Shadowbox: Optical Illusions

The human eye – och, all animal eyes – is/are attracted by movement. It’s how you work out if something is there to eat you or be eaten (or lurrved). This attraction to sparkly items plays out on screens and in picture shows and in jewellery shop windows to this day.

Optical illusions work in much the same way.

Optical illusions such as the magic lantern amused people in the past as much as they divert the imagination today. During the 19th century, including the time when I set SHADOWBOX, these toys and gizmos flowered in popularity.

One of these optical illusions is the kaleidoscope, invented in 1816 by David Brewster, of Scotland.

A universal mania for the instrument seized all classes, from the lowest to the highest, from the most ignorant to the most learned, and every person not only felt, but expressed the feeling that a new pleasure had been added to their existence. – The Brewster Society

Not just for children, the kaleidoscope – although regarded as a toy today – was a cheap way of entertaining people with time on their hands.

An antique form of playing with shapes and colours and dimensions, refractions, reflections, you can make one with polished metal or mirrored glass, or as most nowadays with a mirror coated plastic.

Kaleidoscope Design 12 (c) Dennis Boots at

Kaleidoscope Design 12 (c) Dennis Boots

The coloured fragments at the far end are the driving force and however pleasing to the eye, the use of mirrors to cast magical shapes before the viewer is where the entertainment lies.

Remember the films from the sixties showing “swinging” parties – Austin Powers, I’m looking at you – with kaleidoscope patterns projected onto the walls? Not as nauseating as the pulsating oil-on-water effects, sparkly and diverting.

Nowadays we use smartphones and iPads for much the same purpose and you can get an app for kaleidoscope if you want. But the first kaleidoscope was invented in 1816, well in advance of the time period of SHADOWBOX, allowing me a little leeway in my imagination.

In SHADOWBOX I make use of the effects of the kaleidoscope to form a weapon – a tool – to confuse an enemy. The imagined Shadow Box is an entirely invented contraption, whereby one might use sunlight to cast shadows into corners to confuse an opponent.

I have no idea whether this is physically possible.

The invention of the shadow box provides impetus to my story. I wanted to give Godfey Woolverham something to hang his hopes on, a tool which might lead him to victory but also a link to his forebears, to the great amber carvers who made the Amber Room, one of whom was his fictional grandfather.

Because Godfrey needs all the help he can get.

Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: The Amber Room.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

One Comment

  1. […] For the wealthy, this meant racehorses, vineyards, sugar plantations in the Caribbean and slaves to work them, mansions and country estates such as Highclere Castle, hounds with which to hunt foxes thereupon, servants to run those households, silks and perfumes and jewelled music-boxes and kaleidoscopes. […]

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