The Animated Wonders of the Industrial Mechanigraph

Mechanigraph of the Grass Hopper Steam Carriage by Harry Levey.
Mechanigraph of the Grass Hopper Steam Carriage by Harry Levey.

When faced with the need to demonstrate the inner workings of the latest consumer must-have – from the inhalatory heart of a vortex-driven vacuum cleaner to the gas-flattening wonders of your favourite antacid  – television advertisers have invariably turned to that old faithful: the animated product demo.

Harry Levey - photograph from Indianapolis Times, March 10, 1921.
Harry Levey – photograph from Indianapolis Times, March 10, 1921.

One of the earliest pioneers of this most intricate of commercial art forms was Harry Levey. In the early 1920s, Levey served as president of the screen advertisers’ division of the Associated Advertising Clubs of the World. Following a stint in Universal Film Company’s industrial films division, he set up his own company – the Harry Levey Service Corporation – with studios at 230-232 West 38th St., New York City.

Levey’s studio specialised in educational films illuminating everything from the functioning of major engineering works to the economies of individual U.S. states. These films frequently featured ‘mechanigraphs’ – stop-motion animated diagrams designed to demonstrate the secret functionality of anything from a power station turbine to the human body.

In 1921, during a talk he gave to a meeting of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers in Buffalo, N.Y., Levey outlined some of his techniques:

The term ‘mechanigraph’ is the trade name given to motion pictures of animated mechanical and technical drawings and models. Mechanigraphs differ from other animated technical films rather in the care and thoroughness with which they are made and the knowledge of subject matter and the engineering skill behind them. [Mechanigraphs] consist in the most part of flat working models, supplemented by technical drawings, of the machine, operation, process or idea. The models are usually made of especially prepared fibre board, drawn, cut out and washed with air brush and by hand so as to closely resemble the real object.

Levey was a prolific producer of these ‘industrial films,’ many of which were released theatrically. Following an address given by Levey to the Indianapolis Ad Club in March 1921, entitled How Movies Are Made, the Indianapolis Times reported:

Mr. Levey has the reputation of developing a new and powerful advertising medium in the motion picture, having made more than 500 films of nearly as many industries in the past three years. He is now on a tour of the Middle West lecturing before the Ad Clubs of representative cities. “The Porcelain Lamp,” a Harry Levey production, recently finished for the Cole Motor Car Company, was shown at the Advertising Club meeting.

Mechanigraph of a Daimer motorcycle from "The Porcelain Lamp."
Mechanigraph of a Daimer motorcycle from “The Porcelain Lamp.”

Released in January 1921 and directed by Ben K. Blake, The Porcelain Lamp was a five-reel feature chronicling the adventures of Anton Daimier (Eugene Borden), a fictionalised version of Gottlieb Daimler, a key figure in the development of the internal combustion engine. According to the American Film Institute Catalog:

Onscreen illustrations of mechanical devices, which normally required cartoon animation, were accomplished with ‘mechanigraphs,’ layered cardboard models that were animated through the use of stop-motion photography.

The futuristic art form of mechanigraphy was clearly an irresistible draw for the Cole Motor Car Company, which backed the film and benefited from the promotional opportunities it presented. Operating out of Indianapolis between 1908-1925, Cole was no stranger to brassy advertising campaigns, employing slogans like “There’s a Touch of Tomorrow In All Cole Does Today” to push its range of high-end automobiles.

Paul Ostryzniuk, creative director at design and communications company AKQA where he leads the teams behind award-winning campaigns for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, remarked:

At its heart, this technique is not about engineering or craftsmanship, but about communication. The more complex the subject the more clear and captivating the storytelling should be, and mechanigraphs deliver intrigue, understanding and replayability from the start. A delightful precursor to modern techniques that can learn from this simplicity of storytelling. No matter how intricate the execution may be to create, the end result should always be clarity.

Mechanigraph of the Dandy Man Bicycle from "The Porcelain Lamp."
Mechanigraph of the Dandy Man Bicycle from “The Porcelain Lamp.”
Mechanigraph used in “White Coal – The Fuel of the Future,” made for Westinghouse Electric Co. by the Harry Levey Service Corporation. Nearly five feet high, the model was animated using over 4,000 exposures.
Turbine mechanigraph used in “White Coal – The Fuel of the Future,” made for Westinghouse Electric Co. by the Harry Levey Service Corporation. Nearly five feet high, the model was animated using over 4,000 exposures.

Just as Levey’s original employer, the Universal Film Company, survives to this day as a producer and distributor of big-budget features, so too has the humble mechanigraph become a star of the silver screen.  Pick any recent sci-fi or action blockbuster and you’re sure to see your share of viewscreen schematics and spinning holograms that explain, in all their full-colour animated cutaway glory, not only the optimum route into the villain’s secret hideout, but also how to disable the security systems along the way.

Andrew Booth, founder and creative director of BLIND Ltd., a UK-based moving image design company responsible for user interface effects in feature films including Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Skyfall, The Dark Knight and all three films in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, commented on the legacy of the industrial mechanigraph in modern cinema:

The beauty of the art form known as mechanigraphs is the underlying illusion of showing the audience something that cannot be seen with the human eye, giving the viewer an almost X-ray vision to the inner working of mechanical devices. As such, mechanigraphs are the forefathers of the tactical displays and computer schematics that we see today in films, which allow the modern filmmaker to impart information to a computer-savvy audience in an effective and compelling way, and immerse the viewer into an unseen world.

Here is Harry Levey’s parting shot to Society of Motion Picture Engineers:

Selling and merchandising, as well as teaching and general education and entertainment, have acquired by mechanigraphs a new, powerful and efficient medium which is as far advanced beyond ordinary cinematography for attaining certain desired results as the ordinary cinematography is advanced beyond the older methods of the oral or written word.

It’s a bold claim, and perhaps a little over-egged. Or, perhaps, Harry Levey was simply trying to assert a simple truth: sometimes the concept you’re trying to express is so darn complicated that only a fancy animated diagram will do.

Mechanigraph images from Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, 1921. Turbine mechanigraph image from Motion Pictures in Education by Don Carlos Ellis and Laura Thornborough, 1923.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s