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Game of light

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SUSAN PETRIE, SENIOR EDITOR, [email protected]

“All that survived was this optical toy: a stereoscope equipped with a hundred photographs of European cities, Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Rome. … Sergei remembered how one day his parents had talked about their trip to Italy, a few years before the revolution. Nowadays thinking of going abroad seemed more unrealistic than traveling to the moon.” — from A Woman Loved, by Andreï Makine

Antique toys are a sentimental entrance to the past, the land that time forgot, almost. Despite being rusty, dinged, torn, or broken, they still possess a kind of mystical enchantment. Within the category of optical toys, dozens of these fantastical devices exist. They show how the philosophical mind grappled with persistent problems of math, physics, and vision, and seem to be equally entertaining to children and adults.

Game of Light, Italy. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.


Game of Light, Italy. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

Ernst Planck (not to be confused with the uber-serious theoretical physicist, Max) designed a magic lantern. A 19th-century physician named John Ayrton Paris is credited with the invention of the thaumatrope or “wonder turner,” an early predecessor of animation. Leon Battista Alberti appears to be the originator of a Renaissance-era portable wonder box, or peep box.

Children’s toy magic lantern projector set, designed for domestic use. Made by Ernst Planck. Courtesy of Museums Victoria/CC BY 4.0.


Children’s toy magic lantern projector set, designed for domestic use. Made by Ernst Planck. Courtesy of Museums Victoria/CC BY 4.0.

And the names of the optical curiosities and ephemera? Philologists and scientists alike will be mesmerized by this swoonworthy list: viewing tubes, zograscopes, kaleidophones, spectropias, zoetropes, the Optic Wonder, the Kinora, lenticular pictures, Magic Eye. Ach!

If you’re on the hunt for some new/old parlor games, check out the seriously fun collection of optical toys online at Jack and Beverly’s Collection of Collections. Or, watch “Optical Toys: Awesome Toy Reviews” — where else? — on YouTube.

Photonics Spectra
May 2020
Lighter Sideoptical gamesgame of lightstereoscopesviewing tubeszograscopeskaleidophonesspectropiaszoetropesOptic WonderMagic EyeThe Optic WonderKinoralenticular picturesthe magic eye

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