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Pinholes and science


Pinholes and their projected images have been known to humans since the very dawn of recorded history. Four thousand years ago, a Chinese scholar poetically described the basic optical principles of the pinhole. There is also evidence that ancient cultures used the pinhole to study the sun, tell time and predict the passing of the seasons. Arabic cultures were also aware of the pinhole and used the pinhole obscura (walk-in camera) to create city maps. One ancient Arabian scholar, Abu Ali Hasen Ibn Al-Haitham (known in the West as Alhazen), 965 - 1040 A.D., used pinholes in his wide-ranging studies of optical principles.

Pinholes have fascinated scientists for thousands of years. Aristotle, around 330 A.D., studied them. He posed several questions about the nature of light as evidenced by its behavior while passing through a pinhole aperture. In 1582, Papal astronomers used a pinhole clock to prove that the Julian Calendar was ten days out of sync with the equinoxes - a milestone in the history of civilization. The clock was basically a pinhole aperture mounted in the high point of the dome of a basilica, projecting a small image of the sun onto the floor. A "meridian" line 30 meters in length was drawn on the floor to mark the sun's position at noon on any given day of the year. Each day the sun would cross the meridian line at a slightly different place. On the solstice, the direction of the sun's daily progress along the line would change. Daily observations of the sun's transit allowed astronomers to establish the exact date of the solstices. Pope Gregory XIII subsequently adopted a new calendar - the Gregorian Calendar we use today.

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, included the pinhole in his studies.
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, included the pinhole in his studies.

The list of scientists who studied pinholes and used them to make fundamental discoveries reads like a who's who in the history of science. Johaness Kepler, Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci are just a few.

Pinholes have been a device for the study of light from the beginning of recorded history to the present day. The wave theory of light and the nature of diffraction were both established through pinhole-based research. An important detail of this history is that knowledge of the projected image ignited the search for a means to produce "photography." The problem was how to take the image "out of the box" - a problem that was not solved until the light-sensitive qualities of silver (and other metals) were understood.

Click here to read an interesting eBook published in 1849 on the The History and Practice of the Art of Photography, available on-line from The Project Gutenberg.


Even today, pinholes are being used at the farthest reaches of scientific inquiry. Coded Aperture Imaging from spacecraft - basically multiple-pinhole cameras that project onto a digital back - is used to image radiation and various wavelengths that are far beyond the spectrum of visible light . A computer program is used to sort the information into a variety of perspectives - an example of a marriage between ancient and ultra-modern technologies.