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«All the World’s a Kaleidoscope». A Media Archaeological Perspective to the Incubation Era of Media Culture

Erkki Huhtamo
p. 139-153

Abstract

L’articolo affronta alcune questioni legate alle origini della media culture a partire dall’invenzione del caleidoscopio, e dell'immediato dibattito che questo suscitò. Il caleidoscopio fu inventato dallo scienziato scozzese David Brewster e annunciato ufficialmente nel 1817. Il presente lavoro è il primo passo di una più ampia ricerca che discuterà i diversi significati legati al caleidoscopio durante gli ultimi due secoli. Un tale studio sarà condotto secondo una prospettiva di archeologia dei media. Oltre al dispositivo concreto del caleidoscopio, si porrà attenzione su ciò che l’autore definisce “discursive kaleidoscopes”, ovvero sulle trace che il caleidoscopio ha lasciato nella tradizione culturale e testuale.

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Testo integrale

New and ever new figures rise kaleidoscopically – rhetorical
bravura piece whose exuberance pours out like a cascade.
Ernst Robert Curtius,
European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948)

Introduction

1Technological fashions come and go. Millions of devices are produced this year and remaindered the next. New models replace older ones at relentless pace. Some yesteryear’s gadgets survive at flea markets and in cabinets of curiosities, but most are trashed and wiped out from cultural memory. Against this background, the kaleidoscope is a remarkable survivor. Patented almost exactly two centuries ago by the Scottish natural philosopher Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), it shows no signs of terminal obsolescence1. In almost any part of the world, eager eyes keep peeking into Brewster’s picture tubes, marveling at the metamorphosing visions inside. Kaleidoscopes appeal to both children and grown-ups. Huge quantities are sold every year. There is something for every wallet, from inexpensive mass-produced toy souvenirs to unique handcrafted «Princely Treasures». Patent archives may be exponentially growing necropolises of human ingenuity, but Google Patent Search reveals that the flow of patents for things kaleidoscopic has not dried out.

  • 2 Crary 1990: 113.
  • 3 Crary 1990: 113-114.

2Innumerable kaleidoscopes have been produced during the past two centuries. Still, they may have been accompanied by even more numerous “shadow instruments.” By this I mean their discursive simulations in textual and visual traditions. This issue was briefly touched upon by Jonathan Crary when he noted, how for Charles Baudelaire «the kaleidoscope coincided with modernity itself; to become a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness” was the goal of “the lover of universal life”»2. Crary also pointed out that for Marx and Engels, «the kaleidoscope had a very different function». In their critique of Saint-Simon’s The German Ideology, they used the kaleidoscopic image as a parable of ideological shams: its apparent variety is produced by repeating the same pattern ad infinitum3. Such parables, which I call «discursive kaleidoscopes», are encountered over and over again in textual and visual traditions; their significations are molded by the contexts within which they are evoked.

  • 4 Maillet 2012: 51.

3Arnaud Maillet has explored the kaleidoscope’s impact on nineteenth-century theories of visual abstraction and ornamentation, and consequently on debates about applied arts and industrial production, demonstrating, «how kaleidoscopic thinking fed the creative imagination and led to the proliferation of crafts and industrial applications in the early nineteenth century»4. The concluding section of his essay goes further, drawing parallels between chemistry and kaleidoscopic imagery, and suggesting that the kaleidoscope played a role in the «redefinition of the imagination» in the late nineteenth century. Although Maillet has left this important issue largely unexplored, he is correct: even a cursory “archival dig” reveals an abundance of discursive kaleidoscopes. Countless commentaries, fantasies and parables lie buried between rarely opened book covers. Such discursive activity evades book titles, tables of content and indexes, but it is brought within the researcher’s reach by digital resources such as Google Books and the Internet Archive. On-line archives make it possible to unearth discursive kaleidoscopes from unmarked and unindexed textual and visual streams.

  • 5 Huhtamo 2013.

4After finishing Illusions in Motion, a large book dedicated to the history of the moving panorama, I have embarked on a new time-traveling expedition in search of lost discursive kaleidoscopes5. One might ask whether it is worth the effort. After all, kaleidoscopes are normally considered as superfluous toys, fascinating but useless, and ultimately inconsequential; they cannot be worth serious attention. I will make a counter argument, claiming that they have much to offer when it comes to understanding the logics of interfacing with technological devices, encounters with artificial realities, and the transformation of external stimuli into internalized patterns in the users’ minds. The kaleidoscope’s discursive manifestations can be read as symptoms of a creeping transition into the cultural condition we call «media culture».

  • 6 Huhtamo and Parikka 2011.

5Beyond the kaleidoscope’s discursive manifestations, my expedition therefore has wider goals, which could be formulated as follows: What does it mean to live in media culture? How do intercourses with media machines affect the relationship to reality? Is there a «media-cultural imaginary», and how does it manifest itself? Exploring the kaleidoscope’s reception and «mental transfigurations» by contemporaries sheds light to the incubation era of media culture, a relatively recent phenomenon. Although it was anticipated in earlier times, for example by the mass dissemination of books, media culture experienced its main formative developments during the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Still, there is no consensus about its definition, history and constituents. By applying a media archaeological approach, I aim to penetrate hitherto unexplored layers of data – ranging from material to discursive – in order to shed light on a cluster of interlocking developments and exchanges that took place in the 1810s and 1820s, primarily in England, France, and Germany, but as “echoes” elsewhere as well6.

