Cold blue wisps spin and disappear. An indigo flower blossoms. Yellow petals, like saffron-stained marble, multiply and then collapse. Silver thorns and jade leaves glisten in pink sunlight. Dripping red and raw circles drown pale lavender triangles. Hungry orange sparks crash against a dusty rose. Like faded diamonds on horses’ heads twisting into golden flakes in emerald cat eyes, patterns emerge and vanish as colors collide.

Countless admirers have peered through this plastic toy, or glass tool, depending on its caliber. An artist’s daydream and a scientist’s feat, kaleidoscopes were invented by David Brewster in 1816. Brewster was a Scottish mathematician and physicist whose work focused on the optics and properties of light. Brewster patented his idea in 1817, but thousands of copies were produced and sold in subsequent years.

The name “kaleidoscope” was coined by Brewster, and derives from three Greek words: “kalos,” which means beautiful, “eidos,” which means form, and “scopos,” which means watcher. Brewster remarked prophetically that “it was impossible not to perceive that [the kaleidoscope] would prove of the highest service in all ornamental arts, and would, at the same time, become a popular instrument for the purposes of rational amusement.” Indeed, kaleidoscopes were met with great zest by nineteenth-century consumers. It was not until the 1870s, however, that Charles G. Bush, of Massachusetts, received a patent for the collectable kaleidoscope (U.S. 143, 271). Bush enhanced the existing kaleidoscope, and invented kaleidoscope boxes, stands, and various accessories. Bush’s instruments were the first cohort of kaleidoscopes to be mass manufactured in the United States. They were particularly striking because of their liquid-filled glass vessels, which produced even more delicate, swirling visual effects.  

Enthusiasm for kaleidoscopes ran rampant in the Victorian era. Wide-eyed children as well as the most prestigious inventors and thinkers were mesmerized by their charm. A playwright and philosopher, R.S. Dement, recalled the disillusionment he felt when he dismantled the instrument and discovered “numerous pieces of colored glass, without symmetry, unsightly in themselves.” He also laments feeling deceived “into believing that what he saw was at least the shadow of something real and beautiful, when in truth it was only a delusion.” The Literary Panorama published an article in 1818 that concurred with Dement, noting with dismay that inside the kaleidoscope “the mountains of gold and silver are nothing better than certain scraps of tissue paper, inscribed with magical characters…the most pleasing images mere spectra.”

By Nora Wildberg

To many, however, kaleidoscopes are magical. Few people attempt to understand or deconstruct them. The indispensable ingredient for a satisfying experience is light. If you draw your blinds, and peer into the cylindrical tube, you see nothing. At best, the colors appear dim, dusky. Faded shapes appear tainted under a charcoal shadow. Once there is light, however, the contours of various images open and close like a looped time-lapse of blossoming buds in May.

There are different kinds of kaleidoscopes. Two mirrors yield circular designs, each one singular, like a snowflake or a thumbprint. Twin mirrors, oriented differently, produce symmetrical shapes on the right and left sides of the scope. Three-mirror kaleidoscopes trigger more numerous, crystalline patterns. And four mirrors generate a dizzying array of images, bands of changing hues and forms scooting or crawling across the field of vision, depending on how fast you turn the revolving top. Moreover, reflectors set at different angles produce different kinds of shapes. For example, two reflectors oriented at 45-degree angles along with one reflector set at a 90-degree angle create images radically different from those of three reflectors fixed at angles of thirty, sixty, and ninety degrees, respectively.

Kaleidoscopes manipulate whatever is in the object chamber: beads, glass, string, paper, shells, or coral. As light filters through the transparent material at one end of the cylinder, mirrors reflect whatever tumbles at the base. The viewer perceives these reflections, which mysteriously rebound and recoil simultaneously.

Of course, it is natural to wonder just how many images are possible to manufacture in one small tool. Many mathematicians have tried to calculate the number of potential designs based on traditional principles of combinatorics, three-dimensional geometry, and probability. According to the Polar Star of Entertainment and Popular Science, a kaleidoscope with just twenty-four pieces of glass, oriented at numerous different angles, could form 1391724288887252999425128493402200 images. Generating these images would take more than a hundred thousand million years, assuming each image takes three seconds to generate. Surprisingly, this is a conservative estimate because it assumes that one piece of glass can display only one shape, and that two pieces can reveal only two shapes. However, it is not only the distinct pieces of glass but also the orientation of the pieces that can change with each shift of the revolver. There is thus an immeasurable number of ways these colors and configurations can interact.

Encountering a kaleidoscope is akin to experiencing many of the artistic and confounding elements of life: ephemeral beauty, momentary precision, perpetual inception and endless destruction. The disappointment that is wrought from taking apart a kaleidoscope and discovering splinters of ordinary things is not unlike the revelation that a miracle is built on illusion. Think Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny—the general reckoning adulthood inevitably brings as we reflect upon childhood myths. The alarm associated with disassembling a kaleidoscope is also not unlike the disillusionment that follows a loved one toppled from an imagined pedestal. A single twitch can change a picture dramatically. A single inadvertent action can change a life irreversibly. Still, is there some solace or value we might be able to derive from the kaleidoscope? From mundane magic to barbed beauty? From the infinite visions and versions that lie behind one reflection?

Perhaps we must accept that we are simply watchers of beautiful forms. And if we acknowledge that we are observers, bound by our own frailties and limitations, we might be able to rescue the memory of what was, for an instant, exquisite. Fickle apparitions dart past us, and we are left with no choice but to recognize their transience if we are to wrest perfection from them. The frames of a kaleidoscope explode and unravel, compound and shatter, like fireworks. Even if someone were peering through the same eyepiece at the same time, even if he saw the same thing, you would both struggle to describe what you had witnessed, and it would be gone before you tried.

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