The Art of Nomography I: Geometric Design

part1Nomography, truly a forgotten art, is the graphical representation of mathematical relationships or laws (the Greek word for law is nomos). These graphs are variously called nomograms (the term used here), nomographs, alignment charts, and abacs. This area of practical and theoretical mathematics was invented in 1880 by Philbert Maurice d’Ocagne (1862-1938) and used extensively for many years to provide engineers with fast graphical calculations of complicated formulas to a practical precision.

Along with the mathematics involved, a great deal of ingenuity went into the design of these nomograms to increase their utility as well as their precision. Many books were written on nomography and then driven out of print with the spread of computers and calculators, and it can be difficult to find these books today even in libraries. Every once in a while a nomogram appears in a modern setting, and it seems odd and strangely old-fashioned—the multi-faceted Smith Chart for transmission line calculations is still sometimes observed in the wild. The theory of nomograms “draws on every aspect of analytic, descriptive, and projective geometries, the several fields of algebra, and other mathematical fields” [Douglass].

This essay is an overview of how nomograms work and how they are constructed from scratch. Part I of this essay is concerned with straight-scale designs, Part II additionally addresses nomograms having one or more curved scales, and Part III describes how nomograms can be transformed into different shapes, the status of nomograms today, and the nomographic references I consulted.

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Heaviside’s Operator Calculus

heaviside3An operational calculus converts derivatives and integrals to operators that act on functions, and by doing so ordinary and partial linear differential equations can be reduced to purely algebraic equations that are much easier to solve. There have been a number of operator methods created as far back as Leibniz, and some operators such as the Dirac delta function created controversy at the time among mathematicians, but no one wielded operators with as much flair and abandon over the objections of mathematicians as Oliver Heaviside, the reclusive physicist and pioneer of electromagnetic theory.

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The Analemmas of Vitruvius and Ptolemy

celestialsphereHave you ever had to calculate the positions of astronomical objects? Orbital calculations relative to an observer on the Earth require derivations and time-consuming solutions of spherical trigonometric equations. And yet, these kinds of calculations were accomplished in the days prior to the advent of calculators or computers!

For example, to find the zenith angle (angle to overhead) and azimuth (angle from North) of the sun at any day and time of the year for any location on Earth, the laws of spherical trigonometry produce the formulas below. Here the solar declination δ is a function of the solar longitude λ and ecliptic angle ε as shown in the figure to the left.


These calculations can be automated today—but did I mention that these solutions were found before electronic calculators?

… or slide rules, or logarithms?

… or trigonometric formulas?

… or even algebra??

In fact, Vitruvius (ca. 50) and Ptolemy (ca. 150) provided mathematical and instrumental means of calculating the sun’s position for any hour, day, and observer location by the use of geometric constructions called analemmas (only indirectly related to the figure-8 analemma on globes). An important application of analemmas was the design of accurate horizontal and vertical direct and declining sundials for any observer location. These analemmas are awe-inspiring even today, and as the study of “Descriptive Geometry” has disappeared from our schools they can strike us as mysterious and wondrous inventions!

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