  • 7 See my Dismantling the fairy engine: Media archaeology as topos study, in Huhtamo and Parikka 2011: (...)

6One of my influences has been the microhistory as practiced by Carlo Ginzburg and others. However, while I find it important to identify with the viewpoints and mentalities of historical agents, I do not believe (unlike some microhistorians, at least implicitly, seem to do) that historical observers will be able to bypass the mental schemes imposed on them by the present. They cannot operate independently of the semiotic determinants derived from the place and time of the research. The subject-object relationships between the researcher and «the past» are therefore dialogical and should be allowed to support and question each other. Instead of focusing narrowly on the contextual (a certain time and place), media archaeology emphasizes the transhistorical, tracing the trajectories of buried cultural motifs, or topoi, as they traverse seemingly unrelated cultural landscapes7.

7This article is the first published fragment of my project and it will offer an introduction to a more extensive study. I will concentrate on the invention of the kaleidoscope and the debates it ignited almost instantaneously within the «Republic of Letters». In conclusion, I will briefly discuss aspects of the Kaleidoscope’s popular reception during the first few years after its launch (a more detailed analysis will follow). The kaleidoscope is said to have inspired a burst of public enthusiasm characterized by contemporaries as a “kaleidoscomania.” It was the first of many “media manias” that have taken place since then, and therefore worth attention. With astonishing rapidity, the discursive repercussions of the Kaleidoscope (and even the kaleidoscopes themselves) spread far and wide, also beyond the western world. The emergence of discursive kaleidoscopes began almost immediately, and has continued to this day. How they migrated to other contexts and were given new meanings in changing cultural circumstances is a task that needs to be performed in another occasion.

The Invention of the Kaleidoscope and its Context

While Brewster each one’s optic nerves delights
By his famed peep-show and its varying sights…
The Press, or Literary Chit-Chat, 1822

  • 8 British patent No 4136 (1817). The original patent was published as «Specification of Dr. David Bre (...)
  • 9 Brewster 1819.
  • 10 Morrison-Low 1984: 60. About Brewster early work, see Cantor 1984.
  • 11 Brewster 1813.

8The Scottish natural philosopher, writer and journalist David Brewster (1781-1868) patented the Kaleidoscope (from the Greek words kalos, “beautiful,” eidos, “form,” and scope, “to see”) in the summer of 18178. In a book he published two years later to explain and vindicate it, he claimed that he had got the original idea in 1814, developing it gradually into the perfected instrument9. Brewster is known to have had a reputation for stubbornly defending the primacy of his inventions, so his own narrative should not be taken at face value. However, it must be admitted that his first book, Treatise on New Philosophical Instruments, published in 1813, was already, as A.D. Morrison-Low puts it, «brimming with ideas for improvements and new instruments»10. Brewster focused on optics, investigating issues such as the polarization of light by crystals, reflective surfaces, and the use of jewels as lenses in microscopes11. The final chapter was dedicated to «Opera Glasses and Night Glasses, upon a new construction», providing us a hint about his desire to move beyond purely philosophical and scientific investigations.

9Brewster’s varied interests met logically in the Kaleidoscope. In its basic form the device was simple. Two long and narrow reflective surfaces were placed inside a tube at a carefully calculated angle. In one end of the tube there was an aperture for peeping in (often with a lens), and in the other end a transparent cell filled with pieces of colored glass. By rotating the cell and turning the entire instrument the trinkets were made to move. This produced an infinitely multiplied scene that was both symmetrical and in constant transformation. Brewster added improvements to the fine specimens manufactured by respected scientific instrument makers like Philip Carpenter in Birmingham. Early patent Kaleidoscopes often came with a set of interchangeable cells filled with tiny objects, but an empty cell was also often provided, allowing one to fill it as one wished. Importantly, the object cell of Brewster’s «Telescopic Kaleidoscope» could be replaced by a brass ring containing a magnifying lens. By focusing the viewing tube, which could be «telescopically» extended by pulling it out, targets at any distance could be given a kaleidoscopic treatment.

  • 12 Brewster, patent specification, The New Monthly Magazine 1817: 444.
  • 13 Brewster 1858.
  • 14 Brewster, patent specification, The New Monthly Magazine 1817: 444.

10In the patent text Brewster assigned the Kaleidoscope a double function: «This instrument is constructed in such a manner as either to please the eye by an ever-varying succession of splendid tints and symmetrical forms, or to enable the observer to render permanent such as may appear most appropriate for any of the branches of the ornamental arts»12. As the pompous new title given to the second edition (1858) of Brewster’s book on the Kaleidoscope stated, the device served both «the fine and useful arts» – aesthetic contemplation and practical uses13. The viewer was supposed to feel gratified when «colours are connected with regular and beautiful forms», but the Kaleidoscope was also meant to link the pleasures of the eye with the occupations of the hand, bridging the ocular and the tactile. Brewster claimed that his invention would be «of great use to architects, ornamental painters, plasterers, jewellers, carvers and gilders, cabinet-makers, wire-workers, book-binders, calico-printers, carpet manufacturers, manufacturers of pottery, and every other profession in which ornamental patterns are required»14.

