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    Posted March 29, 2014 by
    Kansas City, Missouri

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    The "Treasure Room": Ancient Roots of Your Modern Camera


    Today as I was researching an old box of glass stereoscopic slides, I stumbled onto the historic roots of modern day photography. As always, I love to share what I find, so here is a brief history of light and image capture technology from long ago.


    The first mention of an image-type light device goes all the way back to the 5th Century B.C. That's a long, long way back from the modern digital cameras of today, but is stunning when you stop to think that someone in ancient China was actually exploring images and projections of them so long ago. Mo Ti was a Chinese philosopher who experimented with the projection of images from a pinhole in a darkened room. The pinhole provided an upside down image on an opposite wall from the sunlit pinhole. Mo Ti called the place his "Locked Treasure Room", or the "Collecting Place".


    An optic law of refraction allows light rays in a darkened room to be refracted through a tiny pinhole near a light source and projected on an opposite wall. Light travels in a straight line and when some of the rays reflected from a bright subject pass through a small hole, the rays do not scatter but cross and reform as an upside down image on a flat surface held parallel to the hole. The image will be inverted, but accurate. This principle became the basis of modern photography, and is known as the "camera obscura".


    The understanding of the camera obscura gradually evolved from pinholes on windows to pinhole cameras and then into the modern cameras we use today. Its all about mananging light. The word "camera" comes from the original Latin word for "room", and "obscura" from the Latin for "dark". Hence, the "darkroom" for film development, (at least in pre-digital times) came from ancient word origins, so the whole technologly is much older than we think.


    Jack Wilgus from the Magic Mirror of Life provides an excellent history of the camera obscura:


    Aristotle (384-322 BC) understood the optical principle of the camera obscura. He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve, and the gaps between leaves of a tree.


    The Islamic scholar and scientist Alhazen (Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham) (c.965 - 1039) gave a full account of the principle including experiments with five lanterns outside a room with a small hole.


    In 1490 Leonardo Da Vinci gave two clear descriptions of the camera obscura in his notebooks. Many of the first camera obscuras were large rooms like that illustrated by the Dutch scientist Reinerus Gemma-Frisius in 1544 for use in observing a solar eclipse.


    The image quality was improved with the addition of a convex lens into the aperture in the 16th century and the later addition of a mirror to reflect the image down onto a viewing surface. Giovanni Battista Della Porta in his 1558 book Magiae Naturalis recommended the use of this device as an aid for drawing for artists.


    The term "camera obscura" was first used by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the early 17th century. He used it for astronomical applications and had a portable tent camera for surveying in Upper Austria.


    The development of the camera obscura took two tracks. One of these led to the portable box device that was a drawing tool. In the 17th and 18th century many artists were aided by the use of the camera obscura. Jan Vermeer, Canaletto, Guardi, and Paul Sandby are representative of this group. By the beginning of the 19th century the camera obscura was ready with little or no modification to accept a sheet of light sensitive material to become the photographic camera.


    The other track became the camera obscura room, a combination of education and entertainment. In the 19th century, with improved lenses that could cast larger and sharper images, the camera obscura flourished at the seaside and in areas of scenic beauty. Today the camera obscura is enjoying a revival of interest. Older camera obscuras are celebrated as cultural and historic treasures and new camera obscuras are being built around the world.


    You can find more information from Jack and Beverly Wilgus and the camera obscura at their excellent website here: http://brightbytes.com/cosite/cohome.html


    I use my digital camera almost daily. The next itme I take a shot that is automatically corrected for focus, flash, zoom and red-eye, I'll remember that I'm holding a miniature and very advanced version of Mo Ti's "Treasure Room" in my hands.

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