Romantic Circles Gallery
A Compleat System of Opticks in Four Books, Plate 57
"Plate 57" features seven illustrations to accompany Book III of A Compleat System of Opticks, which describes the science behind a variety of optical and image-making machines, including a portable camera obscura, a binocular telescope, and various magic lanterns: a simple tin magic lantern, with a small flame to cast light and an adjustable tube to change the size of the projection, and a more complex wooden magic lantern with a larger, concave lens and reflective mirror to enhance the light.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
A Compleat System of Opticks in Four Books
RE26 O62 S65 C66 1738 v.2
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Marks DescriptionInscr. top left with “Pag. 385” and top right with “Plate 57.”
Printing Context“Plate 57” of the original 83 folded plates appears in the text A Compleat System of Opticks, a book by Robert Smith.
Associated EventsThe author of the text, Robert Smith (1689-1768), was the Plumian Professor of astronomy and experimental philosophy at Trinity College when the text was published in 1738 (G. Cantor, “Smith, Robert”).
Associated PlacesSmith was appointed Master of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, the United Kingdom, in 1742. He was also elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of London in 1718 (J. Barrow-Green, “A Corrective to the Spirit” 276).
Associated TextsThe original text was translated into Dutch, French, and German in the second half of the eighteenth century. An abridged version of A Compleat System of Opticks was published in 1778 as The Elementary Parts of Dr. Smith's Compleat System of Opticks, selected and arranged for the use of students at the universities: to which are added, in the form of notes, some explanatory propositions by other authors (J. Barrow-Green, “A Corrective to the Spirit” 275). The 1778 abridged version omitted the mechanical treatise and the mathematical theory elements of the original (M. Jackson, “Optics”). Only Figure 639 from “Plate 57” (an image of a magic lantern) appears in the abridged 1778 version on Plate 14.
Subject“Plate 57” features seven illustrations to accompany Chapters XV, XVI, and XVII of Book III in A Compleat System of Opticks; these chapters describe the science behind a variety of optical and image-making machines. Figure 635 is a type of portable camera obscura for drawing made by a Mr. Scarlet, who had a shop near St. Anne’s, London, in which he performed glass grinding, lens making, and the construction of some of the optical instruments (R. Smith, A Compleat System 384). Figures 636 and 637 illustrate a binocular telescope—made by fixing two identical tubes with concave lenses parallel to each other—and an experiment conducted by Smith with a drawing compass to adjust the visual disjunction caused by the parallel tubes (R. Smith, A Compleat System 387). Figure 638 illustrates the arrangement of “plano-convex eye-glasses for each telescope,” which were also made by Mr. Scarlet in his shop (R. Smith, A Compleat System 389). Figures 639 and 642 illustrate the magic lantern, or a “Lanterna Megalographica,” with which images can be projected using a lamp through clear panes of glass or with the use of convex lenses and mirrors. Figure 639 is a simple tin magic lantern with a small flame to cast light and an adjustable tube to change the size of the projection. Figure 640 is a more complex wooden magic lantern with a larger, concave lens and reflective mirror to enhance the light. Although referenced in the text, Figure 641 (which refers to the chimney of the magic lantern) does not appear on Plate 57, nor is it mentioned in the "Errata" of the text. Figure 642 illustrates the arrangement of separate parts of the magic lantern in Figure 640: the mirror, four flames, the image on painted glass, the two lenses, the wooden stop, and the aperture (R. Smith, A Compleat System 392).