  • 15 Author not mentioned, Method of using the Patent Kaleidoscope 1818: 5 (Ucla Young Research Library (...)
  • 16 Author not mentioned, Method of using the Patent Kaleidoscope 1818: 6.

11The process of abstraction by means of multiplication and transformation was at the heart of the kaleidoscopic experience. It was produced by the encounter between the eye, the hand, the viewing apparatus, and the traces of real life that were transformed through a kind of transfiguration of the commonplace. Brewster expressed this in an instruction leaflet (dated March 12, 1818) that accompanied the Kaleidoscopes sold by Ruthven and Sons in Edinburgh. The objects that suited for observation with the Telescopic Kaleidoscope included such prosaic things as «a watch-chain, the seconds hand of a watch, coins, pictures, gems, shells, flowers, leaves and petals of plants, impressions from seals, & co»15. By substituting the object cell by a lens, the appearance of the entire surroundings was transformed: «The furniture of a room, books and papers lying on a table, pictures on the wall, a blazing fire, the moving foliage of trees and scrubs, bunches of flowers, horses and cattle in a park, carriages in motion, the currents of a river, moving insects, and, in short, every object in nature may be introduced by the aid of the lens into the figures created by the instrument»16.

  • 17 Brewster 1819: 6.

12However, characterizing the Kaleidoscope as a harbinger of pure abstraction in visual culture and art would be premature. A productivist attitude loomed in the background. The external reality that was optically filtered into the tube was meant to be relayed back to the outside world in the form of sketches for patterned fabrics and architectural ornaments. The slippage from the philosophical to the utilitarian represents the ethos of the early industrial revolution, but it can also be explained by the inventor’s own situation. At the time Brewster was an independent agent without a permanent institutional teaching or research position. He supported his growing family mostly by his copious journalism; new sources of income were needed. As a natural philosopher he was active, but still a semi-amateur. Yet, he was craving for recognition as a scientist within the booming intellectual circles of Edinburgh. He wanted his invention to be seen as «a general philosophical instrument of universal application»17.

  • 18 Morrison-Low 1984: 61.
  • 19 Gordon 1869: 97. This may not be the whole truth. In her autobiography (1898) Elizabeth Grant, who (...)

13Patenting the Kaleidoscope was costly, and was certainly motivated by hopes of financial gain18. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Brewster’s daughter later claimed that her father «never realized a farthing by it», but that may not be the full truth19. Brewster told his own version in A Treatise on the Kaleidoscope (1819):

  • 20 Brewster 1819: 7.

[I]n consequence of one of the Patent instruments having been exhibited to some of the London opticians, the remarkable properties of the Kaleidoscope became known, before any number of them could be prepared for sale. The sensation excited in London by this premature exhibition of its effects is incapable of description, and can be conceived only by those who witnessed it. It may be sufficient to remark, that, according to the computation of those who were best able to form an opinion on the subject, no fewer than two hundred thousand instruments have been sold in London and Paris during three months. Out of this immense number there is perhaps not one thousand constructed upon scientific principles, and capable of giving any thing like a correct idea of the power of the Kaleidoscope; and of the millions who have witnessed its effects, there is perhaps not an hundred who have any idea of the principles upon which it is constructed, who are capable of distinguishing the spurious from the real instrument, or who have sufficient knowledge of its principles for applying it to the numerous branches of the useful and ornamental arts20.

  • 21 Gordon 1869: 98.
  • 22 Gordon 1869: 100-101.

14Brewster’s estimates have been accepted as facts, although he did not provide any concrete evidence. Still, as we will see, there is no doubt that the Kaleidoscope gained almost instantaneous attention, and became a fad that spread far and wide. In a letter to his wife, written on May 17, 1818 in Sheffield, where he had traveled to arrange the manufacturing of kaleidoscopes for his Edinburgh retailer John Ruthven, Brewster reported on his «success» in a way to seems tragicomic. Having entered the Tontine Hotel, he had immediately seen two poorly made kaleidoscopes, and heard the waiter explain «that they were invented by a doctor in London, who had got a patent for them, – that, by some variations, the tinmen had invaded the patent, and that the said doctor was trying to find them out and prosecute them!»21 In her replies, Mrs. Brewster described the feverish demand for Kaleidoscopes that had taken over Edinburgh, and wrote about Ruthwen’s desperation for having sold out his stock22.

  • 23 Morrison-Low 1984: 61.
  • 24 Simmons 1818. Simmons may be the same person who around 1848-49 got some attention for his portable (...)
  • 25 Simmons 1818: 9.

