Welcome to this definitive guide on the origin and history of the beautiful and colourful kaleidoscope.
Beautiful Kaleidoscope Pattern Made From Coloured Glass
For most of us, kaleidoscopes call to mind beautiful patterns of light and colour we used to view through telescope-like toys as children. But did you know these images have a rich history and important place in stress relief and mental wellness?
Kaleidoscopes have been around for many decades, and their main uses have changed throughout the years. Today, we can appreciate how they have fit into our society and the benefits they can bring us now.
The kaleidoscope was created in 1815 by Scottish scientist David Brewster. He constructed the name “kaleidoscope” from a combination of the Greek words “kalos” (meaning “beautiful”), “eidos” (meaning “form”), and “scopos” (meaning “watcher”). Together, the full meaning of the word is “beautiful form watcher.”
The kaleidoscope was patented by Brewster in 1817, but due to improper wording on the patent, he was never able to make much money from the idea. Brewster used polyangular mirrors (which let the viewer change the angle of the kaleidoscope’s mirrors) and polarization (which filters out light rays, creating a dark background for the viewed image) in his kaleidoscopes, which wasn’t used by any other artists who made kaleidoscopes until about 150 years later!
The popularity of kaleidoscopes rose during the Victorian age when they were used in parlours. The first person to begin mass manufacturing them as “parlour” kaleidoscopes in America was Charles G. Bush.
This began a fad in which Bush was able to gain patents and profit from improvements he made, such as adding glass capsules full of liquid that could be viewed as objects inside the kaleidoscopes.
A Charles G. Bush Table Parlour Kaleidoscope (1873)
In some of his original kaleidoscopes, Bush included unique objects such as a clear glass disk embossed with a swan. The glass swan is a rare inclusion and one that collectors prize.
Other improvements by Bush included a kaleidoscope that could be taken apart easily to store, a colourful wheel at the front of the kaleidoscope to change the background, and scope chambers that could be opened easily to change the objects viewed.
When the electronic age hit in the mid-1900s, the kaleidoscope’s role changed from elegant parlour entertainment to mostly children’s toys. One of the most well-known producers of toy kaleidoscopes from 1946 on, the Steven Manufacturing Company, is still making them today. They mostly made cardboard scopes but also made a few from plastic.
A Toy Kaleidoscope
The use of scopes as mainly toys continued until the end of the 1970s, which is when they were picked up primarily as an art form. As technology and craftsmanship advanced in the 80’s and 90’s, artists began to experiment with all aspects of kaleidoscopes. This time period has been called the “Kaleidoscope Renaissance” and was helped along by a woman named Cozy Baker who founded the Brewster Society and started the first kaleidoscope exhibition for scope fans.
The outside of scopes were now being made from materials like alabaster, hand-blown glass, ceramics, and even less traditional materials like wine and beer bottles or parts of motorcycles. The scopes’ exteriors were often made to look like other items, such as cars, animals, or buildings.
For the interior of the kaleidoscopes, Brewster’s methods of polarization and polyangular mirrors were picked up again, plus new ideas like complex arrangements of mirrors, multiple mirrors, or curved, reflective mirrors were used. Scopes were considered forms of fine art, and their forms changed a lot between 1975 and 2000. They were now known for their craftsmanship and artistic beauty inside and out.
The kaleidoscope consists of the viewing tube and the object box or case. At the end of the viewing tube, there is an eyepiece the user looks through. It can be made of either a lense that magnifies or just simple glass.
The object box, which is thin and flat, consists of two glass disks with a band that circles the disks’ edges and holds them in place. The outer disk is ground to act as a screen and diffuse any light that comes in. The box also contains the kaleidoscope’s reflective material fragments that could include substances like beads, coloured glass, crystals, seashells, or tinsel. These can be heard moving around inside when the scope is shaken or turned.
