Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spectropia or Surprising Spectral Illusions Showing Ghosts Everywhere and of Any Colour

Spectropia (the full title is listed in the post title) was published in 1863. Written by J.H. Brown, the book using 19th century knowledge of optics to explain how people see ghosts. Brown's introduction to the fourth edition states: "The following Illusions are founded on two well-known facts; namely, the persistency of impressions, and the production of complementary colours, on the retina." The book is split into two parts. The first part gives "directions for seeing the spectres" and the second part is a "brief and popular, as well as a scientific, description of the manner in which the spectres are produced."

witch face

Here's how the book works in Brown's own words:

To see the spectres, it is only necessary to look steadily at the dot, or asterisk, which is to be found on each of the plates, for about a quarter of a minute, or while counting about twenty, the plate being well illuminated by either artificial or day light. Then turning the eyes to the ceiling, the wall, the sky, or better still to a white sheet hung on the wall of a darkened room (not totally dark), and looking rather steadily at any one point, the spectre will soon being to make its appearance, increasing in intensity, and then gradually vanishing, to reappear and vanish again; it will continue to do so several times in succession, each reappearance being fainter than the one preceding. Winking the eyes, or passing a finger rapidly to and fro before them, will frequently hasten the appearance of the spectre, especially is the plate has been strongly illuminated.

Brown goes on to describe various lighting circumstances and possible outcomes of attempting to see the ghostly images before moving onto the more scientific explanation.

white ghost

It really works! We've done it several times. The bottom of each plate tells how the spectre will appear. The bottom of the above plate states, "This will give a dark spectre."

black ghost

red ghost

I attempted to do some research on J.H.Brown and the book, but, to my surprise, I couldn't find anything written about it. As someone who conducts research of cultural artifacts such as this, I can't believe I couldn't find anything! If someone could direct me toward some illuminating research I 'd appreciate it.

It should also be mentioned that the edition I own and reference in this post is a reissue of the 4th edition done by Pryor Publications in 1993. I checked out their website and found that they're out of the U.K. (so all prices are in pounds) and they have all sorts of really interesting reissued publications. Check out Pryor Publications here.

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