1836 - Camera Obscura
In its original form the camera obscura was a portable device used by artists as a way of reproducing perspective correctly. The principle on which it operated was simple: light from the subject passed through a small hole into a darkened chamber (a small box or tent) and formed an inverted image on the opposite surface. In the early 19th * century larger, fixed versions of the camera obscura began to enjoy considerable vogue as curiosities. They were normally housed in towers on high ground to obtain the best view. By directing the image on to a broad shallow dish using mirrors - and, if necessary, magnifying it with lenses -a fascinating panorama of the surrounding landscape could be observed. Quite a number of large camera obscuras were built, such as this one in Dumfries. Along with those at Clifton (Bristol) and Edinburgh, it is one of only a handful that survive in working order today. How is this device related to a modern video camera?
As well as being used as an artist's aid, this simple device was employed by astronomers observing sunspots and planetary movements. Its most important role, though, was in the development of photography - the first true photographs were taken in the 1840s by exposing light-sensitive materials inside a small camera obscura, and this principle is still followed even in today's sophisticated video camcorders. In a larger, semi-permanent form the camera obscura (literally, 'dark chamber') became established as a leisure attraction and a fair number were built in parks, gardens and at holiday resorts. In 1829 William West installed one in a derelict snuff mill overlooking the Clifton Gorge in Bristol. To those unacquainted with it,' he wrote, 'the Camera Obscura has a magical effect - the movement of persons and animals and the waving of foliage, the coming and going of ships being brought in the picture with the vivid colouring of nature and affording high gratification to the observer from the continued changes and varying effects of light and shade upon the landscape.' The one at Dumfries is housed on the top floor of what was once a windmill, converted in 1836 into an observatory housing a telescope and camera obscura. The concave table of the camera obscura is raised and lowered for focusing. The revolving wooden turret at the top of the tower houses the telescopic lens, which gives approximately x1.5 magnification. The angle of the mirror can be adjusted by ropes to allow the operator to zoom in on interesting details of the scene below. Thomas Carlyle, the philosopher and writer, was evidently fascinated by the device, for his signature appears several times in the visitors' book in the weeks following its opening. There is also a note of a visit in August 1836 of a party of schoolboys from Burnside Academy; this, it has been claimed, is the first official record of a visit to an institution by the now-ubiquitous 'school party'. Clifton and Dumfries are examples still in working order.
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