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The Waterbomb / The Balloon

This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the designs known as the Waterbomb. Please contact me if you know any of this information is incorrect or if you have any other important information that should be added. Thank you.

The name 'Waterbomb' refers to the use of this design as a water bomb in the playground by school children, but it can also be used to produce smoke rings (in a way similar to the Playing Card Cube), or as a prison for flies (whose buzzing is amplified by the container) or fireflies (thus becoming a lantern) and in other inventive ways.


In China (and in publications by Chinese authors)


Diagrams for a 'Firefly Box' appear in 'Zhe zhi tu shuo' (Illustrated Paperfolding), compiled by Gui Shaolie, which was published by the Commercial Press in Shanghai in Ming guo 3 (1914).


In Japan (and in publications by Japanese authors)

In his article 'History of Origami in the East and the West before Interfusion', published in 'Origami 5: Fifth International Meeting of Origami, Science, Mathematics and Education' in 2011, Koshiro Hatori asserts that, ''Many of the European origami models contained in Krause-Boelte's book (ie 'The Kindergarten Guide') are not included in contemporary Japanese records. The pig, house, sofa (also known as piano or organ), balloon (waterbomb), arrow (paper plane), salt cellar (cootie catcher), bird (pajarita or cocotte) and windmill ... were all born in Europe and imported into Japan along with the kindergarten system.'



A drawing of a Waterbomb appears in a monozukushi-e print, by an unknown artist, but said to be from the Meiji era. I have temporarily assigned it the date of 1912, the last year of that era, pending the discovery of more accurate information.



As far as I know the first publication of diagrams for this design in Japan was as 'The Balloon' in 'Origami (Part 1)' by Isao Honda, which was published in Japan in 1931.



The design also appears, as the 'Balloon', in 'The World of Origami' by Isao Honda, which was published in the USA by Japan Publications Trading Company in 1965.


In Western Europe and the Americas


The play 'The Duchess of Malfi', by John Webster, first performed in 1614 and first published in 1623 contains the words, 'Our bodies are weaker than those Paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in ...' We do not know what kind of paper prison John Webster had in mind when he wrote those words. It is sometimes taken to be a reference to the design we now call the Waterbomb, which is folded from a square. This is possible, but in my view, quite unlikely at this early date. While there is evidence from the 19th century, that, at that time, Waterbombs were indeed used as prisons for flies, the paper container amplifying the sound of the fly buzzing, presumably to the amusement of little boys, we also have evidence that other kinds of paper construction were used for similar purposes. In fact, any kind of paper container, such as, for instance, a paper cone twisted shut at its open end, would act as a paper-prison in this way.



The first definitive evidence for the Waterbomb design, as 'De teerling' (the die), comes from 'De Kleine Papierwerkers 1: Wat men van een stukje papier al maken kan: Het vouwen' (The Small Paperwork 1: What one can make from a piece of paper: Folding) by Elise Van Calcar, which was published by K H Schadd in Amsterdam in 1863.

Pictures 14 to 16 of plate VII show a very attenuated folding sequence for folding the Waterbomb.



Instructions for making the Waterbomb next appear in part two of 'The Kindergarten Guide' by Maria Kraus Boelte and John Kraus, which was probably first published by E. Steiger and Company in New York in 1882 where the design is called the 'Balloon' or, when made from white paper, the 'Snowball'.

'The Kindergarten Guide' also contains instructions for making a 'Spool' or 'Yarn Winder', which is really just a name for the intermediate form of the Waterbomb before it is inflated.


The Waterbomb also appears:


As 'Lu Balluni' in 'Giuochi Fanciulleschi Siciliani' by Giuseppe Pitri, which was published by Luigi Pedone Lauriel in Palermo in 1883.



In a reader's letter headed 'How to Make a Paper Ball', in the Letterbox column of the March 1888 issue of the American children's magazine St Nicholas.



As 'Un ballon en papier' in 'La Science Pratique' by Gaston Tissandier, which was published by G Masson in Paris in 1889. The text suggests making this design from thin tracing paper and filling it with hydrogen to see it rise slowly.



There is mention of a 'boite cubique', which I take to be a reference to the Waterbomb, in the 'Bulletin de la Societe de Protection des Apprentis', an official document issued by the Societe de Protection des Apprentis et des Enfants Employes par les Manufactures in Paris in 1891.


The design also appears:


As 'Cube ou prison a mouches' (prison for flies) in 'Le Travail Manuel a L'ecole Primaire' by Jully & Rocheron, which was published by Librairie Classique Eugene Belin in Paris in 1892. As far as I know this is the earliest indisputable evidence of a Waterbomb being called a prison for flies.