15Brewster’s troubles were not caused only by his failure to defend his patent rights or to organize an effective and reliable manufacturing system23. It was soon claimed that the Kaleidoscope was not an original invention at all, but rather an adaptation of principles introduced by others, and known for a long time. As early as 1818 an obscure inventor named E.L. Simmons published anonymously a small tract titled Description and Use of the Instrument now called a Kaleidoscope, as Published by its Original Inventor, Richard Bradley, F.R.S. Professor of Botany to the University of Cambridge24. In fact, it was mostly a reprint of a section from Bradley’s (1688-1732) New Improvements of Planting and Gardening (1717), with a description of a «New Invention» he had supposedly made. The unnamed device offered a «more speedy» way of designing «Garden-Plats, whereby we may produce more Variety of Figures in an Hour’s time, than are to be found in all the Books of Gardening now extant»25. It consisted of two flat mirrors attached by hinges. If placed standing on a sheet of paper with drawings of geometric figures, these were «completed» by the reflections seen in the angled mirrors.

  • 26 The quotations in this paragraph are from Simmons 1818: vi [in text, iv]-vii.
  • 27 Simmons 1818: 14.

16Simmons’ «Address to the Public» makes his intentions perfectly clear. He claims that Bradley’s invention, which had fallen into oblivion because it had only been related to garden design, had been «lately introduced to [the Public] with the well-sounding name of kaleidoscope, and in a form more convenient for their use […]»26. The Kaleidoscope was not only a copy; «with a few exceptions», Simons claimed, it was «very inferior to the original invention, in point of accuracy and facility of adjustment». Simmons had noted «the difficulty attending the accurate construction» faced both unauthorized kaleidoscope makers and «the person specially appointed by the Patentee». According to him, the resulting instruments provided an «incorrect and irregular reflection», and were «incapable of Variation», whereas the angle of Bradley’s mirrors could be adjusted «at pleasure, and with perfect facility». In order to profit from the «eagerness with which the Public have received the kaleidoscope», Simmons offered his own versions of Bradley’s mirrors for sale. He noted this in a paragraph inconspicuously added to the end of the tract; the price list had not been forgotten27.

  • 28 Thomson 1816: 4-8.
  • 29 Brewster 1819. A very similar article, History of Dr Brewster’s Kaleidoscope, with Remarks on its S (...)

17Brewster rapidly launched a counter-attack, recruiting colleagues and supporters to defend him. The Annals of Philosophy took up the cause in three consecutive issues (May, June, and July 1818)28. The publication was edited by Thomas Thomson, Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, who was well familiar with Brewster’s work and knew him personally as well. «A Correspondent» contributed two articles in Brewster’s defense. The writer paraphrased large sections from Brewster’s book on the Kaleidoscope, which was to be published only in the following year29. The claims against the originality of Brewster’s invention were refuted in detail, and quotations from letters of support from academic authorities published (Brewster included the same letters in his book). If the «Correspondent» was not Brewster himself, he must have been someone very close to him.

  • 30 Annals of Philosophy 1818: 63.
  • 31 Baltrusaitis 1978.

18The most detailed comparisons were reserved for Bradley’s mirror apparatus, perhaps as an indication of a sense of concrete danger. Seven features were listed and refuted in favor of the Kaleidoscope, leading to the conclusion that the latter «is in every respect a superior instrument»30. As a further blow, it was demonstrated that Bradley’s folding mirror had already appeared in Giovanni Battista della Porta’s and Athanasius Kircher’s writings on «natural magic» in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. According to Brewster, who dutifully reproduced and translated the relevant sections from their books, their use of multiplying mirrors in «theatrical mirrors», katoptric boxes and other devices had been just trickery with lights and reflections31. No attention had been paid to the quality of the imagery – the production of «beautiful and symmetrical forms by means of plane mirrors». Unlike in the case of the kaleidoscope, della Porta’s and Kircher’s devices positioned the observer’s eyes «outside» (in front of the angled mirrors), which made it impossible to control the intensity and focus the direction of light.

  • 32 Brewster 1819.
  • 33 Brewster 1819.
  • 34 Brewster 1833.

19Brewster did not claim that Bradley had stolen his idea from della Porta or Kircher, perhaps to raise himself morally above his detractors (still, he could not help slurring that Bradley had «rather injured the apparatus»)32. He admitted that the folding mirror may have been «entirely forgotten, in the long intervals which elapsed between these different authors», each of whom had contributed small improvements33. For Brewster, the tubular «peep show» design was all-important. He promoted the Kaleidoscope as a precision instrument, a product of advanced natural philosophy. It was not a humble toy, concocted just to astonish and amuse. Brewster’s assurances hardly convinced everybody. That may explain, why he does not say a word about the Kaleidoscope in one of his best known books, Letters on Natural Magic (1833), although he dedicates ample space to Kircher’s creations, as well as to numerous later human-made wonders with rational explanations34. Excluding the Kaleidoscope feels like a calculated act of academic self-protection.

  • 35 von Yelin 1818.

