Also known as a pinhole camera, the camera obscura has been used for centuries to watch eclipses without damaging vision, as a drawing aid, and for scientific experiments. While the term photography wasn’t coined until the nineteenth century, humanity has had a long fascination with photographic effects. Historians suspect Neolithic peoples used the camera obscura effect in some of their monuments. The Ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi (470 to 390 BCE) made the earliest known written reference to the camera obscura, while Renaissance artists used the devices as drawing tools. The first clear description of a camera obscura device resides in a sketchbook of Leonardo da Vinci’s from 1502. Da Vinci went on to sketch approximately 270 diagrams of the devices over the years.
A camera obscura works similarly to the human eye. Latin for “dark chamber,” the earliest versions were darkened rooms with a small hole, like the pupil of an eye, admitting light. An inverted image of the outside scene was projected through the hole onto the whitened opposite wall. Over time, camera obscuras grew smaller and more portable, becoming the ancestors of the modern camera. Angled mirrors were added to many in order to orient the reflected image right side up.