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Camera Obscura History Timeline

"Camera obscura" is a Latin term that means "dark chamber." A camera obscura originally referred to a dark room completely empty of light except for a small pinhole. This pinhole allowed light from the sun to enter the room and create an image upon hitting a wall or surface inside. The image would be an image of a scene from outside of the dark room, but the image would be presented upside-down. Although the image was rotated at a 180-degree angle, the perspective of the image remained intact as well as the color. These images could be traced in efforts to create an artistic masterpiece. The development of this concept began with the discovery of basic principles and over the course of thousands of years eventually led to the development of cameras and the concept of photography.

400 B.C.: Chinese philosopher Mozi, founder of Mohism, is the first in recorded history to mention the simple principles behind the concept of camera obscura. Mozi notices light entering through a pinhole into a dark room and records the image created by the light rays. He refers to this finding as a "collecting place" or a "locked treasure room."

350 B.C.: Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, first understands the principles behind the pinhole camera. Aristotle takes the basic principles further by viewing the sun through holes and gaps, in sieves and in trees. Also, he notes that when sunlight passes through openings in trees, it creates circular patterns of light on the ground.

400 A.D.: Theon of Alexandria, a Greek scholar, discovers that when the light of a candle passes through a small pinhole, it creates an illuminated spot on a screen that lines up with the center of the candle.

530: Anthemius of Tralles, a Byzantine-Greek architect and mathematician, uses an undeveloped form of camera obscura for his architecture projects.

850: Philosopher of the Arabs Al-Kindi understands the principles of camera obscura and demonstrates that light from a flame positioned to the right passing through an aperture (a hole or opening) presents itself on the left side of a screen and vice-versa.

1000: A mathematician and Arab physicist known as Alhazen studies reversed images using a small hole. Alhazen is the first to give an understandable explanation of camera obscura, as he is also the first to realize that the image projected through the aperture is an image of what is on the opposite side of the hole. Alhzaen demonstrates and proves these findings with a lamp experiment.

1088: Chinese scientist Shen Kuo, of the Song Dynasty, experiments with camera obscura concepts by adding geometric theories and studies to the concept. He publishes a book, titled The Dream Pool Essays, in which he addresses these theories and the fact that he is not the first to experiment with camera obscura.

1267: English scientist and monk Roger Bacon creates optical illusions with the use of mirrors and the concept of camera obscura. Bacon also discovers that camera obscura technology can be used to effectively view solar eclipses.

1490: Leonardo da Vinci documents the first detailed camera obscura descriptions in his writings found in the Codex Atlanticus.

1544: The first camera obscuras are very large and dark rooms with pinholes. Dutch scientist Reinerus Gemma-Frisius uses and illustrates a room that is used for observing solar eclipses. Around this time, convex lenses and mirrors are added to the aperture in efforts to reflect the image into a viewing area.

1558: Author and Italian scholar Giovanni Battista Della Porta recommends that artists use the camera obscura device for artistic purposes in his book titled Magiae Naturalis.

1604: German astronomer Johannes Kepler gives the term "camera obscura" to the physics and techniques people have been describing and experimenting with throughout history. Kepler also begins using a portable dark tent instead of a large room.

1658: English author and physician Sir Thomas Browne writes about the relation of optics and camera obscura in The Garden of Cyrus.

1685: German author Johann Zahn publishes a book by the name of Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium, which contains the first detailed drawings and diagrams of the camera obscura.

1700: Many artists use portable camera obscura devices to trace and perfect their masterpieces. Camera obscura is a popular seaside attraction.

1822: Joseph Nicephore Niepce creates the first permanent image using camera obscura.

1890: Camera obscura is extremely popular among artists, educators, and entertainers.

Throughout the years, new camera technology gradually developed that slowly forced camera obscura from popularity. New cameras proved to be much more portable and convenient as well as detailed. New technology, however, used the basic camera obscura principles that were discovered throughout history. The physics and basic principles of camera obscura are still taught today to explain light and reverse images to students of all ages.

  1. What is Camera Obscura?
  2. Camera Obscura
  3. Science in the Studio: Pinhole Camera
  4. History of Camera Obscura
  5. Engines of Our Ingenuity: Camera Obscura
  6. Create a Camera Obscura (PDF)
  7. The Legacy of Camera Obscura (PDF)
  8. Photographs of Camera Obscura Designs
  9. Timeline of Photography/Cinema/Television
  10. "Pinhole" Photography (PDF)
  11. The Very First Camera
  12. Types of Cameras
  13. Astronomy and the Camera Obscura
  14. Optics: Camera Obscura
  15. Camera Obscura: How it Worked
  16. Make a Pinhole Camera