20The accusations about plagiarism were not limited to the British Isles. Internet-era citizens might be surprised to find out how quickly the news spread in a world limited to letter writing, print media, and traditional means of transportation. The «Republic of Letters» was especially effective as a communication system with its peer-based networks and academic journals, which were read across national and linguistic borders. It is therefore not surprising that the year 1818 witnessed not only the publication of Simmons’s tract and the defensive actions that took place in the Annals of Philosophy (as well as in other British publications that reprinted them), but also the appearance of a German work, which had a kaleidoscope on its cover and bore a telling title: Das Kaleidoscop, ein Baierische Erfindung («Kaleidoscope, a Bavarian Invention»)35. It had been written by Julius Conrad von Yelin, a doctor of philosophy (Weltweisheit), a member of the Royal Bavarian Academy of Sciences, and keeper of the mathematico-physical cabinet of the Bavarian court.

  • 36 von Yelin 1818: 4-5; 13-14.
  • 37 von Yelin 1818: 6-8 and Wochentliche Anzeiger 1816: 625.

21Yelin’s book demonstrates the rapidity and breadth of the flow of information. He had been following the on-going international debate in minute detail and was therefore able to put together a substantiated Bavarian claim for the invention. Yelin himself did not ask to be recognized as the inventor (although he said he had improved the design); instead, he suggested the son of an Augsburg-based mechanic named Höschel as the inventor, and also discussed the work of several eighteenth century Germans who had related ideas36. Yelin suggested that while Brewster’s invention had been first announced in Scotland in The Repertory of the Arts in August 1817, Höschel’s «katoptric prism» had already been written about in October 181637. It used three prismatically connected inward-facing mirrors to create continuous reflections of transparent pictures. This differed from Brewster’s tubular design. Both Höschel and Brewster emphasized the practical applications of their inventions in the service of the «useful arts».

  • 38 The Edinburgh Review 1819: 369.
  • 39 The Atheneum 1818: 431.

22The French did not remain passive either. In October 1819 The Edinburgh Review complained about the extreme rapidity with which the idea had been appropriated in Paris: «Not a month after the first Kaleidoscope had been received from London, and while the rage for the ingenious scientific toy was at its height there, those made in Paris, precisely on the English model, were exposed for sale in all the shops, under the name Kaleidoscopes, ou Lunettes Françaises. We wish with all our hearts that some clear and precise rule could be adopted for fixing the debateable questions of meum et tuum in this finer merchandise of genius and fame»38. The concerns were real. The claims for the French paternity of the kaleidoscope had begun almost immediately after Brewster’s invention had been introduced. The Atheneum reported in September 1818 (quoting the June issue of La Belle Assemblée): «The French are varying the Kaleidoscope in every possible way. One artist announces the addition of sentiment to this joujou, which he names a Policoniscope, and fills with shade portraits of dear beings, another calls his the Transfigurateur, and furnishes bouquet, flower baskets, fruits, & co»39.

  • 40 «On the Kaleidoscope» article was reported and quoted in The American Monthly Magazine and Critical (...)
  • 41 The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 1818: 314. A device called Kaléidoscope Géant (gi (...)
  • 42 The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 1818: 314.
  • 43 Millin 1818: 65-66. Author’s translation.

23Already in 1818, The Philosophical Magazine singled out two prospective inventors among «twenty competitors»40. Étienne-Gaspard Robertson, a Belgian showman and self-propelled natural philosopher, who had gained fame in Paris with his Fantasmagorie magic lantern show since the 1790s (as well as with his balloon ascents), brought «in proof an instrument, of great dimension it is true, but which for many years has furnished in his cabinet the same various pictures which an adroit speculator [Brewster] has introduced into the Kaleidoscope»41. The device may have been a mechanical special effect lantern slide for the massive Fantascope projector he used in his shows. Jean Chevallier, a celebrated scientific instrument maker, referred to a book «published more than fifty years ago», in which the effect of the kaleidoscope had supposedly already been described. He introduced «a lamp which, by adding much to the magic of the effects, merits truly the name which he gives it of the French Multiplicator»42. As early as March 1818, A.L. Millin revealed, after describing the device in detail, that Chevallier was already selling Le Multiplicateur Français in «all sizes, more or less elegantly adorned, with boxes of objects to vary the effect in a surprising way»43.

  • 44 Copy of the handwritten patent in author’s archive (no patent number). The application was dated Ma (...)
  • 45 L.C.D.G. 1818. The anonymous author may have been the prolific writer Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassic (...)

24At least three kaleidoscope patents were issued in France in 1818, one of them to Alphonse Giroux, the owner of a fashionable shop for novelty items and toys, who received his five year rights for Le Transfigurateur ou la Lunette Française on June 6, 181844. One cannot help wondering about the rapidity with which the patents were granted within a few weeks from each other. The fact that they were granted at all is equally curious, because the «inventions» were remarkably similar. External factors, such as personal relationships, and possibly money, may have contributed. It was evident that an economic opportunity was knocking. Politics may have played a role, too. The defeat of Napoleon in Waterloo (1815) was a recent event, but the influx of people, ideas and commodities across borders had already intensified. Appropriating a novelty from a former enemy was lucrative; pretending that it was a French invention may have served the recovery of national self-esteem. The transforming views inside the picture tube were both a delightful novelty and a way of immersing oneself into another realm for a moment – an escapist pastime. And so the French glued their eyes into the «lunettes» known by many names: Le Symétrisateur, Le Polymétamorphe, Le Transfigurateur, Le Métamorphosiscope, Le Joujou merveilleux45

Coda: The «Kaleidoscomania» and its Aftermath

[No] invention, perhaps, ever excited more general
attention among all classes of people than the kaleidoscope.
“The New Monthly Magazine”, 1819

  • 46 The Philosophical Magazine and Journal: 454.

