how the kaleidoscope produced the same anti-tech reactions as smartphones

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The damage caused by smartphones and the consumption of screens are often presented as something new associated with a technology with unique characteristics, but these criticisms are not far from those that were poured on the kaleidoscopean instrument patented in 1817 by David Brewster, a member of the Royal Society, which was capable of creating suggestive symmetrical shapes that dazzled children and adults.

And perhaps that happens because we tend to criticize in the same way and under the same parameters any new technological development, from the printing press to the telephone, through the telegraph or the bicycle.

a precocious genius

At the age of ten, David Brewster had already built his first telescope. He was 1991 and lived in the small Scottish town of Jedburgh. Without a doubt, Brewster was quite a child prodigy, but although he was interested in many things in the world, he was most fascinated by optical instruments.

For this reason, in 1817, already forming part of the Royal Society and having been awarded for his contributions to the field of optics, patented a “philosophical toy” that made use of tilted mirrors and small colored glass to create hypnotic symmetrical shapes. On a book which he published two years later to explain and vindicate his invention, claimed to have had the original idea in 1814, gradually developing it until he reached that perfected instrument.

Brewster Cigar Box

That toy allowed you to capture a totally new reality, as if you were accessing another dimension, as if you were going through Alice’s mirror without needing to ingest a few micrograms of LSD. Consequently, the name of that instrument was formed by three greek terms: kalos (handsome), eidos (image) and scope (instrument to observe). Kaleidoscope. Literally, instrument to observe beautiful images.

The success of the kaleidoscope in the United Kingdom, in that first third of the 19th century, was unstoppable. In the newspaper Literary Panorama and National Register could be read the next review in 1819 (just the year before he had published a very lukewarm review of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley): “Young and old, everyone has their kaleidoscope; all professions, all trades; all nations, all governments, all sects, all parties.

On a letter dated May 23, 1818, the daughter of the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, expressed her enthusiasm to a friend after receiving a kaleidoscope as a gift: “If you look down the tube, you will see little shards of glass of different colours. Those images change every time you shake the tube. Even if you shake it for a hundred years, you will never see the same image.”

kaleidoscomania arrives

Early patented kaleidoscopes often came with a set of interchangeable cells filled with tiny objects, but an empty cell was often provided as well, allowing one to fill it as one wished. The “kaleidoscomania” quickly spread throughout Europe and other countries. All the magazines in the United States published extensive reports on the new contraption. The Philosophical Magazine and Journal came to publish the following:

In the memory of man, no invention and no work, whether directed to the imagination or to the understanding, ever produced such an effect. A universal mania for the instrument gripped all classes, from the lowest to the highest, from the most ignorant to the wisest; and each not only felt, but expressed the feeling, that a new pleasure had been added to his existence.

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Soon, imitations appeared of the kaleidoscope manufactured by other manufacturers, so Brewster, despite the success obtained, hardly profited financially. As if that were not enough, soon the first detractors of that technology began to emerge. Some criticized the kaleidoscope for being one more example of unrestrained mass consumerism, which wasted their money on useless things.

One of his most stubborn critics was the English romantic poet Percy Shelley, who was married to Mary Shelley. When he received instructions to build one of those contraptions from his friend and biographer Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Hogg blurted out in a letter: “Your kaleidoscope has spread like the plague in Livorno. I think the whole city has given in to kaleidoscopism.”

Themania 615

The newspaper that had branded Mary Shelley’s work as unoriginal and insubstantial also ended up charging the inks against that invention, to which it attributed the ability to make wasting time to the people. As if he owned her. The following sarcastic phrase was even written verbatim: “all the children who walk down the street with their kaleidoscope end up crashing into a wall.” Or as Noreena Herz abounds in it in her book the century of loneliness:

A engraving of the timewhich is titled La Kaleidoscomanie où les Amateurs de bijoux Anglaistackles this theme, portraying men so distracted by the contraption that they don’t even realize their companions are being courted behind their backs.

Despite everything, the kaleidoscope survived criticism and the passage of time. Later, for the poet Charles Baudelaire, “the kaleidoscope coincided with modernity itself; to become a ‘kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness’ was the goal of the ‘lover of universal life'”. For Marx and Engels“the kaleidoscope had a very different function.” In their critique of Saint-Simon’s The German Ideology, they used the kaleidoscopic image as a parable of ideological farces: their apparent variety is produced by repeating the same pattern ad infinitum.

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Arnaud Maillet has explored the impact of the kaleidoscope on theories visual abstraction and 19th-century ornamentation and consequently in debates on applied arts and industrial production, demonstrating “how kaleidoscopic thinking fueled the creative imagination and led to the proliferation of craft and industrial applications in the early 19th century”.

Even today we can buy a kaleidoscope. And it is part of contemporary audiovisual culture, as shown by John Lennon’s “girl with kaleidoscopic eyes” in the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. But that does not prevent us from remembering what some, many of them Luddites, said about that invention to notice how much their words resembled the words that were dedicated to innumerable later inventions.

The criticism that repeats invention after invention

The criticism of the kaleidoscope, the fact that it was so absorbing that the passer-by could not stop looking at it, is strongly reminiscent of the current criticism of mobile phones. A set of criticisms that, in fact, have remained more or less unchanged with each new invention or technological development.

Even the book or writing itself, a type of technology, was subject to very similar questions by Socrates, who preferred orality. The same fate that befell the printing press, later, by writers such as Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travelswho considered that that machine for copying texts was going to devalue the quality of what was published (he also said that scientific research was a waste of time because it never produced any practical application).


Therefore, it should not surprise us that the following century in which the kaleidoscope appeared, the bicycle was also the object of similar reproaches and vituperations. The churches condemned this new transport system because it could disconnect people from their local community and plunge them into the dangers of the outside world, even increasing the promiscuity of couples (particularly women, who saw on the bicycle an emancipation system). Shortly after, the car was also criticized for creating social distance and a cultural acceleration (literally).

With the arrival of Telegraph, sentimental relationships flourished through this communication system just as they do today through Tinder, and new words associated with this kind of communication appeared, customs changed, business became more streamlined. AND as you write Tom Standage in his book The Victorian Internetmany believed that we would no longer find any incentive to leave the house and meet in person because of that device.

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After the arrival of the telephone, in 1926 the Education Committee of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization founded in 1881 by the priest Michael J. McGivney, set out to investigate focused on this new technology and his meetings were dominated by questions such as “Does the phone make men more active or more lazy?” and “Does the telephone undermine home life and the old practice of visiting friends?” As has happened with blogs or digital content in general, many thought that the telephone would facilitate conversations thoughtless and banal.

Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, in 1912, pointed out the following when referring to the telephone, just as if he were analyzing Facebook:

In our life, the intimacy of the neighborhood has been broken as a result of the growth of an intricate mesh of wider contacts, which makes us strangers in the eyes of people who live in the same house. […] diminishing our economic and spiritual communion with our neighbors.

In the end, as wrote satirically Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxytechnological advances are more or less life changing than we think depending on how old we are:

  1. Everything that is already in the world when you were born is normal.
  2. Everything that is invented between now and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative, and hopefully you can make a living from it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and is the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it, until it’s been used for about ten years and slowly starts to break down. be considered normal.

Image | Etsy

The damage caused by smartphones and the consumption of screens are often presented as something new associated with a technology…

The damage caused by smartphones and the consumption of screens are often presented as something new associated with a technology…

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