Sir David Brewster, Father of the Kaleidoscope

The first kaleidoscope came into being in 1815, the brainchild of Sir David Brewster. A native of Scotland, Sir David was what we would call an optical physicist, though no such term was in use at the time. A very learned man, he conducted some early inquiries into the properties of lenses and prisms and wrote on the refraction of light, contributing articles to the Encyclopedia Britannica on these and other scientific subjects. He also helped in the development of the camera.

Sadly, Sir David wasn’t much of a businessman. He didn’t get around to patenting his kaleidoscope for a couple of years, by which time manufacturers in Europe and the US had copied his design. Sir David’s invention was a massive success; two hundred thousand kaleidoscopes were sold in just three months, with no financial benefit to Brewster.

At the time, the kaleidoscope was thought of as a “philosophical instrument.” In its color, symmetry and variety, you were expected to admire the hand of the Creator and meditate on His wonders. All well-to-do households in Britain and America had the best kaleidoscope they could afford. Made with the care lavished on scientific instruments, they were expensive, costing a dollar each, in an era when an ordinary working man might be paid 50£ a year. Early kaleidoscopes were emphatically not toys for children. They retained their luxury status for decades, until the introduction of the parlor gramophone and other home entertainments. After that, the making of optically fine ‘scopes went into decline until the modern revival, with the advent of the Brewster Society in the 1980s.