A BRIEF HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY BY OBJECTS – 2 – Former Windmill 1700’s

Just a few streets away from where I live sits the subject of our focus today. But why is a former windmill in  a small Scottish town listed ?

Well by 1836 it would have certain device installed in it. That device was a camera obscura which gave us the modern word ‘camera’.

The Mill on the Hill

The  mill was built on Corbelly Hill overlooking the expanding Scottish Town of Dumfries. By 1834 the site was purchased by Dumfries and Maxwelltown Astronomical Society.  It was  planned to convert it to an observatory to catch the passing of Halley’s Comet in 1835-36.

Dumfries Observatory
The afore mentioned mill now known as the Dumfries museum and observatory. Dumfries Museum, 6th April. Siluet Elektro with Agfaphoto Vista Plus 200 with some post editing


Sadly it didn’t open in time for that. But  in 1836 it had the Camera Obscura installed.  And you can still visit that today. It is felt to be the oldest continuously operating Camera Obscura in the world. It is now part of the council run Dumfries Museum & observatory.

A short history of the Camera Obscura

A camera obscura works by passing a light from a scene through a small hole into a dark chamber or box. The light will be projected on the opposite wall forming a reversed and inverted image. Originally this was done with a room sized chamber to allow viewing of the image on the rear wall. This gives us the name from Latin (camera= chamber/room and obscura= darkened).

Camera Obscura
Tormod Ulsberg’s photo of the viewing table of the Camera Obscura in Tavira Portugal. Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

Although it may have been used before, it is first documented in 4th Century China. However no records are known after this until the 11th Century when Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham described in detail the technique including the darkened room. There was a flurry of experimentation following this. By 1502 Da Vinci who had read Ibn al-Haytham produced the first detailed description of how it worked in his notebooks (although these weren’t deciphered until 1797) . The actual term Camera obscura was coined by Kepler in 1602.

Camera obscura2
Illustration of camera obscura from “Sketchbook on military art, including geometry, fortifications, artillery, mechanics, and pyrotechnics” 1700’s illustrator unknown. Orginal in the library of congress, US. Image in the Public Domain

Back to Dumfries

The camera obscura in Dumfries has a small turret that rotates with the hole in it which uses a mirror to project the image down onto a viewing table below. This was a popular method in Victorian and later Camera obscuras as it allows for a view that can be moved around a 360 degree arc as this illustration shows

Optic Projection fig 89
“Fig. 89. Camera for Exhibiting Surrounding Landscapes. (From the Catalogue of McAllister). In a kind of cupola at the top is situated a plane mirror and beneath that a projection objective. The cupola rotates, thus enabling the operator to bring any desired scene upon the horizontal screen within the room. Such cameras were once common at fairs and in parks.” From Optic Projection: Principles, Installation and Use of the Magic Lantern, Projection Microscope, Reflecting Lantern, Moving Picture Machine, by Simon Henry Gage and Henry Phelps Gage, Ph.D. Ithaca, New York, Comstock Publishing Company. 1914. page 167. In Public Domain. With thanks to Wikimedia Commons

Why the link to photography ?

How did a room sized curiosity get used to describe cameras ?

Well the answer is quite simple. By 1558 Giambattista della Porta described projecting the image onto to paper as a drawing aid. By the 17th century portable small camera obscuras were documented. A classic example is Joshua Reynolds’s one from ~1790 which was a folding model disguised as a book (in the collection at the Science Museum in London)

Camera Obscura box18thCentury
19th Century illustration of anm artist using a quite large portable Camera Obscura
It would be these devices that adapted by Niepce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot to project the image not on paper or a viewing screen but on a photo sensitive plate or paper creating the first cameras as we would understand.

You can still visit the Camera obscura in Dumfries. It has been in continuous operation since 1836 but these days gets a rest in the winter months and is only used on good weather days (April to September). In the winter you can still visit the attached museum.


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