(Note that the flaps are not fully inserted into the pockets in this version)



As 'Boite Cubique ou Prison a Mouches' (Cubic Box or Prison for Flies) in 'L'Annee Preparatoire de Travail Manuel' by M P Martin, which was published by Armand Collin & Cie in Paris in 1893.


As 'Cube souffle ou prison a mouches' (Blast cube or prison for flies) in the 9th April 1983 issue of 'Journal des Instituteurs'. This is extracted from the book 'Le Travail Manuel a L'ecole Primaire, by M. Coste et J. Lapassade, which had been published in 1887.



As 'Boite Cubique' in 'Geometrie, Dessin et Travaux Manuels - Cours Moyen', produced under the direction of M E. Cazes, which was published by Librairie Ch. Delagrave in Paris in 1895. Note the way in which the flaps are inserted into the pockets.



Presented as a lantern in 'Travaux Recreatifs Pour les Enfants de 4 a 10 Ans' by Marie Koenig, which was published by Librairie Hachette et cie in Paris in 1898. The text suggests using a paper cone to help young children inflate it and also the possibility that young children need not tuck the flaps inside the pockets. It is also worth noting that the writer refers to the upside down waterbomb base (fig 2) as 'le double bateau' (the double boat). Waterbombs also appear as decorations on a Christmas Tree.



The 21st February 1903 issue of the French children's magazine 'Mon Journal' contains an article explaining how to fold the Waterbomb under the title of 'La Boite Fermee'.



The Waterbomb appears as 'La boite fermee' in 'Les Petits Secrets Amusants' by Alber-Graves, which was published by Librairie Hachette in Paris in 1908.



As 'Pelota' in 'Ciencia Recreativa' by Jose Estralella, which was published by Gustavo Gili in Barcelona in 1918.



The design also appears, as the Water Bomb, in 'More Paper Magic' by Will Blyth, which was published by C Arthur Pearson in London in 1923.



Under the title 'The Ball', in 'Fun with Paper Folding' by Murray and Rigney, published by the Fleming H Revell Company, New York in 1928.



As the 'Cat Box' in 'Winter Nights Entertainments' by R M Abraham, which was first published by Constable and Constable in London in 1932.



In 'La Nature' Issue 2930 of 1st June 1934 in an article by Alber headed 'Pliage de papiers' and subheaded 'La boite a air'.



As the 'Water Bomb' in 'Paper Toy Making' by Margaret Campbell, which was first published by Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd in London, probably in 1937, although both the Foreword and Preface are dated 1936, which argues that the book was complete at that date. The accompanying text states 'Filled with water, this becomes a missile for mischievous boys.'

'Paper Toy Making' also contains a second version of the design where it is dressed up as a 'Chinese Lantern'.



As 'Bomba o Cubo Coplado' in 'El Plegado y Cartonaje en la Escuela Primaria' by Antonio M Luchia and Corina Luciani de Luchia, which was published by Editorial Kapelusz in Buenos Aires in 1940.



As a 'Paper Ball' in 'The Art of Chinese Paper folding for Young and Old' by Maying Soong, which was published by Harcourt Brace and Company of New York in 1948.



As 'El Globo' in 'Papiroflexia' by Elias Gutierrez Gil, which was self-published in 1951.



As 'The Waterbomb' in 'Paper Magic' by Robert Harbin, which was published by Oldbourne in London in 1956. The text notes 'Classical Japanese'.



As 'The Waterbomb' in 'The Art of Origami' by Samuel Randlett, which was published by E P Dutton in New York in 1961.



As 'Paper Ball' in the second edition of 'Het Grote Vouwboek' by Aart van Breda, which was published by Uitgeverij van Breda in 1963, where it is presented as a hanging Christmas decoration.



As 'The Waterbomb' in 'Secrets of Origami', by Robert Harbin, which was published by Oldbourne Book Company in London in 1964, where it is said to be Japanese.



As 'Water Bomb or Japanese Playball', in 'Teach Yourself Origami: The Art of Paperfolding' by Robert Harbin, which was published by The English Universities Press in 1968.


As 'Waterbomb' in 'Your Book of Paperfolding' by Vanessa and Eric de Maré, which was published by Faber and Faber in London in 1968, where it was is to be a traditional Chinese and Japanese design.



The 1970 Rupert Annual contains instructions for making 'Rupert's Lightship', the light element of which is a Waterbomb.