The first camera with a lens in history, created in the mid-sixteenth century, was called the camera obscura, which in Latin means dark room. And it was exactly that room into which no light was permitted except through a small hole drilled into the wall or roof. Rays of light would pass through the hole and fall on the opposite wall or floor, creating an image of the scene directly outside. This image would be in color. It would show motion, if there were motion directly outside. And it would be upside down and backwards.

The camera obscura was able to create an image because light rays naturally travel in straight lines. The light, which was reflected from the scene outside the camera, traveled toward the tiny hole. But only a speck (as large as the pinhole) of light information from each detail in the scene outside was allowed to pass to the wall inside the dark room. In effect, the tiny hole drew dots of light information on the opposite wall (as seen in the following illustration). And so the "light" picture was formed.

click on either the box or the eyeball for detail views

The first mention of the camera obscura principle was in the fifth century B.C. and concerned the observation of eclipses of the sun. Much later, smaller portable camera obscuras were created and lenses were added to sharpen and the image. A person could put his head into the box or could peep through an opening in the side of the instrument to see the image it created. Artists like Vermeer (1632-75) used the camera obscura to produce a two-dimensional model of a natural scene. Fortunetellers used the wondrous instrument to frighten or charm their audiences with images created by the amazing invention.

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