History of the Pinscreen

In 1976, artist Ward Fleming devised a method of creating patterned perforations in paper using settable nail blocks. An interest in the 3-D potential of the perforation equipment led Fleming to hang the nails directly into hand-perforated metal sheets to create a field of pendulums that produced wave patterns when vibrated or stroked by hand. To increase the resolution, Fleming soon switched from nails to pins, setting them in mass-produced perforated metal screens.
In 1979 Fleming was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant as Artist-in-Residence at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, where he created his first pin-table display. Museum visitors could create wave patterns in the heads of the pins on the table’s surface by brushing their hands across the tips of the more than 200,000 pins hanging beneath the table.
The time-consuming process of setting the pins by hand led Fleming to develop a vibrating funnel that vertically oriented the pins causing them to seek open holes. The vibration used during the insertion process created beautifully complex standing wave patterns in the completed pin field — a serendipitous discovery that was incorporated into the pin-table displays, allowing manual control of the frequency.
Fleming created and installed numerous pin-tables in science and children’s museums world-wide, including a series of five pin-tables in the Kodak Pavillion at Epcot Center.
Fleming then conceived of the idea of creating an installation whereby an array of pins would pass through two perfectly identical perforated panels which, when held vertically, would allow the viewer to make an impression in the pins by pushing their hand/face/etc. into the array. Wanting to make a hand-held version of this display, Fleming then created the prototype of what would become the popular toy (which he named the Pinscreen).
He applied for a patent, and began producing small hand-held Pinscreens for art museum shops and retail outlets. Pinscreens were enormously popular at a New York trade show in the mid 1980s, but cheap copies immediately appeared, eventually causing Fleming to cease production of his hand-crafted Pinscreens. Eventually all of the unlicensed companies recognized Fleming’s patent and were then licensed through Ward Fleming Pinscreens, Inc. to continue production. To date an estimated ten million Pinscreens (under various names) have been sold world-wide.
Fleming has now resumed production of hand-crafted, custom-made Pinscreens using luminescent plastic pins – light enough to allow panels of unprecedented scale. Fleming’s method of “heading” the blunt end of the pins is another innovation – allowing impressions to be made and erased from both sides of the panel, and rendering unnecessary the glass/plexi protective front panel of the earlier models.