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The Waterbomb

The Waterbomb is an example of a fairly small number of origami models that take their final shape from being inflated.. Other inflatable models mention ed include the teapot (also known as the Kettle - it can be filled with water and then boiled over a candle), the Bellows, the Persimmon, a paper Pyramid, the Inflatable Frog, and the Blow-up Bunny. Robert Harbin also gives one or two of his own variants on the Waterbomb in his book "Paper Magic" (1956) including a "Space Taxi" and a "Horned Demon" and also an inflatable "Outer Space Ship" which is folded not from a Waterbomb Base, but from a Bird Base. In the same book Rolf Harris, Harbin's illustrator, but also a well-known television entertainer in his own right, contributes a few inflatable models, although they are folded from specially cut paper and not from a simple square or a rectangle.

Rolf's models include a Sitting Rabbit, a Bulldog, a Duckling and a "Faithful Fido" (a sitting dog)). This idea for folding shaped paper turned out to be a dead end, probably because it wasn't "pure" enough. Nor did it have the logical consistency of folding from a square or even a rectangle and nothing more was seen of it after "Paper Magic". In any case, Rolf very soon became diverted from paper folding by the success of his own career.

Another traditional "inflatable model is the classic Japanese Tsuru or Crane. If is folded to hang in a "curtain" of a Thousand Cranes it is usually left flat, but folded as an individual Crane, it may be inflated. Usually, however, it is sufficient to pull outwards on the wings to get the inflated effect. The most famous of the inflatable models is the Waterbomb itself. I am reminded that Fred Rohm told how, as a boy, he saved up his pocket money to buy the instructions for "a bomb that blew up". As all small boys would, he thought that this meant something that exploded but all he got was an inflatable Waterbomb! Well, it did blow up, but not in the way he expected and he naturally felt cheated.

Other modern creations are Pat Crawford's "Stella Octangula" and "Tetrahedron" and Rae Cookers's Strawbnerry In addition to the trad itional Bunny, several inflated animal models have been devised including a Sheep, a Cow, an Elephant, a Rhinoceros, a Camel, a Tadpole and a Ladybird. The inflating technique is so common that In origami notation there is even a symbol for inflating a model, which some authors include, which is an arrow linked to a drawing of a small cloud, to show the puffing action intended. The base used to fold a Waterbomb is very ancient and appropriately known in the West as the "Waterbomb Base", a name chosen by Samuel Randlett in his book, "The Art of Origami" (1961).

It was a name chosen against the wishes of Gershon Legman who was one of the small group of folders whom Randlett consulted while writing his book. Gershon Legman, disliked the association of origami with violence and wanted a more peaceful name However, Randlett was determined to adhere to his policy of choosing names for his chosen bases from models that were commonly folded from them. The Waterbomb base is the earliest of the "radial" as opposed to the "grid" bases and predates the other radial bases, such as the Bird Base and the Frog Bases by hundreds of years.

It was the only radial base known in the West until the introduction of the Bird Base, from which the Flapping Bird was folded, apparently around 1870, by Japanese conjurors who began to tour the West following the ending of the Japanese Isolation as a result of Commodore Perry's gunboat diplomacy in 1854. The Waterbomb base is not only interesting because it is the earliest base o f which we know anything, but also in its own right. It uses the same creases as what is usually called the Preliminary Fold. This was so named by Samuel Randlett, who did not rank it as a base in its own right, but only as a preliminary step in the folding of other bases. On the other hand, he elevated the Preliminary Fold's companion, the Waterbomb Base to the status of a full base. Despite Sam Randlett, however, most of us tend to call it the "Preliminary Base".

It is generally thought that the Waterbomb Base is the reverse of the Preliminary Fold. It is certainly fascinating to flip the paper from one for m to the other and back again and to wonder at the mgic of the move. However, the reverse of the Preliminary Fold is another preliminary Fold and the reverse of the Waterbomb Base is another Waterbomb Base. This can be seen if Preliminary F old and a Waterbomb Base (each folded from paper coloured differently on either side) is unfolded flat and then each of the diagonal creases and the book fold creases are reversed from mountain fold to valley fold and vice versa. When the paper is refolded along the reversed creases, it forms another Preliminary Fold or Waterbomb Base in which the coloured side of the paper. But now the colour that was on the inside is now on the outside and the colour that was on the inside is now on the outside. These are the true reverses.

I have also seen this explained by imagining a sink in the apex of either the Preliminary Fol d or the Waterbomb base carried right down to the edges of the square. the preliminary Fold emerges from the underside as a reverse Preliminary Fold an d the Waterbomb Base emerges as a reversed. Waterbomb Base. There is no interchange between the Preliminary Fold and the Waterbomb Base.

The Waterbomb Base had already known in the West, certainly since the 17th Century. It is shown in a plate from "Li Tre Trattati" by Mattia Giegere wh ich was published in Italy in 1639. This book consists of three "trattati" (treatises) which give instructions for the presentation of food at table. T he first of the three treatises explains how to prepare the elaborate table decorations folded from tablecloths and napkins which were fashionable at th e time. There are some seven plates relating to napkin folding, the sixth of which gives a clear illustration of the Waterbomb Base. There is no indication, however, how the Waterbomb Base was used. The napkin folding of the period is also mentioned in an earlier Italian book with the title, "Il Trinciante" by Vincenzo Cervio which was published fifty-eight years earlier, in 1581. Unfortunately, this book did not have plates, so we cannot assume that the Waterbomb Base w ent back as far as 1581. Nevertheless, it may have done. The same plates as in Mattia Gieger's book are also shown in George Philipp Harsdorfer's b ook "Vollstandiges Vermehrtes Trichir-Buch", in German, which was published twen ty-six years later at Nuremberg in 1665. Copies of this book are much commoner in libraries than those of Mattia Gieger's book. In the East, It has been suggested that the Waterbomb Base was first discovered by the Chinese, but there is no evidence for this.

