Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Excerpt 5

The problem becomes, then, how to make a machine that grows in ability over time that is not limited by the initial choices made by the inventor of the machine.
Brewster conceived of the kaleidoscope as a labor saving device for artists, an automation of part of the creative process:
"When we consider, that in this busy island thousands of individuals are wholly occupied with the composition of symmetrical designs, and that there is scarcely any profession into which these designs do not enter as a necessary part, so as to employ a portion of the time of every artist, we shall not hesitate in admitting, that an instrument must have no small degree of utility which abridges the labour of so many individuals. If we reflect further on the nature of the designs which are thus composed, and on the methods which must be employed in their composition, the Kaleidoscope will assume the character of the highest class of machinery, which improves at the same time that it abridges the exertions of individuals. There are few machines, indeed, which rise higher above the operations of human skill. It will create, in a single hour, what a thousand artists could not invent in the course of a year; and while it works with such unexampled rapidity, it works also with a corresponding beauty and precision.[1]"

The Reverend Leigh Richmond wrote on a similar theme:
"I took up my kaleidoscope; and, as I viewed with delight the extraordinary succession of beautiful images which it presented to my sight, I was struck…with the singular phenomenon of perfect order being invariably and constantly produced out of perfect disorder—so that, as by magical influence, confusion and irregularity seemed to become the prolific parents of symmetry and beauty.
 It occurred to me, that the universality of its adoption would imperceptibly lead to the cultivation of the principles of taste, elegance, and beauty, through the whole of the present and following generations, and that from the philosopher and artist down to the poorest child in the community…
 I saw a vast accession to the sources of invention, in its application to the elegant arts and manufactures, and the consequent growth of a more polished and highly cultivated state of habits, manners, and refinement, in both… I was struck with the idea of infinite variety more strikingly demonstrated to the eye than by any former experiment. Here the sublime mingles with the beautiful.
 I perceived a kind of visible music. The combination of form and colour produced harmony—their succession melody: thus, what an organ or pianoforte is to the ear, the kaleidoscope is to the eye. I was delighted with this analogy between the senses, as exercised in this interesting experiment.…[2]"

Things did not turn out quite as Sir Brewster and Rev. Richmond expected. Our use of machines to automate work previously done by artists has modified our concept of beauty. What used to take a great deal of skill and time could be done immediately and without effort by a mechanical process. This led to society valuing designs of rigid perfect symmetry less. A similar effect occurred with the invention of photography. Because of the ease of obtaining a perfectly accurate likeness, abstract and nonrepresentational art became more highly valued by the art world.
Brewster was at the same time able to see his invention as a toy, and as an important advance of science.[3] He saw it as a kind of proof of principle, which later engineers would use for practical purposes, in much the same way that components of automata found their way into practical machinery:
"The passion for automatic exhibitions which characterized the eighteenth century gave rise to the most ingenious mechanical devices, and introduced among the higher orders of artists habits of nice and accurate execution in the formation of the most delicate pieces of machinery. The same combination of the mechanical powers which made the spider crawl, or which waved the tiny rod of the magician, contributed in future years to purposes of higher import. Those wheels and pinions, which almost eluded our senses by their minuteness, reappeared in the stupendous mechanism of our spinning-machines and our steam engines. The elements of the tumbling puppet were revived in the chronometer, which now conducts our navy through the ocean; and the shapeless wheel which directed the hand of the drawing automaton has served in the present age to guide the movements of the tambouring engine. Those mechanical wonders which in one century enriched only the conjurer who used them, contributed in another to augment the wealth of the nation; and those automatic toys which once amused the vulgar, are now employed in extending the power and promoting the civilization of our species. In whatever way, indeed, the power of genius may invent or combine, and to whatever low or even ludicrous purposes that invention or combination may be originally applied, society receives a gift which it can never lose; and though the value of the seed may not be at once recognized, and though it may lie long unproductive in the ungenial till of human knowledge, it will some time or other evolve its germ, and yield to mankind its natural and abundant harvest.[4]"

[1] Ibid.
[2] Rev. Richmond, Hogg's Weekly Instructor, Volume 6 1851
[3] At the Media Research Laboratory at NYU where I studied in 2004 and 2005, a form of kaleidoscope was actually used to study the way isotropic materials, like satin, appear and respond to light at various angles. It was a realization of Brewster’s hope that the kaleidoscope would find a scientific use.
[4] Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, 1868, p.336

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