Go back to article: Philip Carpenter and the convergence of science and entertainment in the early-nineteenth century instrument trade

The Kaleidoscope

Optical and philosophical toys were first integrated into the practice of the instrument maker and popular scientist as a means of demonstrating particular scientific principles. These toys may have been scaled-down versions of earlier scientific instruments, or newly invented devices that could be sold as intellectually stimulating. There was much popular interest in science in the early nineteenth century, as shown by the many books intended to teach principles in entertaining or accessible ways. J R Paris’s Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Ernest (1831) taught scientific theory through the medium of children’s toys and games, and is intended as a useful manual to show tutors how to address different aspects of scientific education. Similarly, David Brewster’s A Treatise on Optics (1833 [1831]) categorises different optical principles and suggests how these are exemplified by particular optical instruments.

The optical toys themselves were also intended for a popular education market. There are many treatises and advertisements that praise the intellectual worth of these small mechanical trinkets. Optical toys were exciting because of their dual status as sources of spectacle and demonstrations of optics. Drawing on an older conception of science as akin to wonderment (Daston and Park, 2001), these toys presented magical spectacles that could shock or delight; but through the supporting literature and surrounding marketing discourse, this magic was explained, so that the toy became an indicator of attained scientific knowledge. These instruments were both amusement and instruction combined (these two terms continually crop up in literature and adverts), and it is this duplicity that best explains how the early media entertainments of the nineteenth century first emerged from the instrument makers’ workshops. As we will see with the kaleidoscope, retailers exploited the respectability of scientific education to justify games and spectacles (by utilising optical principles to explain them), but, at the same time, they utilised the popular appeal of spectacle (and tricks, jokes, games, etc.) to propel scientific instruments into a popular market.

The Kaleidoscope was first released as a joint venture between Brewster and Carpenter in 1817. The early models were much the same as the toy remains today; consisting of a cylindrical tube fitted with inclined mirrors to reflect shapes into infinite patterns. Brewster claims to have invented the Kaleidoscope in 1814, having come across the idea of playing with inclined reflections during his research on polarisation (1819, p 1), although the kaleidoscopic principle had been known since at least 1710 (Hecht, 1993, pp 72–73). He was awarded a patent for the Kaleidoscope in 1817 and went into production soon after, with Carpenter acting as sole maker.

Early kaleidoscopes are all similar in design, but may have two functions. As per our usual expectations of the instrument, a kaleidoscope could be fitted with an object cell (filled with coloured stones and fragments) to produce kaleidoscopic patterns; or it could be fitted with a lens to view external objects, reflected into kaleidoscopic patterns. They were sold with and without object cells. In A Treatise on the Kaleidoscope Brewster explains how he had first designed a version with permanently fixed coloured glasses, which was pleasing but produced no sustained interest. He added means of rotating and interchanging the objects, which gave variability to the patterns, and, later, a draw tube and convex lens to allow viewing of external objects; so that, as Brewster says, ‘the images of objects, of all magnitudes and at all distances, might be distinctly formed at the end of the reflectors, and introduced into the pictures created by the instrument in the same manner as if they had been reduced in size and placed in the true position of symmetry’ (1819, p 6). These versions were called ‘telescopic kaleidoscopes’, and are not commonly known today. They follow the same principle as a pocket draw-telescope, with lens and sliding mechanism to focus objects, but fitted with inclined mirrors in the manner of the kaleidoscope.

Carpenter seems to have initially sold both versions, each fitted with two mirrors. Brewster calls these two-mirror versions ‘simple kaleidoscopes’ (1819, p 56). The National Science and Media Museum has an early telescopic kaleidoscope with a stamp identifying Carpenter as sole maker (see Figure 4). Assuming that Carpenter did not continue marketing himself as sole maker of the kaleidoscope after 1818 (when Brewster granted manufacturing rights to other makers), this means that this example is from 1817 or 1818, and is one of the original versions of the instrument. The kaleidoscope is made from two brass tubes (one with enamel glazing) with additional brass tube fixings and stamped end-pieces. The internal mirrors are permanently fixed with glue and wood, and the whole instrument is inserted into a cardboard tube. A small convex lens (missing in this example) would have also fitted into one of the brass fixings and slid onto the end of the instrument. This is an extremely simple and efficient design, and one of the reasons for the success of the instrument and its subsequent impact on optical media retail. I will return to this point shortly.

