Edinburgh's Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

Edinburgh's Camera Obscura is in a very obscure corner, alright. Stashed away in a nondescript building, just outside the Edinburgh Castle, right at the end of the iconic Royal Mile, is a small entrance on the left. The entrance is easily missed, thanks to the Headless Man just outside and the Bagpiper who keeps shouting you out of the way. Once you get past these distractions, you enter Outlook Tower, a narrow long tower that houses six floors of the most interesting optical illusions and the Camera Obscura right at the top of the Tower.

The brainchild of a clever entrepreneur, Maria Theresa Short, Camera Obscura was actually put together by her father Thomas Short who was an instrument maker from Edinburgh. Thomas Short built a museum which housed a huge reflection telescope and the other quirky optical and optometric instruments. The museum quickly became popular with the locals. However, when he died, his wife and daughters could not run it because his lease stipulated that female members of his family cannot inherit the building and its contents. Maria Thomas came back in 1825 and reclaimed the Museum. Undeterred by the patriarchy, she added the Camera Obscura and a variety of mind-boggling devices to the existing collection and opened the Short's Popular Observatory. Today, the Camera Obscura houses over 100 interactive exhibits and mind bending illusions, puzzles and tunnels

The Camera Obscura  which is Latin for  ‘The Dark Chamber’, is widely regarded as the ancestor of the present day camera. The Chinese are said to have built one as early as 470 BC. Aristotle is said to have used it to study Solar Eclipses during his lifetime between (384 - 322 BC). The Camera Obscura is a darkened room with a small hole or lens, at one side or top through which an image is projected onto a table or wall, that is placed opposite to or under the hole. This branch of physics has always been beyond my comprehension. 

Edinburgh City from the Outlook Tower

So let me dwell on the magic that the Camera Obscura at Outlook Tower creates. At the end of a long climb on a narrow stairway, we come to the terrace that is defined by a circular white structure with a prominent dome. A very sprightly guide shepherds us into this white circular building and into a dark room with a huge circular table at the centre, right below the white dome. He tells us to focus on the table after requesting all mobiles to be switched off so the room is pitch dark. Suddenly, the table lights up and the entire vista of the pavement outside the Outlook Tower and the Edinburgh Castle is visible on it and in colour too. People walking about, tourists buying tickets and even the Headless Man and the Bagpiper. Those good at Physics will no doubt understand the science behind it, to the rest of us it is magical. The guide invites us to scoop up the lady in blue or swat the man loitering aimlessly and even poke our hand into the vacant space on the Headless man. Its great fun.

This strange show is not the only interesting thing at Camera Obscura on Castle Hill. There is the Magic Gallery, a floor full of magical illusions designed to flummox the brain.  Some of these are classic illusions, some are very unique and some are very naughty! Then there are Plasma Tubes and Globes that electrify your fingers at a touch and mind-bending mirrors confuse your brain. There are tricks where you can shake hands with yourself and swap noses and faces with your companion. And the Shadow Box that enables you to capture your own shadow - quite a clever piece of work. At the Ames Room, you can shrink in size and move across to gain height enough to touch the ceiling.


Some Naughty, Some Classic and Other Unique Illusions


For those who like the macabre there is Horror. Don't miss out on scary photos from the old family album found in the attic. Or you can have your head served for dinner at The Severed Head.  After all this you may want to run away, so you try to open the door to the Ladder to Australia which carries the No Entry sign. And when you find there is no door, you succumb to the sheer comic relief.


Finally, there is the Bewilderworld, where you will find the most maddening mirror maze. This one is really not for the faint-hearted or the claustrophobic. Made from just placing mirrors at various angles, this is one seamless sheet of glass, halfway through which, even the strongest will panic. You stumble out of the Mirror Maze only to enter the Vortex Tunnel. A riot of changing colours bursts intermittently in a tunnel that is moving and swaying all the while. Or are you losing a step? The Vortex Tunnel is not as scary as the Mirror Maze but it can be very disorienting. But is that not part of the fun! 

                                                    The Vortex Tunnel at Bewilderworld
  And as you move to the exit and you play Do Re Mi on the staircase with every step, there is a feeling that it is all over too soon.

I find many surprised visitors going back to each floor and doing it all again - a pleasure I had to forego for want of time. The reluctant publicity given to Camera Obscura and the obscurity of Outlook Tower causes most visitors to assign, not more than half an hour, many times as an after-thought to the Edinburgh Castle Tour.  But nothing could be more wrong.  In reality, a full exploration of the Camera Obscura takes anywhere between two and three most rewarding hours. 
So, let the Crown Jewels at the Castle and let the Whiskey Tour wait. 
Go and shake hands with yourself!


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