Optics and Illusions

    Did you know that the kaleidoscope was invented by a St Andrews Principal? Sir David Brewster was a physicist, mathematician, astronomer, writer and historian, who invented the popular toy by accident while carrying out pioneering studies into the science of optics.

An Introduction to Brewster

dbi HC144
Portrait of Sir David Brewster by William Slater Herrick, 1859


    David Brewster was born in Jedburgh, Scottish Borders, in 1781. Unusually for a man of science of his time, Brewster was not from a wealthy family- his father was a school teacher. This meant that throughout his career Brewster would be required to support himself financially as well as following his academic interests.

Brewster was interested in optics from an early age. He built his first telescope at the age of 10, aided by an astronomer called James Veitch who lived near his family home.

At the age of 12 Brewster was sent to the University of Edinburgh to become a minister. He graduated in 1800 as a licensed Church of Scotland minister, but his interest in science stopped him from following a religious career.

In 1938 Brewster was appointed as Principal of St Andrew’s United College. When he came to the town it was quiet and gloomy, with only about 100 students at the University. In an effort to galvanise the academic life of the town and University Brewster founded the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society in 1838. This was a club for gentleman interested in science to discuss and demonstrate the latest discoveries. The Society’s collection of zoological and ethnographic materials would go on to form a major basis for MUSA and the Bell Pettigrew Museum!

In this post I will explore two of Brewster’s optical discoveries: the kaleidoscope, and Brewster’s improvements to the stereoscope. I will also highlight an intriguing portrait of Brewster which we hold in our art collections.


The Kaleidoscope

The kaleidoscope is best known as a children’s toy, but during the Victorian period it was a sensational object enjoyed by adults and children alike. The kaleidoscope is composed of a cylinder containing three mirrors, with loose coloured objects such as glass or sequins at the other end. When the viewer looks into the cylinder they see an infinite pattern created by the mirrors.

Brewster discovered the kaleidoscope in 1814. He actually discovered the invention that made him most famous by accident, while working on experiments reflecting polarised light between plates of glass. The next year he published a paper describing his discovering, and added coloured objects to create patterns. In 1817 he patented his invention and named it kaleidoscope from the Greek ‘kalos’ (beautiful) ‘eidos’ (a form) and ‘skopeo’ (to see). Literally, this means ‘I see a beautiful form’.

When it was released the kaleidoscope created a mania unlike anything seen before. Hundreds of thousands of them were sold in Great Britain, France and America. However, Brewster would make very little money from his invention. Despite being a talented scientist he was a poor businessman, and errors in the 1817 patent left others free to replicate his design without paying him. Add to this the fact that Brewster appointed only one producer to manufacture the kaleidoscope, thereby completely failing to meet demand and leaving the market open to imitators. Later in his life Brewster calculated that if he

kaleidoscope collage.jpg
Clockwise from top: Kaleidoscope (1850s) believed to have belonged to Sir David Brewster; inscription on kaleidoscope eyepiece; view inside kaleidoscope.

had managed his kaleidoscope patent correctly he could have made as much as a hundred thousand pounds (many millions in today’s money).


One of the treasures of the Museum Collections Unit is a kaleidoscope produced around 1850 by Dolland, a London company who produced their kaleidoscopes according to Brewster’s patent. This kaleidoscope is part of our physics collection, and we believe it may have belonged to Brewster himself. The eye piece is inscribed ‘Dr Brewster’s Patented Kaleidoscope’.



The Stereoscope

stereo view
Stereo photos of a group of people outside Rossie Priory. Taken by Lord George Kinnard between 1855 and 1870. University of St Andrews Special Collections, ID 2014-3-170.

Extremely popular as a Victorian parlour entertainment, the stereoscope is an optical device which allows two flat images to be seen in 3D. It achieves this by showing each eye the same scene or object from a slightly different angle, thereby hijacking the brain functions which allow us to see the world in 3D.

Brewster did not invent the stereoscope- it was invented by the English scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1832. Brewster and Wheatstone were major rivals, and Brewster set

Two drawings by Jacopo Chimenti, around 1600.

out to prove that Wheatstone’s invention had actually been discovered over 200 years earlier. He insisted that Italian artist Jacopo Chimenti had created a stereoscopic drawing around the year 1600. However, precise measurements found that Chimenti’s drawing was not stereoscopic, proving Wheatstone’s claim as inventor.





Following this controversy, Brewster went on to make significant improvements to the stereoscope design in 1848. He replaced mirrors within the viewer with lenses. This reduced the size of the stereoscope significantly and allowed to become a hand held object. The design continued to be refined throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Many of you will be familiar with a variant developed in the 1930s- the View-master!

The University of St Andrews Museum Collections Unit holds a variety of stereoscopes including this one, produced in the 1850s using Brewster’s improvements!
A visitor plays with our View-master during Fife Science Festival 2016.


Brewster’s Later Life

Although Brewster didn’t make a significant financial gain from his scientific work, he did receive recognition for his advances. He was knighted in 1831, the first person to be knighted for scientific research since Sir Isaac Newton in 1705. He also received the Copley medal from the Royal Society in 1815, the Rumford Medal of the Royal Institution in 1818, and became the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1849.

Brewster served as Principal of the University of St Andrews until 1859, when he became Principal of the University of Edinburgh. He remained in this position until his death, aged 86, in 1868.


Portrait of Sir David Brewster by Calum Colvin (2008)

Within our art collection we hold an interesting contemporary piece inspired by Brewster. Artist Calum Colvin has produced a pair of portraits of the man, which when combined in a stereoscopic viewer create a 3D image. These portraits are from a series which also include stereoscopic images of Brewster’s rival Wheatstone, and of the Chimenti drawing with which Brewster attempted to discredit Wheatstone’s discovery of the stereoscope.

brewster stereo.jpg
Stereoscopic pair of portraits of Sir David Brewster. Calum Colvin, 2008.


The portraits may look flat, but Colvin has actually created them by painting onto a 3D set which includes a ladder, an easel and a large ball. The image is full of symbolism representing Brewster’s life. These include lenses for his work on optics, encyclopaedias for the time he spent working on the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encyclopaedia Edinburgh, a copy of the Chimenti drawing and a stereoscope.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s