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Galileo! Galileo!

Not to be confused with Galileo’s compass, the Staedtler Galileo could be considered one of the last radical redesigns of the modern compass, literally turning the usual fine-adjustment spindle concept on its head. Released in 1997 to critical acclaim, including an iF Design Award, the Galileo is nonetheless something of a rarity today, and one which had been on my radar for several years until I recently found one in a batch of cheap school drawing sets.

Its design was the subject of a German patent (now expired) taken out by Staedtler in September 1996, which named the inventors as Christian Leibeck, Helmut Hufnagl and Peter Weis. Staedtler registered the “Galileo” trademark in Germany soon afterwards, shortly followed by the USA. Of the Galileo’s three inventors, Leibeck in particular had been responsible for a number of other Staedtler patents and designs, including their Triplus pen range – still in production today – as well as many of their packaging concepts from the late nineties.

Staedtler Galileo compass in box

The problem that the Galileo set out to solve was one common to most spindle adjustment compasses, namely that the legs become less vertical as they are opened. This was particularly problematic when drawing with ink, something that many designs of parallel compass had attempted to overcome more or less successfully with mechanisms of varying degrees of complexity. Other designs, such as Stanley’s long spring bows, opted for a pseudo-parallel approach, which aimed to work optimally at the most commonly-used settings. The Galileo’s creators opted for the latter approach, with the legs at their most vertical when drawing medium-sized circles. From the patent description, it appears that this had as much to do with improving the centre of gravity of the compass as with keeping the points vertical, perhaps unsurprising given that the Galileo was intended purely as a pencil compass.

Staedtler Galileo compass opening

By moving the leg pivot point closer to the spindle bearing, it was hoped that the Galileo would offer some of the benefits of quick-setting compasses without the requirement of a special spindle or other complex mechanisms. The unconventional aesthetics of the compass are largely the result of these considerations, with an outsized adjusting wheel partly enclosed by the streamlined handle design, beneath which the horizontal element that supports the legs curves upwards to bring the pivots closer to the spindle bearing (see patent drawings below). Consequently, the compass is somewhat quicker to adjust than the standard master bow, although still not technically “quick-setting” (as will be seen below). Other innovations proposed by the patent, including a centimetre scale and side-adjustment wheel, never made it into production.

Staedtler Galileo compass patent drawings

While the Galileo’s design stems from functional requirements, to my eye it also owes something to Philippe Starck’s iconic Juicy Salif lemon squeezer designed six years earlier in 1990, with its aerodynamic body and cranked War of the Worlds-esque legs. In a nod to its intended market, the Galileo was available in a range of bright neon colours as well as the classic Staedtler blue of my example. Staedtler also retailed a special edition pack with interchangeable ribbed handle covers in three equally lurid colours.

According to pencil blogger Lexikaliker who has been in touch with Helmut Hufnagl (one of the three co-patentees), the Galileo’s brief existence was largely due to its mechanism being mistaken for a true quick-setting design. By forcibly pulling the legs apart, unsuspecting users would strip the plastic spindle bearings, rendering the compass useless; after many complaints Staedtler shelved the design. I can’t help but wonder if the outcome might have been different had the Galileo been fitted with Staedtler’s patented quick-setting spindle and marketed as a mid-range model. Unfortunately, by 1997 the professional compass was rapidly falling out of use, leaving the student-quality market as Staedtler’s only viable option for new models. Even so, the build quality of the Galileo is reassuringly solid with the sort of premium finish usually reserved for Staedtler’s Mars range (possibly as a direct result of the decline in sales of the latter, although this is pure speculation). Consequently, I feel the compass deserves to be better recognised than it is at present, if only for its ambition.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Wowter

    Thank you for this outstanding review, Alan. I supplied Lexikaliker in the past with his Galileo ;). I found a few and was anxious to learn more about them. So little information on them on the internet .. Lexikaliker had some contacts at Staedtler at the time. So nice other people, like you and Gunther, can appreciate Galileo’s quality too. Sometimes excellent products fail by misuse (as Staedtler told Gunther frankly – openness is a virtue). Of course, as you state the professional market switched to computer use at that time. Still a beautiful tool that can be bought for less than 10€/10$/10$ second hand, often as good as a new one. Better for the planet and so much fun to use!

  2. Gunther

    Thanks for the informative and insightful post as well as the backlink!

  3. Alan Williams

    Thanks Gunther and Wowter, I was likewise very pleased to find other fans of the Galileo online! Lexikaliker has been a valued source of information and inspiration for many years, so I am only too happy to give credit where it is due. Besides my interest in drawing instruments, I am a longstanding user/collector of mechanical pencils and hope to feature them more on the site in future. I also have quite a few other Staedtler compasses from the 1950s onward, many with interesting stories behind them like the Galileo’s, which I will post here as time permits. Thanks again for the comments, and keep up the good work!

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