The History of the Kaleidoscope

Animated Kaleidoscope
Animated Kaleidoscope. photographs by Gerald A. Bonsack

The kaleidoscope was invented in 1816 by Scottish scientist, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), a mathematician and physicist noted for his various contributions to the field of optics. He patented it in 1817 (GB 4136), but thousands of unauthorized copycats were constructed and sold, resulting in Brewster receiving little financial benefits from his most famous invention.

Brewster named his invention after the Greek words kalos (beautiful), eidos (form), and scopos  (watcher).

So kaleidoscope roughly translates to beautiful form watcher.

Brewster's kaleidoscope was a tube containing loose pieces of colored glass and other pretty objects, reflected by mirrors or glass lenses set at angles, that created patterns when viewed through the end of the tube.

In the early 1870s, Charles Bush, a Prussian native living in Massachusetts, improved upon the kaleidoscope and started the kaleidoscope fad. Charles Bush was granted patents in 1873 and 1874 related to improvements in kaleidoscopes, kaleidoscope boxes, objects for kaleidoscopes (US 143,271), and kaleidoscope stands. Charles Bush was the first person to mass manufacture his "parlor" kaleidoscope in America. His kaleidoscopes were distinguished by the use of liquid-filled glass ampules to create even more visually stunning effects.


How Kaleidoscopes Work

The kaleidoscope creates reflections of a direct view of the objects at the end of a tube, through the use of angled mirrors set at the end; as the user rotates the tube, the mirrors create new patterns.

The image will be symmetrical if the mirror angle is an even divider of 360 degrees. A mirror set at 60 degrees will generate a pattern of six regular sectors. A mirror angle at 45 degrees will make eight equal sectors, and an angle of 30 degrees will make twelve. The lines and colors of simple shapes are multiplied by the mirrors into a visually stimulating vortex.