David Brewster’s Kaleidoscope

By Gloria Tietgens Sladek

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    Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge (2 Pet. 1:5).

    David Brewster was born in Jedburgh, Scotland, on a cold winter dayDecember 11, 1781. His father was a strict disciplinarian, and he taught in the village grade school. His mother was very fond of David and his brothers and sister, and she gave them much love and affection. The children were all good students, and because their father was a teacher, they became acquainted with many scientists and writers. One of the scientists, James Veitch, gave David his first lessons in science when he was twelve years old.

    David was as good at writing as he was at science, and he often helped his school friends with their lessons. When he was eighteen years old, he became a tutor for the family of Captain Horsbrugh.

    David built sundials, telescopes, and microscopes. In a letter to a friend, he described a telescope that he had built: “It looks more like a coffin or a waterspout than anything else!” He also invented things, the most popular being the educational and entertaining kaleidoscope.

    The scientific principle behind a kaleidoscope is reflections. At the University of Edinburgh, David had started to experiment with light, bouncing it between mirrors. A kaleidoscope is a tube through which you can see exciting colors and designs that change with its every movement. It is sometimes made with a cardboard tube, loose pieces of colored glass or clear-colored beads, and two or three long, narrow mirrors. If you rotate it as you look through its peep-hole, you can watch the colorful, ever-changing patterns tumbling over one another.

    David’s invention was very popular with adults as well as children. In three months in Paris and London, two hundred thousand kaleidoscopes were sold. Sometimes bits of feathers, shells, and lace were added to the glass for more elaborate designs.

    People shared their kaleidoscopes at parties, and in 1919, artists started using them to design patterns for wallpaper, fabrics, and carpets. If an artist saw a design that he liked, he would paint the design on a pad of watercolor paper.

    David kept busy with his writing and science. And his writings about his work were published many times. In 1831 King William IV of England knighted David for all his achievements in the scientific world, including his wonderful kaleidoscope.

    Illustrated by Jerry Harston