25Many signs, both visual and textual, point to the fact that the kaleidoscope created a heated «mania», a burning collective enthusiasm for the picture tubes. Contempories were aware of it, and commented on it in articles, poems, and illustrations. The Philosophical Magazine and Journal noted: «In the memory of man, no invention, and no work, whether addressed to the imagination or to the understanding, ever produced such an effect. A universal mania for the instrument seized all classes, from the lowest to the highest, from the most ignorant to the most learned; and every person not only felt, but expressed the feeling, that a new pleasure had been added to their existence»46. Many poems were written to praise the new instrument. One of them speculated on the reasons of the sudden outburst of the “epidemic”:

  • 47 «The New Mania» in The Atheneum… 1818: 319.

Of late when the Greenland-bound ships had set sail,
And the shot at Lord Wellington happen’d to fail,
A strange dearth of topics began to prevail.
No subject was offered to interest fashion,
No touching new mania, or whimsical passion;
The P----e had exhausted his patterns of dress,
And Lord Byron’s fourth Canto was still in the press.
While the world look’d and languish’d in silent attention,
Some clever soul hit on a famous invention47.

  • 48 It seems to go back to the commedia dell’arte and the figure of the Lazzi (thank you for the tip fo (...)

26As the wealth of textual and visual sources indicates, the kaleidoscope discourse spread rapidly into the popular media of the time, and purportedly to the streets and cafés. Still, the intensity and extent of its «street level» penetration is difficult to measure. In France several satirical prints were published about the Kaleidoscomanie. One of them shows a fashionable lady peeking into the tube, while her smartly dressed partner looks over. Both are sitting on chairs outdoors along a boulevard (Les Champs-Elysées?), with many other promeneurs filling the background. Another print, «Les Prodiges Merveilleux du Kaloidoscope», shows a fellow peeking into a large kaleidoscope attached to a table, while another man peeks into a small handheld device. The scene takes place at the Cour des Fontaines of the Palais Royal, a well-known pastime venue open for all Parisiens. The third print, titled «La Kaleidoscomanie, ou les Amateurs des Bijoux Anglais», depicts the new mania in even more full blown and fantastic form. Like the previous one, it includes a scene, where a husband is peeking into a kaleidoscope, only to be deceived by a man caressing his wife behind his back. This motif did not originate with the Kaleidoscope, as the famous print «Les deux baisées» by Debucourt demonstrates. It became a topos that was often evoked when new media devices were introduced, and still keeps appearing. Microsoft resorted to it in 2010 in its «Really» advertising campaign for the Windows Phone 648.

  • 49 Dibdin 1821: 76-77.
  • 50 An Amateur, «On Angling», Colburn’s New Magazine 1820: 18.
  • 51 Reynolds 1822: 98.

27The «testimonies» of the prints mentioned above are difficult to align with the realities of the time, but seem to be at least partially confirmed by the observations of the British traveler Thomas Frognall Dibdin, whose letter from Paris, dated June 18, 1818, described the Boulevards «within which the population of Paris seems to be in eternal agitation». His list of merchandise «exposed to the open air», in other words, sold on tables and stalls, included «kaleidoscopes (they have just introduced them)»49. The mania seems to have been intense, but it was short-lived. By 1820 it was noted that the Kaleidoscope had gone out of fashion50. «What can have become of all the Kaleidoscopes? The tinmen made a fortune by them, and now not one is ever seen», asked a footnote to a satire named The Press, or Literary Chit-chat in 182251.

28The mania may have passed, but the kaleidoscope remained present in the Victorian era and has been part of the culture ever since, both as a material and as a discursive object. It may seem like a superfluous toy, a manifestation of folk art of earlier simpler times, and an entity out of touch with high tech media culture. Still, it could be claimed that its influence has not been insignificant; it has influenced other media spectacles and the cultural imagination in countless ways. John Lennon’s «girl with the kaleidoscopic eyes» in the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and its viral echoes on the internet are just one example. The presence of the kaleidoscope in contemporary culture may be more extensive than ever before – an enormous topic waiting to be explored in full.

