Optical toys

It's playtime at the museum.

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The College collections  can often come across as quite serious in tone, but many developments in optical instrumentation were driven by the needs of entertainment devices. Toys and games, by their very simplicity, can also provide interesting cultural insights into how the eye and vision aids have been perceived over an extended period of time.

Magic Lanterns and Peep Shows

Magic lantern shown in Edward Scarlett's trade card of circa 1727

Magic Lantern shows were an early form of pre-cinema and can be traced back as far as the 17th century. The illustration to the right is a small detail from the 1720s trade card of the optician Edward Scarlett. Quite intricate effects of movement and scene switching could be achieved, to the delight and sometimes fear of incredulous audiences.

Detail of a print showing a magic lantern show 1774
La Vue - an etching of a peep
show by Le Prince, 1774

Small travelling lantern and peep shows were hawked around the towns of Europe and were popular with children and adults alike.

Detail of Magic lantern print by Haid

The Magic Lantern, detail
from a print by Isaak Haid,
sold by Rosselin of Paris,
possibly 1830s/1840s?

Prints of peep shows were also a conventional means of introducing a published series of prints, as with Paul Sandby's Cries of London (1760).

Magic lanterns survived into the twentieth century and are the ancestors of slide projectors. They could be purchased from opticians shops, along with the still or mechanically-animated slides to project with them.

Magic lantern supplied by Lizars

The example pictured here was possibly made and certainly supplied by J.Lizars, Opticians of Glasgow. The grey metal lamp housing has been adapted for a modern light bulb, hence the chimney has been discarded.

'What the Butler Saw' machines were a popular entertainment at the British seaside.

Did you know?

You can request to view a DVD in the museum entitled From Magic Lantern to Movies - The Optical Magic Lantern Journal 1889-1903 (2010). This is a marvellous resource, published by the Magic Lantern Society, of scanned images from a popular trade journal of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. It was the only magazine of its time dedicated to the projected image, though it also covered photography, lighting technology and general science.

Camera Lucida by Dollond

Camera Lucida (detail)
by Dollond, 19th c.

Drawing Aids

A Camera Lucida was an instrument, usually of brass, with prisms in the head, working a bit like a periscope. They were used by artists to project the scene they wished to draw, such as a house, onto the paper. They then traced over the image. The first was designed and patented by William Hyde Wollaston in 1807 but based on the descriptions of their designers such instruments seem to have been intended for the unskilled in drawing - the eye is enabled to see an image of an object at the same time as a sheet of drawing paper and the pencil. The concept was first described by Johannes Kepler in his Dioptrice (1611). By 1807 when Wollaston patented the device described by Kepler and gave it the name by which it is known today, the camera lucida, the world had forgotten about Kepler’s original description. ..we have no way of knowing if Wollaston was knowingly copying Kepler or if this was a relatively common case of multiple people inventing the same device separately. In 1830 Alexander Alexander invented an improved version of the camera lucida, which he called the Graphic Mirror or mirror-type camera lucida. This camera lucida had a more stable image when compared to the original Wollaston design, but the Wollaston design could easily accommodate lenses to magnify a subject. The different types of camera lucidas that were used throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries varied only slightly from the original Wollaston and Alexander designs. They experienced waves of popularity in the artistic community by both well known and amateur artists; although, sometimes their use was shrouded in trade secrecy. Among the scientific community; however, they experienced diminishing popularity as modern photography developed and camera lucida drawings of specimens and ruins were replaced with photographs. And by the late twentieth century, the camera lucida had become lost to the knowledge of most people apart from art and photography historians.

Educational Toys

There is a large range of educational optical toys available on the market including basic microscopes, telescopes and binoculars.

Toy microscope 2003

Microscience Microscope Set by Eastcolight (Hong Kong) Ltd and sold through supermarkets in 2003 for an unusually precise price. The set included a blue and silver-coloured microscope (eyepiece, focusing knob, revolving turret, stage with two clips, mirror and battery-powered illumination lamp), two cylindrical collecting vials, a small box of adhesive slide labels, one prepared slide (enclosing an insect wing), two blank slides (top and bottom) and a 3x magnifier.

Action Man binoculars

Not all such toys are quite what they seem. The 'Action Man' Extreme Bath Viewer licensed by the toy maker Hasbro (2003) was a shower gel dispenser with fully functioning binoculars that could even be used, if desired, under water!

Joke Spectacles

Funny glasses can make us all laugh. They have been made to mark particular occasions, to suggest silly characters or to showcase disconcerting optical effects.....

Halloween glasses

It's Halloween and your spectacle frames are not only made from human 'bones', but press a button and the haunting skull-bridge begins to blink and emits an eerie sound. Spooky!

Geezer glasses

Geezer Glasses - Fashion Focals for Four-Eyed Fuddyduds, (2001). Everyone remembers the class swot with his or her thick bottle lens spectacles, but stop and think for a moment... he or she probably didn't enjoy making 'a spectacle' of themselves at the time.

Hologram spectacles 1990s

These holographic spectacles made in Taiwan in the 1990s are typical of specs through which your eyes (and also those of somebody else!) are visible to those around you if they stand at a certain angle. Similar to these were the 'Eyepoppers' from California (where else?) promoted in 2003 as a great indoor party piece but, those were not UV-protected and therefore could not be recommended for use as sunglasses! The same company produced a 'Spectrix Laser Visor' with holographic lenses that 'transform light into multiple rainbows' (c.2000).

Toys featuring vision aids

Specs The Pocket Dragon

Pocket Dragon figure

This is a plastic figure in the form of the character Specs, from the cartoon series 'Pocket Dragon Adventures'  (1998). You'll note that he is wearing an oversized pair of yellow spectacles, presumably because he did not seek the services of a qualified dispensing optician.

The 'Pocket Dragon Adventures' followed the lives of Specs (voiced by Samuel Vincent) and his friends Cuddles, Filbert, Scribbles, Zoom Zoom and Binky.

One episode of the series was called 'Rose Colored Specs'. After breaking Specs' enormous glasses, the Dragons used their Book of Spells to produce a new pair, this time with rose-tinted lenses. These spectacles caused Specs (and each of the others in turn) to see and hear what they wished to, rather than what was actually there, resulting in some dangerous consequences, including going over a waterfall. In the end Binky helped save them, because she likes to see the world just as it is, and was thus immune to the effect of the lenses.

Pocket Dragons were and continue to be a popular range of collectibles designed by Mr Real Musgrave of Texas. Not very many souvenirs of the cartoon series were made, however, because the series (supplied by BKN International AG of Germany) was cancelled in 1999. Thus even the most unlikely of recent objects can become rare collectibles.

Try searching for the term 'toy' in our MusEYEum Online Catalogue, to see what other fun things we have.