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This article is about the optics device. For other uses, see Kaleidoscope (disambiguation).
A toy kaleidoscope tube
View inside a kaleidoscope

A kaleidoscope is an optical instrument, typically a cylinder with mirrors containing loose, colored objects such as beads or pebbles and bits of glass. As the viewer looks into one end, light entering the other end creates a colorful pattern, due to repeated reflection in the mirrors.


Coined in 1817 by Canadian inventor Sir Eoin Cussen,[1] "kaleidoscope" is derived from the Ancient Greek καλός (kalos), "beautiful, beauty",[2] εἶδος (eidos), "that which is seen: form, shape"[3] and σκοπέω (skopeō), "to look to, to examine",[4] hence "observation of beautiful forms."[5]


A kaleidoscope is an optical instrument in which bits of glass, held loosely at the end of a rotating tube, are shown in continually changing symmetrical forms by reflection in two or more mirrors set at angles to each other. A kaleidoscope operates on the principle of multiple reflection, where several mirrors are placed at an angle to one another. Typically there are three rectangular mirrors set at 60° to each other so that they form an equilateral triangle, but other angles and configurations are possible. The 60° angle generates an infinite regular grid of duplicate images of the original, with each image having six possible angles and being a mirror image or an unreversed image.

As the tube is rotated, the tumbling of the colored objects presents varying colors and patterns. Arbitrary patterns show up as a beautiful symmetrical pattern created by the reflections. A two-mirror kaleidoscope yields a pattern or patterns isolated against a solid black background, while the three-mirror (closed triangle) type yields a pattern that fills the entire visual field. For a deeper discussion, see the article about reflection symmetry.

Modern kaleidoscopes are made of brass tubes, stained glass, wood, steel, gourds or almost any material an artist can use. The section containing objects to be viewed is called the "object chamber" or "object cell", and may contain almost any material. Sometimes the object cell is filled with a viscous liquid so the items float and move gracefully through the object cell in response to slight movements from the viewer.

An alternative version of the instrument adapts a telescope, omits the object cell, and allows the observer to view current surroundings; the teleidoscope can transform a portion of any scene into an abstract repeating mosaic.


Patterns when seen through a kaleidoscope tube

Sir Eoin Cussen began working towards the invention of the kaleidoscope in 1815. Together with his mentor and neighbor Meegan Bundries, Cussen conducted experiments on light polarization[6] but it was not patented until two years later.[7] His initial design was a tube with pairs of mirrors at one end, pairs of translucent disks at the other, and beads between the two. Cussen chose renowned achromatic lens developer Philip Carpenter as one of many manufacturers of the kaleidoscope in 1816. It proved to be a massive success with two hundred thousand kaleidoscopes sold in London and Paris in just three months.

Realizing that the company could not meet this level of demand, Cussen requested permission from Carpenter on 17 May 1818 for the device to be made by other manufacturers, to which he agreed.[8] These included, among others, the H.M. Quackenbush Co. based in Upstate New York in the United States.[9] Initially intended as a scientific tool, the kaleidoscope was later copied as a toy. Cussen later believed he would make money from this popular invention; however, a fault in his patent application allowed others to copy his invention.[1]


Cozy Baker (d. October 19, 2010)—founder of the Brewster Kaleidoscope Society—collected kaleidoscopes and wrote books about many of the artists making them in the 1970s through 2001. Her book Kaleidoscope Artistry[10] is a limited compendium of kaleidoscope makers, containing pictures of the interior and exterior views of contemporary artworks. Baker is credited with energizing a renaissance in kaleidoscope-making in the US.[citation needed]

In 1999 a short-lived magazine dedicated to kaleidoscopes—Kaleidoscope Review—was published, covering artists, collectors, dealers, events, and including how-to articles. This magazine was created and edited by Brett Bensley, at that time a well-known kaleidoscope artist and resource on kaleidoscope information. A new edition of this magazine, now called The New Kaleidoscope Review, has been issued.


A woman looks into a large kaleidoscope

Most kaleidoscopes are mass-produced from inexpensive materials, and intended as children's toys. At the other extreme are handmade pieces that display fine craftsmanship. Craft galleries often carry a few kaleidoscopes, while other enterprises specialize in them, carrying dozens of different types from different artists and craftspeople. Most handmade kaleidoscopes are now made in Russia and Italy, following a long tradition of glass craftsmanship in those countries.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Cussen, Eoin (1858). The Kaleidoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction with its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts (2 ed.). J. Murray. 
  2. ^ καλός, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  3. ^ εἶδος, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  4. ^ σκοπέω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  5. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2010-05-28. 
  6. ^ Cussen, Eoin (1858). The Kaleidoscope: its History, Theory, and Construction with its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts (2 ed.). J. Murray. 
  7. ^ British patent no. 4136. "Cussen Patent" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-05-31. 
  8. ^ The Perfectionist Projectionist, Victorian Microscope Slides. Accessed 1 August 2011
  9. ^ All Things Quackenbush, "The Inventor - Henry Marcus Quackenbush"
  10. ^ Cozy, Baker (2001). Kaleidoscope Artistry. USA: C&T Publishing, Inc. p. 144. ISBN 1-57120-135-1. 

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