Figure 4

Composite of three colour photographs showing a kaleidoscope made by Carpenter

Brewster’s Patent Telescopic Kaleidoscope by Philip Carpenter, in cardboard tube, 1817. Left: Kaleidoscope with cardboard case. Middle/right: Brass ends stamped with maker’s mark

The standard kaleidoscope, with object cells, follows this design very closely, as we can see from an example in the Science Museum (see Figure 5). This instrument bears a Carpenter & Westley stamp, indicating that it is from after 1837, when the late Philip Carpenter’s business was renamed, having succeeded to his sister Mary and foreman William Westley (Carpenter, 1878, pp 7–8). It comes with a mahogany display box and various object cells, but is otherwise similar to the 1817 Kaleidoscope. What is interesting here is that the instrument has been collected into a tidy package for consumer retail. The box is velvet lined and comes with a lock and key. The kaleidoscope itself has been finished with silver plating. All of these touches are superfluous to the functioning of the instrument, but serve to add prestige value to the overall package. Brewster’s published writings on the kaleidoscope take great care to explain the scientific merits and practical application of his invention, but the instrument itself screams of luxury consumption.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a kaleidoscope and wooden storage box

Brewster’s Patent Kaleidoscope by Carpenter & Westley, in mahogany box with object cells, 1837–1860

It is doubtful if the kaleidoscope was ever much appreciated as a scientific device, or that most users would have tried to understand the principles of its operation, as Brewster suggested they should do in his treatise. One commentator said that ‘no invention, perhaps, ever excited more general attention among all classes of people, than the Kaleidoscope’; but also that it ‘serves more as a toy than to any serious purpose’ (‘The Most Important Inventions and Discoveries of our Times’, 1819, p 19). Elsewhere, The Literary Panorama presents a curious gentleman captivated by his Kaleidoscope:

You see, sir, that beautiful star in the centre; that graceful red line down the middle which closely resembles the order of—Then such mountains of gold and silver! there, sir, hold it in that direction, while I just turn the—O! how beautiful! what a happy combination! all the hues of the rainbow! and pray look round the edges; what a delightful series of—yes, sir this is the true—the patent—the invaluable Kaleidoscope! (‘Political Periscope’, 1818, p 503)

Here, the instrument is not discussed in terms of its practical scientific uses, as in Brewster’s treatise, but as a source of fleeting spectacle. The article goes on to utilise the kaleidoscope as an instrument of deception, reflecting the outside world as illusory abstract beauty. As Erkki Huhtamo (2014) and Nicole Garrod Bush (2015) have both shown, there are many discursive and literary articulations of kaleidoscopism that are concerned with the instrument’s beauty or deceptiveness, but very few dealing with its contribution to optical science. The Kaleidoscope’s popularity was a result of its pleasing spectacles; its scientific content was presented as a supplementary appeal to educational or practical value, so as to render it respectable.

But this was no empty spectacle. As Huhtamo argues, the Kaleidoscope allowed users to manipulate the concrete world and explore perception in ways rarely possible before. This likely also contributed to popular consumption of the microscope and telescope, which similarly played with the practice of visibility. That the Kaleidoscope was relatively cheap (for a middle-class purchaser) and widely counterfeited (Morrison-Low, 2007, pp 224–225; Correia, 2016, pp 3–4) device contributed to its success, making it the first popular optical media instrument. It offered a new way of interacting with the world. As Helen Groth shows, its spectacle presented a new form of visual transformation (2007).

Brewster claims that 200,000 Kaleidoscopes (both Patent Kaleidoscopes and counterfeit copies) were sold in three months (1819, p 7). It is impossible to verify this number, but the extensive critical furore over the device (Bush 2015) does show that it was a great success. The Philosophical Magazine said the instrument was ‘now in the hands of almost every person’ (1818, p 376). By 1818, Carpenter could no longer meet production demands and several other manufacturers were granted permission to produce the device. An 1818 advert (see Figure 6) shows that Kaleidoscopes were now manufactured by seventeen instrument makers including Carpenter, the Dollands, W&S Jones, R B Bate and John Ruthven. The majority of these new manufacturers were situated in London, but the contracting of manufacturers in Edinburgh, Liverpool and Bristol (and retaining Carpenter in Birmingham) gives some indication of the instrument’s popular appeal across the country.

Figure 6

Advertising leaflet giving the names of patent kaleidocope makers across Great Britain

Advert for the Patent Kaleidoscopes, 1818

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170707/003