Devices of Wonder
From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen
Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak
Getty Research Institute
Oftentimes, state-of-the-art is relative. Take the famous Vaucanson duck, a quacking automaton that captured the hearts of eighteenth-century audiences with its “ability” to swallow, digest (and defecate) food. Or eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “panoramas,” immense paintings that surrounded the viewer in three dimensions (so realistic as to have reportedly caused one viewer, the Queen of England, to become seasick, while visiting a naval panorama). If you have an interest in android automata, cameras obscura, perspective theaters, vues d’optique, microscopes, magic lanterns, not to mention boxes by Joseph Cornell and a pop-up book by Kara Walker, this compendium of devices and gadgets form a fascinating timeline of our attempts to use technology to see the world. Today’s devices, including the television and laptop computer, owe their existence to a rich heritage, inspired by centuries of lensed, boxed and projective apparatus.
Published by the Getty Research Institute, this work is the accompaniment to an exhibit at the Getty, which runs through mid-February. See for yourself at http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/devices/choice.html (the Flash version is highly recommended).
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Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.