Dumfries Camera Obscura Ceberates 180th Birthday

Dumfries Camera Obscura, the oldest working example of its type in the world, is celebrating its 180th birthday

Moving images projected onto a white table in a dark room at the top of the iconic windmill tower were first enjoyed by audiences in 1836. Today this pre-Victorian invention still fascinates visitors of all ages from all over the world.

On Monday 1 August 2016, weather permitting, Dumfries Museum is celebrating the Camera Obscura’s 180th birthday by offering Camera Obscura showings at the original 1836 price of sixpence.

Councillor Tom McAughtrie, chairman of the Communities committee, said, “The camera obscura in the old windmill tower is a famous landmark and something that Dumfries can be proud of. Many local people and visitors have fond memories of visiting Dumfries Museum and climbing the spiral staircase to see the camera obscura in action. It offers a unique way to see our town and the beautiful landscapes surrounding it.”

The windmill tower was built in the late 18th century. The town already had water mills on the west bank of the River Nith, driven by water power from the caul. These mills were housed in the building which is now the Robert Burns Centre. The windmill was an additional method of grinding the town’s grain. It operated for several decades, but by the 1830s it had become redundant.

It was purchased by Dumfries and Maxwelltown Astronomical Society and converted into an astronomical observatory. Raising their funds from the subscriptions of members, the society arranged for adaptations to the building and purchased a telescope and a camera obscura from the Kilmarnock instrument maker, Thomas Morton. In 1836 the observatory was opened.

Lord Cockburn, a Scottish lawyer, judge and literary figure, visited Dumfries in 1939 and wrote in his journal:
21st September 1839
The old windmill has been converted into what they call an Observatory; which means a windmill- looking tower, with a bit of shrubbery round it, ginger-beer in the ground floor, a good telescope in the second storey, and a camera obscura in the third. So the astronomical dignity of the establishment is not great, but still it is an agreeable and civilised institution. The views of the neighbouring country are beautiful, and there are few better positions for a camera.

So, how does the Camera Obscura work? A wooden turret revolves on an iron ratchet wheel at the very top of the building. If you look carefully you can see this happening from the museum gardens. Within this turret is a mirror which can be tilted by a pulley rope to reflect its image downward through a lens, onto a white plaster topped table about 12 feet below in a totally darkened room. A real life, panoramic view of the town of Dumfries and its surrounding countryside can be seen. On a clear day you can see from Corsencon, near New Cumnock in Ayrshire, down to Coniston Old Man, amongst the Lakeland Fells – mountain peaks over 80miles apart. Even in the high tech days of the 21st Century, the effect is still magical.

When the Camera Obscura is in use its mirror and lens are exposed to the open air which is why it cannot be used when the weather is wet. Providing the weather is favourable on Monday 1 August, visitors will be able to view the Camera Obscura between 10am and 5pm (1000 and 1700). And, just as in Lord Cockburn’s day, traditional ginger beer and lemonade will be available for thirsty visitors who have climbed Observatory Hill to reach the museum.

During the summer Dumfries Museum and Camera Obscura is open Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm (1000 to 1700) and Sundays 2pm to 5pm (1400to 1700). Entry to the museum is free. Camera Obscura presentations normally cost £3 (concessions £1.50).

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