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Edinburgh: Camera Obscura

Just one of the views from the roof of the building
Just one of the views from the roof of the building

One of the best places that we visited on our Edinburgh adventure was the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions.

We began with the camera obscura itself. The show is a fascinating and amusing way to see the city and learn about its history. It is a ‘must’ on any visit to Edinburgh.

From inside the Victorian rooftop chamber, you see live moving images of Edinburgh projected onto a viewing table through a giant periscope. Card is provided so you can pick people up, shake them around and even make the traffic climb over paper bridges.

The guide was friendly and entertaining while telling stories of Edinburgh, past and present, in an engaging and informative way. It is great to see that, in this age of high technology, a simple array of mirror, lenses and daylight can produce this incredible panorama.

In the early 18th Century the Short family were scientific instrument makers in the south side of Edinburgh. In 1776 their son Thomas leased land on Calton Hill and built a ‘Gothic House’ to house his optical instruments and telescopes, charging admission to see them. He died in 1788.

In 1827, Maria Theresa Short returned to Edinburgh from the West Indies claiming to be Thomas’s daughter. She wished to claim his ‘Great Telescope’ for her inheritance. There was strong competition from other parties, but Maria received the telescope and set up a ‘Popular Observatory’ in 1835, housed in a wooden and stone building next to the National Monument on Calton Hill. She exhibited many scientific instruments and kept her Observatory open till 9pm each evening.

In a leaflet from this period, solar microscopes and achromatic telescopes were regularly included as part of optical exhibitions. One typical show at Short’s observatory in Edinburgh promised to show the eye of a fly ‘magnified into an expanse of 12 feet, each of its many hundred pupils assuming the size of a human eye’

In the early 1850’s, Maria bought a tenement which had once been the townhouse of the old Laird of Cockpen. She then installed a camera obscura on top of it and exhibitions calling it Short’s Observatory and Museum of Science and Art.

The mechanics of the Camera Obscura are a cross between a giant pinhole camera and a periscope.

At the top of the tower is a dark chamber with a mirror on top which reflects light downwards, passing through three lenses before projecting a stunning image of the city onto a large white table.

The guide turns and tilts the mirror to give a 360° tour of Edinburgh. Once the guided part of the building is over you are free to roam through the various floors playing with the illusions which are both fun and hilarious.

This is when your inner child kicks in and you can really enjoy yourself for as long as you like. A student ticket will set you back £9.95 and are valid for the whole day so you can come and go as you please.

If there is only place you go in Edinburgh make it the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions.

Spinning tunnel that totally messes with your balance!
Spinning tunnel that totally messes with your balance!
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