John Moores University, Liverpool.

Peiry, Lucienne (1997), Art Brut- The Origins of Outsider Art, Flammarion, Paris.

Popper, Frank (1993), Art of the Electronic Age, Thames and Hudson, London.

Reffin-Smith, Brian (1997), 'Post-modem Art, or: Virtual Reality as Trojan Donkey, or: horsetail tartan literature groin art' in Stuart Mealing (ed.) (1997) Computers and Art, Intellect Books, Bristol, pp. 97–117.

Rosenberg, Harold (1972), The De-definition of Art, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Sumner, Lloyd (1968), Computer Art and Human Response, Paul B. Victorius, Charlottesville, Virginia.

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