Outstanding Historical Inventions – the Camera Obscura

Although the pinhole camera didn’t come into widespread use until the seventeenth century, its origins lie much further back in time.  The fisrt surviving mention of it is in the work of the Chinese philosopher Mo-ti (470-390 BCE).  The Greeks (Aristotle, Euclid and Theon of Alexandria) built on this, with Euclid’s ‘Optics’ suggesting that the camera obscura proved that light travelled in straight lines.  Even so, it wasn’t until Al-Hazen proved that what was prjected through the pinhole was the (upended) image of what was on the other side of it that the idea really began to take off.  Al-Hazen’s understanding of the principle behind the camera obscura allowed the first projection of an outdoor image onto a screen indoors.

The spread of Arab ideas and inventions took the camera obscura to Europe, where there is some evidence that it was being used to study solar eclipses as early as the thirteenth century.  However, it’s in the area of drawing and fine art that the biggest controversy about the camera obscura lies.  We know that by the early eighteenth century, small portable camera obscura were being used by amateur artists as well as by profressionals like Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds.  The finely detailed drawings this equipment made possible can be clearly seen in Canaletto’s Venetian paintings.  What really scandalised art critics and left some scientists sceptical was the idea (put forward by contemporary artist David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco), that the camera obscura had actually been in use in the art world from the mid fifteenth century onwards.

The Hockney-Falco thesis generated a good deal of controversy (if not open hostility) from the art world.  At the International Conference of Information Sciences in February 2007, Falco argued that the Arab scientist Ibn-al-Haytham’s eleventh century ‘Book of Optics’ had very likely influenced the use of optical aids by early Renaissance artists.  at a later conference, Hockney cited Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfi Wedding’ of 1434 as a prime example of this

Illustration of camera obscura from

Illustration of camera obscura from “Sketchbook on military art, including geometry, fortifications, artillery, mechanics, and pyrotechnics” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Whilst other critics have questioned the scientific and conceptual ability of early Renaissance artists to understand and effectively use the techniques of image projections, this in no way detracts from the importance of this invention to modern life.


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