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What is a Kaleidoscope?

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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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Chances are, many baby boomers owned a toy kaleidoscope as a child. It resembles a short telescope with a rotating end piece. When a person looks through one end, he or she will see a colorful, geometric pattern. Twisting the other end piece creates ever-changing, mesmerizing new patterns.

Some sources claim the kaleidoscope was known to ancient Greece, but Scottish inventor David Brewster is credited with its modern invention in 1816. Brewster thought it might be a useful scientific tool for the study of polarized light, patenting it in 1817. Unfortunately for Brewster, the patent was worded poorly and others quickly replicated the kaleidoscope, realizing its worth as a toy. Brewster lost out on the enormous profits made by its success.

In essence, a kaleidoscope consists of two or more mirrors laid lengthwise inside a tube. Colored beads, liquid-filled ampules or other small objects reside in the tube’s larger end. Light passes through this end, hitting the colored objects inside the rotating compartment. Any random configuration created in the falling of the colored objects reflects in the mirrors, making beautiful symmetrical patterns.

In the Victorian era, the kaleidoscope was a popular parlor pastime, and American Charles G. Bush (1825-1900) helped spark interest in America. Early ones are typically mounted on carved wooden pedestals and are collectible antiques, selling for up to $1,000 US dollars (USD) or more.

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Though the kaleidoscope lost some of its popularity over time, it enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s, thanks to Cozy Baker. Sometimes called The Patron Saint of Kaleidoscopes, Ms. Baker reportedly has the largest personal collection in the world. She also founded the Brewster Society in 1986, and has written books on the topic. Baker first became enamored with the kaleidoscope as a way to seek out beauty after her son was killed by a drunk driver. In the changing patterns, Baker says she is reminded of divine order.

Today, one can find a kaleidoscope for as little as a few US dollars, or as much as a few thousand. Ornate ones made of blown glass and elaborate decorations are sold as works of art, while the small, cardboard toys are still popular at fairs and toy stores. It seems no matter the size, price or quality, people continue to be hypnotized by the startling beauty of the ever-changing kaleidoscope.

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