Facts about kaleidoscopes

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Look into the view finder of a kaleidoscope, and you will see images that look like constantly changing stained-glass windows. Kaleidoscopes blend physics with art in ways that amaze and delight people of all ages. Some basic facts about kaleidoscopes illustrate how they create magic with mirrors.


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A Scottish physicist, Sir David Brewster, invented the kaleidoscope in 1816. Although he patented the device, a flaw in the patent registration prevented him from earning any profits from his invention. He created the name "kaleidoscope" (the beautiful form watcher) from three Greek words: "kalos," which means beautiful; "eidos," which means form; and "scopos," which means watcher. American inventor Charles G. Bush obtained patents in the late 1800s for several kaleidoscope innovations. His patents include one for tiny fluid-filled containers used in the object case, another for a method to add items to and remove them from the kaleidoscope without taking it apart, one for a colour wheel and one for a portable wooden stand.

How Kaleidoscopes Work

A traditional kaleidoscope, called a cell scope, consists of a tube containing two or more mirrors, an eyepiece on one end and an object case, end piece or chamber containing pieces of coloured glass and other items on the other end. The number of mirrors determines the type of image the viewer sees. Two mirrors create one circular image. Three mirrors create circular designs with infinitely changing images. Four mirrors create a horizontal strip of designs. Four mirrors arranged in an elongated diamond shape create a pair of duplicate designs.

Basic Kinds of Kaleidoscopes

A cell scope or chamber scope, the most common type of kaleidoscope, has many options for the contents of the object case, including dry objects that tumble, loose pieces floating in liquid, a mixture of dry objects and liquid-filled capsules, or empty cases for users to fill. A teleidoscope has a lens instead of an object case. The viewer points the kaleidoscope at everyday objects to see infinitely changing designs. A wheelscope creates images with one or more rotating wheels instead of the object case. The wheels have pie-shaped sections filled with as many as 150 items. A marblescope has a large blown-glass orb that contains either colourful dry elements or liquid to create the images.

Kaleidoscope Innovations

Kaleidoscope designers have experimented with unusual ways to make kaleidoscope cases and new ways to create images. Don Doaks holds patents for his 3-D kaleidoscope optics. His large-scale kaleidoscopes include one the size of a small room, allowing a group of 20 people to view the 3-D images. Photographer Al Teich photographs kaleidoscope images and exhibits large black-and-white prints. Teich compares the images to snowflakes, in that a kaleidoscope never produces the same image twice. The Brewster Society lists more than 125 artists involved with kaleidoscope-related art as of 2011.

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