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The Magic Of Kaleidoscopes

Updated on February 25, 2010

The object at hand is simple, elegant. It's a chamber, carved out of wood, with an enclosed case at one end that's filled with feathers and beads. You hold it up to your eye and, voila, beautiful colors and ever-changing patterns appear. You can't not look.

The unfolding images are calming. They feel special, since you realize they are one of a kind. You wonder: Is this gadget a form of art? A science project? Or simply a kid's trinket?

Which is what we love about these mirror-encased tubes. They fill us with wonder, so simple in concept yet the patterns are infinitesimal. Kaleidoscopes can make a bunch of egg yolks and cigarette butts look good. Kaleidoscopes aren't just a child's play toy: They are a wedding of science and art, mind and heart.

The crafted chambers also are gaining popularity, both as an art collectible and historical artifact. "They can cost as little as 50 cents or as much as $25,000. They are kept in museums, yet are sold in craft fairs.

Sir David Brewster of Scotland invented the kaleidoscope in 1816. A scientist, writer and inventor, Brewster was responsible for the early design of the Fresnel lens (used in lighthouses around the world) and binocular cameras as well. He coined the word "kaleidoscope," from the Greek meaning "kalos" (beautiful), "eidos" (form) and "skopein" (to view).

By the late 1880s, kaleidoscopes were a legitimate pastime, earning prominent positions in Victorian parlors. But as the electronic age of radio and TV advanced, kaleidoscopes fell out of favor, and by the 1950s, they had been reduced to a child's whimsy, often made of cardboard.

The 1970s brought a resurgence, and today, kaleidoscopes are an important part of the American arts and crafts movement. Glass blowers, woodworkers, ceramists, jewelers, welders, collage artists, miniaturists and sculptors fashion the scopes in all shapes and sizes. Mirrors number from one to nine; point count in the star pattern fluctuates from two to 20. The resulting mandalas become inspiration for clothing designers, quilters, architects, photographers and filmmakers. Most recently, computer screen savers are touting the magnificent designs.

The Scoop on Scopes

There are five major types of kaleidoscopes: teleidoscopes, cell, wheel, marble or sphere, and projection. The endpiece (cell, wheel, etc.) determines the type. Sir David Brewster considered the teleidoscope the "purest" form, since it is not limited to the objects in front of it. In other words, this type of scope allows the viewer to look into the mirrored tube through a lens that fragments the world into symmetrical patterns.

The cell scope has an enclosed case at the end of the tube, which can be filled with dry, tumbling pieces or liquid, floating pieces.

The wheel scope is very popular. At the end of the scope, a wheel is attached and turned, allowing endless permutations. The wheel can be made of glass, attached to the scope or made of found objects, which sit on a separate tray.

The marble scope uses marbles to create images. And, finally, the projection scope incorporates slide projectors, television screens, videos and computers to produce the image.


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