The Darkened Room

Weird science fact of the evening: Arabic scientist Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039) may have discovered the camera obscura from his prison cell.

The above quote is a tweet from dr skyskull proprietor of that wonderful intertubes emporium for excellence in pulp fiction and all things optical “Skulls in the Stars”.

The camera obscura is one of the simplest of all scientific instruments, a darkened room with a hole in the wall. The name, coined by Johannes Kepler, is just the Latin for darkened room. Kepler used his own patent portable camera obscura to observe a solar eclipse in Graz in 1600, observations that inspired the questions in optics that led to his Pars optica. The camera obscura played an important role in the history of Renaissance astronomy and not only in Kepler’s work. Father and son, David and Johannes Fabricius used a camera obscura for their observation of sunspots in 1611, which Johannes published as the first work on the subject. Jeremiah Horrocks supplemented a camera obscura with a telescope to make the first ever observation of a transit of Venus.

One thing however is certain, dr skyskull’s weird science fact is false! It is false for the simple reason that al-Haytham did not invent discover the camera obscura.

The earliest mention of this type of device was by the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti (5th century BC).He formally recorded the creation of an inverted image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a darkened room. He called this darkened room a “collecting place” or the “locked treasure room.”

Aristotle (384-322 BC) understood the optical principle of the camera obscura. He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve, and the gaps between leaves of a plane tree.

Both of the above quotes are taken from the The Magic Mirror of Life website that has everything you ever wanted to know about the camera obscura.

Another widespread myth about the camera obscura is that Leonardo da Vinci was the first to insert a lens into the hole to focus the light rays entering the darkened room. Whether Leonardo did this or not is not know but the first to describe this improvement in the camera obscura was Giovanni Battista della Porta in the second edition of his Magica Naturalis from 1591.


Filed under History of Optics, History of science, Myths of Science

3 responses to “The Darkened Room

  1. Ah, but what do you think of the idea that Caravaggio used a Camera Obscura to achieve his revolutionary chiaroscuro style? True or false?

    • thonyc

      I’ve not come across this theory I only know that some art experts think that Vermeer used a camera obscura but I know too litle about the subject to make a personal judgement 😉

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