a little history

For four hundred years this device –without film– has been known as the Camera Obscura; Latin for "dark room". If you have observed a solar eclipse with a cardboard box fashioned with a pinhole in foil you have used a camera obscura. that is what English friar and proto-scientist Roger Bacon did for the eclipse of 1247. It was considered suspicious behavior at the time, but it wasn't a completely new idea.

Tenth century Arabian Ibn Al-Haitam experimented with the pinhole and candles in a darkened room and made some inspired deductions about the nature of light. Aristotle observed the phenomenon on the 4th century B.C. as did chinese philosopher Mo-Ti a century before that. Mo-Ti noticed the effect occurring naturally in sunlight filtering through a thick canopy of leaves. both he and Aristotle saw an individual thread of light projecting a shape other than the outline of the hole through which it had passed. Mo-Ti could not explain it, but in the 5th century B.C. he wrote, "What's up with that?"

In the European Renaissance the camera obscura was at the leading edge of both Science and Art. Leon Battista Alberti apparently used one to reveal the geometric laws of perspective drawing in 1435, and DaVinci wrote in "Codex Atlanticus" about forming images with pinholes. In 1475 Paolo Toscanelli incorporated one into the dome of the Cathedral of Florence creating a projection of the solar disc on a floor marked as a Sundial. A few years later the new St. Peters Cathedral at The Vatican was built with a similar pinhole in the dome. After two years of observation Pope Augustine revised the Roman calendar which had drifted two weeks out of phase from the farmer's seasons by its rounding off of a fraction of a day a year for a thousand years.

In 1558 Giovanni Della Porta was credited with inventing the camera obscura because his writings and demonstrations were the first introduction to the phenomenon for so many people. It was astronomer Johannes Kepler who coined the term "Camera Obscura" around the turn of the 16th century and made the first portable one. Artists immediately took it up as a drafting tool. It has been reasonably argued that both Vermeer and Carravagio used the camera obscura to achieve perfection in the rendering of perspective, but just who used one and how much is an open question.

In 1850 Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster made one of the first photographs with the camera obscura and coined the term "pinhole" camera, but the advantages of glass optical systems were well understood and so today the Pinhole Camera is most often seen in the hands of students, although there are some esoteric applications in scientific research and the surveillance/security industry.

Thomas Hudson Reeve

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