  • 52 Huhtamo 2012: 32-51

29When it comes to media theory, the main interest of the kaleidoscope lies in its user interface – the fact that it requires the user to peep into a tube, which is often (but not always) handheld; the surrounding reality is excluded from the field of vision. This reminds us that identifying visual media culture with screen-based media only would limit its range. Screen-based experiences have been widespread, but they have never been the only way of connecting media users and devices. The kaleidoscope belongs to the trajectory of “peep media,” which began centuries before Brewster introduced his picture tube. The evolution of peep media has run parallel with the unfolding of screen-based media52. A full understanding of media culture requires us to pay attention to all forms and formats in which media experiences are offered and consumed, including their interconnections. We must explore the unities and varieties of what I call the “media apparatus.” I purport to explicate this issue in my forthcoming book.

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Bibliografia

Annals of Philosophy
– 1818, “Annals of Philosophy”, July

Author not mentioned
– 1818, Method of using the Patent Kaleidoscope, Edinburgh, Ruthven and Sons

Armonville, J.R.
– 1823, La clef de l’industrie et des sciences qui se rattachent aux arts indistriels, Paris, Huzard

Baltrusaitis, J.
– 1978, Le miroir. Révélations, science-fiction et fallacies. Essai sur une légende scientifique, Paris, Elmayan-Seuil: 19-33

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine
– 1818, “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine”, 15, June

Brewster, D.
– 1813, A Treatise on New Philosophical Instruments, for Various Purposes in the Arts and Sciences. With Experiments on Light and Colours, London-Edinburgh, John Murray - William Blackwood
– 1819, A Treatise on the Kaleidoscope, Edinburgh: Printed by J. Ruthwen & Sons for Archibald Constable & Co. Edinburgh; and Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown; and Hurst, Robinson, & Co. London
– 1833, Letters on Natural Magic, addressed to Sir Walter Scott, Bart., London, John Murray, 1858; The Kaleidoscope. Its History, Theory, and Construction with its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts, Second Edition, Greatly Enlarged, London, John Murray

Cantor, G.N.
– 1984, Brewster and the Nature of Light, in A.D. Morrison-Low and J.R.R. Christie (eds.), Brewster and Scientific Instruments, in “Martyr of Science”: Sir David Brewster 1781-1868, Edinburgh, The Royal Scottish Museum: 67-76

Colburn’s New Magazine
– 1820, “Colburn’s New Magazine”, 1 July

Crary, J.
– 1990, Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge (Mass.), Mit Press

Dibdin, T.F.
1821, A Bibliographical Antiquarian Tour in France and Germany, vol. II, London, Bulmer and Nicol

Gordon, M.M.
– 1869, The Home Life of Sir David Brewster, Edinburgh, Edmonston and Douglas

Huhtamo, E.
– 2012, Toward a History of Peep Practice, in A. Gaudreault, N. Dulac, S. Hidalgo (eds.), A Companion to Early Cinema, Chichester, West Sussex, Wiley-Blackwell: 32-51
– 2013, Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles, Cambridge (Mass.), Mit Press

Huhtamo, E. and Parikka. J. (eds.)
– 2011 Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications and Implications, Berkeley, University of California Press

Journal des Deux-Sèvres
– 1818, “Journal des Deux-Sèvres”, No. 26 (June 17, 1818)

L.C.D.G. (anonymous author may have been the prolific writer Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt)
– 1818, Mémoire sur la construction et de la théorie du Symétrisateur, Paris, Delaunay

Lesur, C.L.
– 1819, Annuaire historique, ou Histoire politique et littéraire de l’année 1818, Paris, Fantin-Delaunay et. al.

Maillet, A.
– 2012, Kaleidoscopic imagination, trans. Phoebe Prioleau and Elaine Briggs, “Grey Room”, 48

Millin, A.L.
– 1818, Instrument d’optique: Le Multiplicateur français, ou Notice sur le Kaleidoscope ou lunette française, transfigurateur, etc.; par l’ingénieur Chevallier, in Esprit des Journaux, Nationaux et Étrangers, Journal Encyclopédique, Bruxelles, Weissenbruch, tome XII: 63-66

Morrison-Low, A.D.
– 1984, Brewster and scientific instruments, in A.D. Morrison-Low and J.R.R. Christie (eds.), “Martyr of Science”: Sir David Brewster 1781-1868, Edinburgh, The Royal Scottish Museum

Reynolds, J.H.
– 1822, The Press, or Literary Chit-chat, London, Lupton Relfe

Simmons, E.L.
– 1818, Description and Use of the Instrument now called a Kaleidoscope, as Published by its Original Inventor, Richard Bradley, F.R.S. professor of Botany to the University of Cambridge, London, Finsbury Pavement

The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review
– 1818, “The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review”, 4

The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines
– 1818a, “The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines”, 8
– 1818b, “The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines”, 11

The Edinburgh Review
– 1819, “The Edinburgh Review”, 64

The New Monthly Magazine
– 1817, “The New Monthly Magazine”, 47
– 1819, “The New Monthly Magazine”, 68

The Philosophical Magazine and Journal
– “The Philosophical Magazine and Journal”, 51

Thomson, T.
– 1816, Account of the Improvements in Physical Science during the Year 1815, “Annals of Philosophy”, 1: 1-71

von Yelin, J.C.
– 1818, Das Kaleidoscop, ein Baierische Erfindung, München, Karl Thienemann

Wochentliche Anzeiger
– 1816, “Wochentliche Anzeiger für Kunst und Gewerbfleiss im Königreiche Baiern”, 40

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Note

1 About kaleidoscope production, collection and hobbyism today, see http://www.thekaleidoscopebook.com/thescopebook/ (last visited Feb. 2, 2013).