ThemeOptics, vision, lenses, camera obscura, telescope, magic lantern
SignificanceAlthough it was published in the first half of the eighteenth century, Robert Smith’s A Compleat System of Opticks remained an important and highly regarded textbook on the subject well into the nineteenth century, thus influencing Romantic notions of optical science and the formation of vision (J. Barrow-Green, “A Corrective to the Spirit” 275). Unlike the rational recreations texts produced later in the century, Smith describes all the instruments on the illustrated plate with a full consideration of the complex optical physics and dense mathematical reasoning behind the creation of an image through an optical device. Considered the foremost book on optics of the eighteenth century, the text and illustrated plates navigate between the strictly scientific and the more fantastic uses of optical and image-making technologies. “Plate 57” in particular juxtaposes geometrical drawings of glass lens types with illustrations of magic lanterns, devices used for the creation of “some ludicrous or frightful representation, the more to divert the spectators” (Smith, A Compleat System 389). Here, Smith aligns the camera obscura (Figure 635), specifically noting its use in drawing, with two different versions of the magic lantern. Although the camera obscura was not usually used for the creation of “ludicrous or frightful” images, this arrangement highlights similar representational capabilities of the camera obscura, thus expanding the range of optical instruments that influenced Romantic vision to include the magic lantern.
Throughout the text, Smith repeatedly mentions Mr. Scarlett, an instrument maker who had a shop near St. Anne’s, London, where he performed glass grinding, lens making, and the construction of optical instruments (R. Smith, A Compleat System 384). Specifically, Smith reveals that Mr. Scarlett made the portable camera obscura for drawing featured in the illustration (Figure 635 on “Plate 57”). The emphasis on Mr. Scarlett and his shop suggests the reliance of natural philosophers and mathematicians of optics on contemporary lens-making technologies; all of the optical equipment illustrated on “Plate 57” utilized man-made glass lenses or reflective mirrors. Although “geometrical optics was relatively advanced,” as demonstrated by Smith’s mathematical explications, “the practice of making achromatic lenses was not [and] glassmakers who could manufacture optical disks larger than four inches in diameter were highly sought after” and relatively rare (M. Jackson, “Optics”). The commercial concentration of most instrument makers in the eighteenth century was surveying instruments, telescopes, and eyeglasses rather than the more specialized camera obscura, which, although often mentioned in advertisements for the instrument makers’ shops, were not as commonly produced (J. Hammond, The Camera Obscura 77-78). Thus, Smith’s early text theoretically and mathematically describes a range of optical instruments, some of which the general public would not have had easy access to until later in the eighteenth century, when the devices had a greater general impact on Romantic notions of vision and visuality.
FunctionA textbook on the subject of optics and optical instruments.
Bibliography“Article XII. A Compleat System of Opticks in four Books, viz. a Popular, a Mathematical, a Mechanical, and a Philosophical Treatise.” History of the Works of the Learned. (March 1739): 173-193. Access: British Periodicals. ProQuest, L.L.C., 2006-2009. 2 March 2009 http://britishperiodicals.chadwyck.com/.
Barrow-Green, June. “'A Corrective to the Spirit of too Exclusively Pure Mathematics': Robert Smith (1689-1768) and his Prizes at Cambridge University.” Annals of Science 56.3 (July 1999): 271-316.
Cantor, Geoffrey. Optics after Newton: Theories of Light in Britain and Ireland, 1704-1840. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1983.
---. “Smith, Robert (bap. 1689, d. 1768).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 2 Mar. 2009 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25891.
Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.
Hammond, John. H. The Camera Obscura: A Chronicle. Bristol, UK: Adam Hilger, Ltd., 1981.
Jackson, Myles W. "Optics." Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (e-reference edition). Ed. Alan Charles Kors. Oxford: OUP, 2002/2005. 2 March 2009 http://www.oxford-enlightenment.com/entry?entry=t173.e513.
Smith, Robert. A Compleat System of Opticks in Four Books, viz. a Popular, a Mathematical, a Mechanical, and a Philosophical Treatise, to which are added remarks upon the whole. Cambridge: Printed for the author, 1738.
Wade, Nicholas J. A Natural History of Vision. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.
Long TitleRobert Smith, A Compleat System of Opticks, plate 57: Optical and image making technologies. Engraving, 23.6 x 19.1 cm, inscr. top left with “Pag. 385” and top right with “Plate 57.” UW Department of Special Collections, Gift of Daniel and Eleanor Albert.