Long before digital cameras, smart phones and our passion for photographing everything, Aristotle and indeed the cavemen long before him, used camera obscuras to create images. Using light and mirrors, pictures were projected onto walls – it’s how 13th-century astronomers managed to view eclipses without blinding themselves, perhaps even how Stone Age man made such accurate wall paintings of animals.
In Edinburgh, the Camera Obscura is one of the most popular visitor attractions and offers a unique way of seeing this historic city.
Located in a Victorian tower close to Edinburgh Castle, the Camera Obscura has a long history in the city. It originally opened in the 1850s in this very tower which was a tenement building in this once poor working class part of town. Now of course the area, the Royal Mile and the Old Town surrounding it are a lively tourist zone of shops and restaurants.
Maria Short, daughter to a well-know Edinburgh family of scientific instrument makers, installed the Camera Obscura and opened Short’s Observatory and Museum of Science and Art. Immediately it became a popular attraction.
In 1892, a man named Patrick Geddes bought the tower and renamed it Outlook Tower because he was keen to change the way people saw the city and the countryside. He believed he could use the camera obscura to bring about social change and held exhibitions and lively intellectual debates in the tower building.
Later, Edinburgh University owned the tower and the camera obscura and these days it is privately owned and runs as a visitor attraction – you won’t be given a lecture on social change when you visit! In fact, you’ll be encouraged to have fun and hold passersby in your hand or make the traffic run across bridges you’ve made out of paper. The guide will give you some history of Edinburgh too.
Camera obscura’s are all about light coming through a small hole into a darkened room. In the case of Edinburgh, the light comes in via a small periscope on the roof of the tower and reflects down through three lens and mirrors onto a concave table in the tower room. The table is shaped like that to help flatten out the image which can get distorted on its way. So although you’re in a completely enclosed room, you’re watching the world go by outside – it’s a bit like being a spy on the city.
Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura is a great way to see this grand city in a different way and get to live a bit of history as you do – this is how people have been looking at Edinburgh for over 150 years; it makes a nice contrast to our digital age.