Within the viewing tube, there are three strips of mirrors angled at either 45° or 60°. These mirrors join to form a triangle or a V-shape. This creates a symmetrical with the material fragments inside and multiplies them by many times. Depending on the mirrors’ angles, the multiplication could be by six, eight, or more.
The scope can be designed for viewing with just natural light, or it could use light filters or other light sources to enhance the viewing experience.
The kaleidoscope’s designer controls how each design is created and viewed through the lens by choosing its specific factors like materials, size, type of object case and objects, and mirrors angles and orientation. The individual styles can vary greatly depending on these factors and the artist’s own style.
A good example of this is Carolyn Bennett, an internationally-known designer who uniquely uses acrylics and square or rectangular viewing tubes for her kaleidoscopes.
There are a few distinctive terms used to described the different materials, light-adjusting potentials, and building practices of kaleidoscopes. They include:
Flashed Glass: A mirror consisting of two colours, with one overlying the other.
Dichromatic Glass: Depending on how the light hits it, this glass creates different colours.
Hot Glass: Scrap glass that has been heated until it merges and then is painted. Layers of hot glass can be laid over each other to create an image.
Slumped Glass: Glass that has been heated until it bends at the edges and forms a new shape.
Oil-Suspension Scope: The object case pieces of glass or other materials that are floating in oil.
Dry Cell: An object cell that only contains objects, no liquid for suspension.
Front Surface Mirror: A mirror that contains a reflective coating on its back surface so there is no possibility of seeing a double image of two reflections. Almost all contemporary art kaleidoscopes use these now.
Teleidoscope: A combination of a kaleidoscope and telescope that uses another lens in place of the object case so that the object viewed through it is reflected multiple times.
Besides their simply beautiful images, kaleidoscopes bring several mental wellness “powers” to those who use and view them. Like other forms of art, scopes can be a regular part of your wellbeing practice.
Many people find drawing and doodling to have a calming and relaxation effect—and the use of kaleidoscope images are no exception! Since kaleidoscopes were used early on as childhood toys, it makes sense that they would bring us the same delight and playfulness we remember from being children. We even have games and computer programs now that allow you to make your own kaleidoscope drawings by choosing colours, patterns, and styles.
According to The Kaleidoscope On-Line Book, delighting in scopes bring us even far more benefits, such as mental focus, balance and calmness, and higher creativity. They also help in boosting our moods, reducing stress and cortisol in the body, and increase relaxation.
As discussed in our Mandala Guide, looking at kaleidoscope images also helps link the left side of the brain (which is more analytical) and the right side of the brain (which is more creative). Most people tend to be more dominant in one side over the other. Left brain-dominant people are more prone to taking control of situations, needing to plan, and to analyze everything, while right brain-dominant individuals tend to live more “in the moment” and be more creative and laid-back.
Kaleidoscope therapy helps to balance the two sides, bringing more harmony and peace within the mind. This can help improve problem solving, focus, and give you a meditative focal point for feeling centered and grounded. A quick way to focus on this balance is by viewing the image with your non-dominant eye.
Additionally, ancient healing systems have shown for many, many years that the diverse wavelengths of colours have healing effects on the organs. For example, those looking to increase their energy could view a scope containing yellows, reds, and oranges, which are energizing. For fostering calmness, one could view scopes featuring the colour green or pink, which is associated with healing and the heart.
This use of colours can help us stay more positive and balanced day-to-day. Kaleidoscopes have even been used in doctors’ offices to calm patients while they are waiting for appointments.
These powers of focus, relaxation, and stress reduction are also related to the mandala patterns present in certain kaleidoscopes. The mandala has been used for years and years in promoting healing and spiritual awareness, supporting meditation practices, and enhancing creativity.
In modern times, mandalas are used in colouring therapy for stress relief and meditation. The same is true of kaleidoscope images, which are also present in many stress-relieving colouring books today.
Like many art forms, the kaleidoscope has many benefits visually, creatively, and spiritually that can be used to improve overall wellness. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to purchase or borrow one to experience its amazing advantages yourself!