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Professor Henry Gurr

Camera Obscura at USC Aiken

The Camera Obscura Is the FIRST Man Made Image-Making Device. It Was the Very FIRST Camera.

Camera = Latin for “room”, our word for chamber comes from same root.
Obscura = Latin for “dark”, obscured, hard to see.

"Go into a very dark room on a bright day. Make a small hole in a window cover and look at the opposite wall. What do you see? Magic! There in full color and movement will be the world outside the window — upside down! This magic is explained by a simple law of the physical world. Light travels in a straight line and when some of the rays reflected from a bright subject pass through a small hole in thin material they do not scatter but cross and reform as an upside down image on a flat surface held parallel to the hole. This law of optics was known in ancient times." Credits to: Jack and Beverly Wilgus at .

The Camera Obscura and the Pinhole Camera have 90% of the "actions" of an optic lens, and are thus an excellent way to introduce and learn about optics and lenses. Our eye is an example of a lens. The eye and the Camera Obscura are evident analogues. 
To make a Camera Obscura, choose a room that has relatively few windows and has a somewhat white unobstructed relatively flat wall opposite one of the windows. Make the room truly light-tight by covering all the windows of the room with cardboard or black plastic. Large light leaks around windows or doors can possibly spoil your efforts. Near the approximate center of the above mentioned "opposite" and covered  window, cut a single hole 1 inch or larger.  Turn off interior lights and allow your eyes to become accommodated to the darkness.  More and more of the image will become visible over a period of 20 minutes. Viewing the image is best on a bright sunny day. However don't expect to walk in from bright sunlight and immediately see all there is to see with a Camera Obscura.

Principles of the Camera Obscura (and the Pinhole Camera).
        1) The image is upside down.
        2) The image is in color, just like the scene outside.
        3) With a smaller hole, the image is sharper but not so bright.
        4) With a larger hole , the image is less sharp, but brighter.
        5) Try experimenting with larger holes and even vertical slits & horizontal slits.

The USCA Camera Obscura is housed in the USCA DuPont Planetarium.  The Camera Obscura operation is demonstrated in various Teaching classes and public planetarium shows. British author, poet, philosopher, and linguist Owen Barfield inspired the creation of the USCA Camera Obscura, and more recently, The Venture Grant Aeolian Harp. The specific point of inspirations occurred while I was reading Mr. Barfield's  essay "The Harp and the Camera", in his book "The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays", Wesleyan Press, Middletown, CT:  (1977).  As Mr. Barfield points out, the Aeolian Harp and the Camera Obscura were major stages of historical/literary development of our modern human consciousness. In fact, Mr. Barfield's books are ALWAYS demonstrating on how our minds (and language) are moving forward at the current edge of human awareness, thus MAKING/PRODUCING history!!  All his books you will also find interesting, especially Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances. (See my "Barfield" WebPage elsewhere on this site.) 

The Camera Obscura (Giant Pin-Hole Camera), is quite a simple "device". It is just a dark room with only a single small (1 inch diameter) "window" that lets light into the room from the sunlit exterior world. The Camera Obscura is historically the first and the most primitive of all man made optical image forming devices. In the USCA Planetarium, the resulting Camera Obscura image is 60 feet wide and truly captivates the attention of an audience! The image effectively demonstrates (with one exception) all the essential physical processes of image forming optical devices such as the eye, the microscope/telescope objective lens or the slide projector lens. Despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity the Camera Obscura is an excellent way to introduce the principles of optics and optical image formation in a physics class. The Camera Obscura gained its first wide spread use during the early Italian Renaissance and its name means in late Latin, vaulted chamber dark hard to see. The word "camera" has a very interesting history  and is a close derivative to similar words currently use in India. See and study the "Indo-European Roots" (Of our English Words) in the New American Heritage Dictionary. This is a special section in the back of this unique and highly recommended dictionary!