2 Crary 1990: 113.

3 Crary 1990: 113-114.

4 Maillet 2012: 51.

5 Huhtamo 2013.

6 Huhtamo and Parikka 2011.

7 See my Dismantling the fairy engine: Media archaeology as topos study, in Huhtamo and Parikka 2011: 27-47.

8 British patent No 4136 (1817). The original patent was published as «Specification of Dr. David Brewster’s, Edinburgh, for a new Optical Instrument, called The Kaleidoscope for exhibiting and creating beautiful Forms and Patterns, of great use in all the ornamental Arts» (dated July 10, 1817), The New Monthly Magazine 1817: 444-445, and later in other publications. A modern transcription on the Brewster Kaleidoscope Society website (www.brewstersociety.com, last visited Feb. 5, 2013) is not the patent itself, but a further specification Brewster had to submit within two months (dated Aug. 27, 1817).

9 Brewster 1819.

10 Morrison-Low 1984: 60. About Brewster early work, see Cantor 1984.

11 Brewster 1813.

12 Brewster, patent specification, The New Monthly Magazine 1817: 444.

13 Brewster 1858.

14 Brewster, patent specification, The New Monthly Magazine 1817: 444.

15 Author not mentioned, Method of using the Patent Kaleidoscope 1818: 5 (Ucla Young Research Library Special Collections). The author’s name is not mentioned, but there is little doubt it was Brewster.

16 Author not mentioned, Method of using the Patent Kaleidoscope 1818: 6.

17 Brewster 1819: 6.

18 Morrison-Low 1984: 61.

19 Gordon 1869: 97. This may not be the whole truth. In her autobiography (1898) Elizabeth Grant, who had known the Brewsters, suggested that while The Kaleidoscope may not have been a huge financial success, the family built a new house with proceeds from it. Quot. Morrison-Low 1984: 61-62.

20 Brewster 1819: 7.

21 Gordon 1869: 98.

22 Gordon 1869: 100-101.

23 Morrison-Low 1984: 61.

24 Simmons 1818. Simmons may be the same person who around 1848-49 got some attention for his portable Hygrometer.

25 Simmons 1818: 9.

26 The quotations in this paragraph are from Simmons 1818: vi [in text, iv]-vii.

27 Simmons 1818: 14.

28 Thomson 1816: 4-8.

29 Brewster 1819. A very similar article, History of Dr Brewster’s Kaleidoscope, with Remarks on its Supposed Resemblance to Other Combinations of Plain Mirrors, appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 1818: 331-337.

30 Annals of Philosophy 1818: 63.

31 Baltrusaitis 1978.

32 Brewster 1819.

33 Brewster 1819.

34 Brewster 1833.

35 von Yelin 1818.

36 von Yelin 1818: 4-5; 13-14.

37 von Yelin 1818: 6-8 and Wochentliche Anzeiger 1816: 625.

38 The Edinburgh Review 1819: 369.

39 The Atheneum 1818: 431.

40 «On the Kaleidoscope» article was reported and quoted in The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 1818: 314.

41 The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 1818: 314. A device called Kaléidoscope Géant (giant kaleidoscope) was exhibited publicly at the Tivoli, Chausée-d’Antin, but that was probably something else.

42 The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review 1818: 314.

43 Millin 1818: 65-66. Author’s translation.

44 Copy of the handwritten patent in author’s archive (no patent number). The application was dated May 29, 1818. The other two patent holders were named Allard and Windsor (Jr.). See Armonville 1823: 23. An optician named Jecker is also said to have constructed a version called Transfigurateur. It is unclear if it was the one patented by Giroux. Lesur 1819: 540.

45 L.C.D.G. 1818. The anonymous author may have been the prolific writer Charles-Louis Cadet de Gassicourt. Le Symétrisateur may have been coined as the title of the book only and not corresponded with a product.

46 The Philosophical Magazine and Journal: 454.

47 «The New Mania» in The Atheneum… 1818: 319.

48 It seems to go back to the commedia dell’arte and the figure of the Lazzi (thank you for the tip for Professor Tom Gunning).

49 Dibdin 1821: 76-77.

50 An Amateur, «On Angling», Colburn’s New Magazine 1820: 18.

51 Reynolds 1822: 98.

52 Huhtamo 2012: 32-51

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Notizia bibliografica

Erkki Huhtamo, ««All the World’s a Kaleidoscope». A Media Archaeological Perspective to the Incubation Era of Media Culture»Rivista di estetica, 55 | 2014, 139-153.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Erkki Huhtamo, ««All the World’s a Kaleidoscope». A Media Archaeological Perspective to the Incubation Era of Media Culture»Rivista di estetica [Online], 55 | 2014, online dal 01 mars 2014, consultato il 19 juin 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/estetica/982; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/estetica.982

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