by George R. Walker
Dividers have long been called the “Tools of the Imagination” – and with good reason. For millennia, this simple pair of joined pointed sticks has been the universal tool that unites all the building trades and artistic crafts. Artisans reached for dividers to make simple layouts at the workbench as well as to step off proportions and patterns. Dividers are the perfect tool to determine the overall proportions of a design as well as work out the smaller details.
But there’s much more to these humble tools than an accurate means to step off divisions on a line. The ancients saw dividers as an almost mystical tool – not in the sense that they hold some inner magic, but that dividers are the conduit that can ignite the potential of the imagination. When we consider that they were used to design and build most of our iconic architecture, furniture and works of art, it’s no wonder our ancestors held them in such high regard.
Another clue to the place of honor reserved for these tools can be seen in the legends about their origin. No mere human is credited with their invention, rather their source is wrapped in myth. A Greek mythological figure named Perdix fashioned the first pair of dividers (and invented the saw, inspired by the spine of a fish). He apprenticed under his uncle, Daedalus, who was so jealous of the boy’s genius that he hurled him from a cliff.
Today, we tend to regard myth as primitive or superstitious, but our ancestors used myth to explain things that were important, as well as to reach far back in time beyond the bounds of memory. This mythological connection implies that artisans were using dividers far back in antiquity.