My first Camera Obscura was "jury-rigged" in my physics lab, and constituted my practice ground to see how well it worked. Although the area to show the image was far from ideal, my students were fascinated!! An other professor who demonstrated a homemade Camera Obscura to her history students said "It was a blast, and the students were very intrigued!"


[Single Brackets] indicate editing by HENRY S. GURR. 
As mentioned above, the inspiration to explore and create the Camera Obscura and the Aeolian Harp at USCA has come directly from literary author Owen 
The following are excerpts from Mr. Barfield's The Harp & Camera Essay, in his book The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn. USA, 1977 pages 
Start Quote [[..... After all, it is we who actually have got the magic Lantern [For example, the slide projector and the movie projector.] It is we who have got perspective, both in pictures and in photographs, together with the habit of vision which they have raised and fostered. Could it be ourselves who are doing the projecting, when we talk of primitive man in that confident way? [i.e. the anthropological theory of animism involving projection] Was he [primitive man] a magic lantern? Was he even a Camera Obscura? Are 
we so sure that he even had any inside to speak of? The punctiliar sort that projects? Now personally am quite sure that he had not. Moreover I am firmly persuaded that we shall never get anywhere with our anthropological attempts at reconstructing the mind of primitive man until we make up our minds to throw away all this projection business [i.e. the anthropological theory of animism, involving projection, assumed to apply to primitive man]. If we must think in metaphor (and we must), why not try beginning again on the assumption that primitive man was not a Camera Obscura but an Aeolian Harp? Surely it is only by this route that we can hope to understand the origin of myths and of thinking at all. Leslie Fiedler, writing on the myth, noted a distinction between two elements we can detect in it. He called them respectively "archetype" and "signature," the signature being that part of a narrative myth which has been contributed by an individual mind or minds. That is a useful distinction, but its usefulness in the long run will depend upon what we are prepared to mean by the word "archetype". It will depend on our accepting the central truth which no one who writes today on the subject does appear to accept, though I should have thought it had been made clear enough more than half a century ago by Rudolf Steiner; the truth that it was not man who made the myths but the myths, or the archetypal substance they reveal, which made man. We shall have to come, I am sure, to think of the archetypal element in myth in terms of the wind that breathed through the harp-strings of individual brains and nerves and fluids, rather as the blood still today pervades and sustains them. Then, when we have started off on the right foot instead of the wrong one, we may come fruitfully on to the problem Shelley had to deal with from a rather different point of view, the problem of the wind-harp that is nevertheless played on by a performer. Then we shall come properly equipped to the problem of that "principle within the human being," as Shelley called it, which acts otherwise than in the [wind] lyre and produces not melody alone but harmony. We shall approach in the right way the problem of beings (to quote Shelley again) "harmonized by their own will". Did that enthusiasm of the Romantics for the wind-harp signify that they had come to see the history of the Western mind as a kind of war between the harp and the camera -- that they foresaw the camera civilization that was coming upon us? If so, they were true prophets, because it certainly has come. The camera up to date has won that war. We live in a camera civilization. Our entertainment is camera entertainment. Our holidays are camera holidays. We make them so by paying more attention to the camera we brought with us than to the waterfall we are pointing it at. Our science is almost entirely a camera science. One thinks of the photographs of electrons on screens and in cloud-chambers and so forth. Our philosophers -- it is no longer possible even to argue with most of them, because you cannot argue about an axiom, and it is already becoming self evident to camera man that only camera words have any meaning. Even our poetry has become, for the most part, camera poetry. So much of it consists of those pointedly paradoxical surface contrasts between words and between random thoughts and feelings, arranged in the complicated perspective of the poet's own often rather meager personality. Where, one asks, has the music gone? Where has the wind gone that sweeps the music into being, the hagion pneuma, the ruach elohim? It really does feel as though the camera had won hands down and smashed the harp to pieces. ......]] End Quote. 
Remember this was written prior to the flood of images that come upon us with 100 channel TV and the flush of computer images to us through the internet!