However, Renaissance napkin folding in Europe was not in any way derived from the east, so the Waterbomb Base may have been an independent discovery in the east and the west. We shall probably never know the full story. In Japan, the Waterbomb Base apparently first appeared in the paper covers for flasks of sake. The paper covers are still sometimes used today. Each of the four wings of the Waterbomb are squash-folded.

The peak of the Waterbomb Bas e is then folded over and opened our to fit over the top of the flask. It is generally thought that the discarded covers from sake flasks were considered to resemble butterflies and because of this they were made more like butterflie s The result was the traditional Mecho and Ocho Butterflies which are still used to decorate sake flasks and other containers. The Ocho is the male and the Mecho is the female.

The ritual sipping of sake by the bride and groom was (and still is) a part of the traditional Japanese marriage ceremony. Althoug h the sipping of sake was also used in some other formal contracts, it is thought that the association with weddings may have romantically encouraged the modification of the sake covers to form the butterflies to signify the bride and groom. Nevertheless, much of this remains conjectural.

The Mecho and Ocho Butterflies are among the most ancient of Japanese paper folds. They may date from as far back as the Heian period (794 - 1185 AD), but there were certainly in existence in the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333 AD). Although their purpose is decorative, of all the ancient folds, they most resemble recreational origami and it is possible that they really were the start of the play origami we know today. The Waterbomb is very closely derived from to the Waterbomb Base. There are several variants of it, mainly varying in small details. It is inflated by blowing into it and may be left rounded as a kind of ball, or it may be creased to form a cube. In this form, it is probably the earliest cube known in paperfolding.

In Japan the Waterbomb is known as a Ball or a Balloon and is used for hanging decorations. In the West, the Waterbomb may, as its name suggests, be filled with water and used as a missile. Despite his pacifist views in later life, Gershon Leg man said that when he and his friends were young, they filled their bombs not wi th tap water, but with water provided by themselves! They called them not Waterbombs but a p**s bombs and hurled them down on passers-by from the upper storeys of buildings. Notwithstanding Gershon Legman's tendency to exaggerate at times, I can well believe that this was true. I myself remember a brief period at school when there was a craze for making Waterbombs and filling them with water (tap water) and throwing them at other boys. The school yard was quickly covered in wet soggy paper and the craze was quickly suppressed by Authority.

There are, however, other uses for Waterbombs. Elsje van der Ploeg has told me that in Holland it was used for the making of smoke rings. After inhaling the smoke from a cigarette, a smoker would blow the smoke into the Waterbomb. Turning the hole upwards, a few sharp taps on the opposite end would, if you were lucky, produce a succession o smoke rings. Another use for the Waterbomb is as a fly trap. Flies are caught and placed in the Waterbomb. Their enclosure in a confined space strikingly amplifies the buzzing of the fllies. The fly trap is apparently known in different parts of the world. Thoki Yenn discovered its use for this purpose in modern Egypt. In the 1960s a report in the "Origamian" stated that it was also used for this purpose in modern China. However, most interestingly, the "paper prisons in which boys catch flies" are mentioned by John Webster, the English playwright in his play, "The Duchess of Malfi" which was published in 1614. Of course, there is no absolute proof that the paper prisons really did take the form of modern Waterbombs because any kind of paper box would suffice, but it seems likely.

The possible existence of the Waterbomb in 1614 raises the question of possible paperfolding links between East and West and if so, the way in which knowledge of paperfolding could have been taken in either direction. It could have been by the sea routes. However, one of the big questions about the transmission of paperfolding was the place of the Arabs. We know that the Arabs managed to obtain a knowledge of paper-making from prisoners of war taken in a conflict over Samarkand in 751 AD. This knowledge was taken to the heartland of Arabia and then spread to Byzantium and along the north coast of Africa, from where it was carried into Spain and Italy in the 12th and 13th Centuries. The crucial question is whether a knowledge of paperfolding accompanied the Arabs' and Moors' knowledge of paper-making as it spread from the Middle East to North Africa and Spain. So far, despite confident assertions to the contrary, we have no evidence at whatsoever that it did or that paperfolding in Spain was derived in any way from the Arabs or Moors.

The Japanese are said to fold their "Balloon" in a slightly different way form the way the Waterbomb is folded in the West. Yoshihide and Sumiko Momotani give two variants of the Fly Trap in their recent book (in Japanese, but with subtitles in English), "Origami Imagination and Tradition" (2003). On one page the traditional form known in the West is given with the English name "Water Bomb", it is described as "traditional" . On the facing page is a variant for, which is presumably of Japanese origin, named "Insect Cage" (traditional). A close variant of the Insect Cage, also included is named "Artificial Satellite". it may be the Momotanis' own variant, but is not claimed as such. It would be interesting to know if there are any other Japanese variants.

It is impossible to say what was the origin of the Waterbomb. It could have been Chinese, Japanese or even Korean or, as has been suggested, Indonesian. (Although we know extremely little about paperfolding in Indonesia.) So far as the evidence is concerned, we cannot definitely say that it did not originate in the West or the Middle East. Knowledge of paperfolding could have been taken either way along the sea or land trade routes and either to or from the East to and from the East. Or it could have been discovered separately in the East and in the West.

Either way, we know more about the Water Bomb in its various forms than we do about most other traditional models.

There has recently been a new variant of the Waterbomb. This is a representation of the "Golden Snitch", which is the flying winged ball that plays a key role in the Wizards' game of Quiddich in the Harry Potter books. Catching the Golden Snitch wins the game. So, one of the earliest models known in paperfolding history continues to remain in the forefront of origami creativity!

© David Lister 1996.

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