Kaleidoscopic Birmingham!

An image of a section of the letter naming the kaleidoscope

(Ref: MS 3219/4/53/18 )

The sparkle of Christmas lights reminded me of my astonishment, during the cataloguing of the James Watt and Family Papers, at finding a letter dated 22 March 1817 to James Watt, from his friend David Brewster in Edinburgh, saying:

‘The instrument which I have invented is called a Kaleidoscope  ….’

Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), was Professor of Physics at the University of St. Andrews, with a particular interest in optics. Brewster continued:

The instrument which I have invented is called a Kaleidoscope from the property which it possesses of exhibiting in succession the most beautiful forms. It is to the eye what a Musical Instrument is to the ear, & seems to do more even than realise the apparently chimerical project of an ocular Harpsichord. The forms created by the instrument out of abstract disorder succeed each other in varieties which are literally infinite, and any form can be fixed & transferred to paper by the use of the camera lucida, or merely by the Eye of the Painter. The instrument has excited the most universal admiration among all classes in Edinburgh, & is as much admired by Philosophers as it is by the Mob.

I speak thus strongly of the effect of the Invention because it is so excessively simple that I can scarcely expect any credit for the contrivance.

The Instrument will be of great use to Carpet Manufacturers, Calico Printers, Ornamental Painters, Architects, Jewellers, Manufacturers of China, & in short all Professions where fine patterns are required; but it will probably have the greatest sale as a Toy for all ages & degrees of intelligence.

My object in troubling you with these particulars is to beg that you would have the goodness to mention to me the names of any houses in Birmingham that you think might enter into such an arrangement, that I may lose no time in having it completed. I am decidedly against having anything to do with the London opticians who have neither activity nor enterprise and the more so as no skill whatever is necessary in manufacturing the Instruments. You would oblige me also very much by your advice with respect to the proper method of proceding in this business.

The original letter is available here and here.

Watt recommended ‘Bingley’ (probably William Bingley & Son, plated wire drawers, and tube manufacturers) of Patent Forge, Bishopsgate Street, Birmingham to assist with manufacturing and by September 1817, Brewster wrote that: ‘Mr Bingley is at present engaged in manufacturing the Kaleidoscope; which I hope will soon be ready for sale’.

Images: Copyright Birmingham City Council

Fiona Tait
Archivist (Collections Development)

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