A German print from 1818, titled “Human Nonsense.”
An illustration from 1818, titled “Human Nonsense.” (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the years after the kaleidoscope was first invented in 1816, it distracted the public as much as an iPhone. A person couldn’t walk down a street in London without seeing people staring into these tubes and walking into walls from being so immersed in the new invention.
Its presence was pervasive. If a person didn’t own a kaleidoscope, they could pay a “penny for a peek” from London’s poor or homeless, who earned a living by offering passersby a look into the patterns produced by what some termed as one of the “most important inventions and discoveries of our time.”
Art from that period chronicled how immersive the kaleidoscope experience could be. Media scholar Erkki Huhtamo describes an engraving shown at the Frankfurt Film Museum, in which several people (and even a monkey!) are shown staring into their kaleidoscopes. As Huhtamo explains it, “These ‘kaleidoscomanics’ are so mesmerized by the visions they see inside the ‘picture tube’ that they do not even notice that other men are courting their companions behind their backs.”
The kaleidoscopes we can buy today, similar to the one I grew up with in the early-1980s, are not the same objects that came onto the scene in England. My first kaleidoscope was made of yellow cardboard with multicolored polka dots. It was cheaply made and squished under my fingertips as I turned the dial. In its base, it had plastic jewels that created patterns that would saturate when pointed directly at the sun. Within a month or two, the toy went into the toy box where it sat until being thrown away.
By contrast, the kaleidoscope of the early-and mid-1800s wasn’t just a child’s toy. In fact, it wouldn’t become child’s toy for at least several decades. Instead, this new mobile device was in the hands of everyone from children to the elderly; from professors to pastors and was seen on nearly every public street in the UK where it was first invented. How this beloved device went from adult obsession to throwaway juvenilia turns out to be a long, strange journey, one that has profound implications for the mobile devices you are carrying right now.
SIR DAVID BREWSTER’S INVENTION
The kaleidoscopes on the streets of 19th century Britain were handheld and made from a range of materials, such as tubes made of brass with embellishments of wood or leather or those cheaply made of tin. The base of the tube was typically filled with broken pieces of glass, ribbons, or other small trinkets. When Sir David Brewster submitted his patent for the kaleidoscope in 1817, he focused almost exclusively on describing its inner workings, noting in passing that these elements could be “either covered up with paper or leather or placed in a cylindrical or any other tube.”