Sunday, 30 September 2012

Elephant No. 364: Kaleidoscope

I've loved kaleidoscopes ever since I was little, and have a small collection of at least three different types.

The word "kaleidoscope"—from the Greek kalos (beauty/beautiful), eidos (shape) and skopeo (to see/observe)—was coined in 1817 by Scottish inventor Sir David Brewster, who developed the device as an outgrowth of his experiments on the polarization of light.

His first design consisted of a tube with a pair of mirrors at one end, translucent disks at the other, and beads sandwiched in between. The kaleidscope was an instant success when it hit the market in 1817, with Brewster and his manufacturing partner Philip Carpenter selling 200,000 kaleidoscopes in London within the first three months. Realizing that they would never be able to keep up with the demand, the men licensed other companies to produce kaleidoscopes.

Toy kaleidoscope, ca. 1965.
Photo: Sheila Singhal

Kaleidoscopes were originally produced as a science tool, but were soon being made in cheaper toy versions. Most kaleidoscopes today consist of a tube, a trio of mirrors formed into a triangle, and a selection of beads, bits of coloured glass and shiny shapes, floating freely in a small receptacle at the opposite end from the eyepiece. As light enters the receptacle end of the kaleidoscope, and the user turns the receptacle, multifaceted and ever-changing patterns are created.

In addition to the typical mirrored tube, there are also liquid versions. Tiny coloured pieces suspended in a thick liquid drift past a mirrored tube, creating the pattern.

Inexpensive liquid kaleidoscope.
Photo: Sheila Singhal

And finally, there are teleidoscopes. These also employ mirrors; however, instead of having integral coloured pieces, they reflect objects outside the tube, producing a similar multifaceted effect.

Teleidoscope, ca. 1960.
Photo: Sheila Singhal

Although the vast majority of modern telescopes consist of inexpensive cardboard tubes, plastic mirrors and plastic beads, there is also a high-end market for kaleidoscopes produced by artists. Many craft galleries carry artisan kaleidoscopes and teleidoscopes, and they are a popular item at craft fairs.

For today's elephant, I bought this kaleidoscope kit, made for children.

And this is what it contained.

I didn't like the purple flowered paper provided for the outside of the tube, so I decided I would paint elephants on the outside, using a sheet of canvas from a canvas pad.

I cut the canvas into the appropriate sizes for the main part of the tube, the receptacle, and the little band dividing the two, and drew some elephants on all three pieces.

I painted everything next, bearing in mind that there would be a small overlap when everything was glued.

I glued all of the canvas pieces to the tube with a glue gun. I glued only the seams at the back, but made sure to smooth the canvas tightly around the tube before glueing the overlap.

Next, I assembled the mirrors. The kit included special tape to hold them in the requisite triangle formation. I then inserted the assemblage into the tube.

I planned to use many of the coloured bits that came with the kit, but I thought there should be at least one elephant shape in the mix. I didn't have any coloured plastic handy, so I bought this plastic food container for a dollar, then cut out three small elephant shapes. This was probably the hardest part of the whole activity, because the plastic was a bit thick, and wasn't very forgiving, splitting and cracking at will.

I put the elephants in the little plastic receptacle that goes in the bottom of the kaleidoscope tube, and added a bunch of other beads from the selection that came with the kit. When I was happy with the mix, I pushed the cup into the tube.

Now came the fun part. The three photos below show my best attempts at capturing my three pink elephants. You have to squint a bit, but at least I know they're there.

If I hadn't decided to redesign the decoration on the outside of the tube, and if I hadn't decided to cut out little elephants, this would probably have taken an hour or so. As it was, it took me most of the afternoon.

That being said, I really like the final result, and think it will make a nice little addition to my existing collection.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In 1887, Toby the elephant was added to Moore Park in Sydney, Australia. For many years, she was a great favourite with the public, performing a wide range of clever tricks. She could remove her keeper's hat when asked, take a handbell in her trunk and ring it, and ride an elephant-sized seesaw.

In those days, Australia's circuses and menageries often travelled by sea. And Toby, like all elephants, had a very good memory. On one voyage, a deckhand fed Toby an orange loaded with hot pepper—a rather cruel thing to do, considering the sensitivity of an elephant's trunk and mouth. On a much later voyage, the same deckhand happened to be passing by, when Toby grabbed him with her trunk. She tried to dump him overboard, but the man landed in the rigging and was saved.

Over time, as do many other performing elephants, Toby became more sour and less reliable. Sold to the Wirth Circus, she continued to perform, but was prone to tantrums. In July 1904, in a fit of pique, she broke free of her chains and rampaged through the grounds where the circus was encamped. She broke the pole holding up the main tent, the curtains and a stage, then dashed across the grounds, pulled down some fencing, and trampled a few trees. She only came to a stop when she happened upon an interesting snack consisting of a sack of wheat and a half-dozen loaves of bread. This restored her temper, and she was safely led back to her enclosure.

Toby continued to perform with the Wirth Circus until about 1914, when she collapsed on a bridge, holding up horse-drawn traffic for twelve hours. Although she recovered, she collapsed again about a year later, dying in April 1915 after an illness lasting about three days. It was suggested at the time that she was close to eighty years old—which would have been exceptionally old for an elephant. It is more likely, however, that she was born in 1877, making her only 37 or 38 at the time of her death.

A picture of Toby from a newspaper article.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary (Thailand)
Wildlife SOS (India) 
The Elephant Sanctuary (Tennessee


  1. Wow I love these customized elephant theme goodies. I never know people can be so much obsessed with elephants. I like those little pieces of pink elephant cut out of a plastic box. Great work.