Evolution of Camera: Eastern Development

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The invention of camera had changed the world entirely: creating image to spread across and later, the mass media. What is not a widely known fact is that Ibn al-Haitham (also known as Al Hazen) had made observation of the nature leading to the formation of theory that light reflects off an object and enters the eye, creating what we know today as sight. To prove his theory, he built the first camera obscura model ever called ‘qamara’. This became widely known in the East; Shen Kuo from China had heard of this theory and experimented it himself.

Al Hazen should be credited alongside other Western scientists for his studies of optics. His qamara had been a revolutionary model as it has formed the basis of photography even to this day. However, the concept of Western science, whereby we perceive that science is Western and making our perspectives entirely Eurocentric, is largely evident. The claim that all credit is due to the West would be wrong for this matter. There is lack of credit that given to the East for their ideas and inventions. It is important to gain other perspectives as it gives us a better understanding of the principle behind the invention. For this case, the invention of the qamara had shown the reconciliation of science and nature; that inventions in the East had existed so that they could understand nature better.

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In this essay, I intend to argue that the invention of camera obscura should be credited to Al Hazen and that he should not have been omitted from the history of camera, especially when his invention had been such a vital organ to the evolution of camera to this day.

The camera obscura (qamara) had been a revolutionary model that became the vital organ of a modern camera. The camera obscura can be found in cameras and projectors. It is how photographs can be captured. Al Hazen’s creation of the camera obscura in the ca. 956 CE had been to reject the Greek philosophical idea that sight is caused by an invisible light emitting from the eye. Al Hazen was able to debunk European’s idea of light and sight; in the early modern period the camera obscura was used as a model of the structure and function of the eye and as a demonstration of theories of vision. His explanation for the nature of light and our sight became the foundation for photography. His qamara was used to spread knowledge to the public; people were able to learn without the need of books as it was able to be projected to public. The rich and the poor were able to learn about religion (during this era, it was primarily used to spread Islam teachings) easily.

Al Hazen’s qamara also known today as the ‘dark chamber’ had consisted of enclosed rooms that were darkened with a tiny opening on one side. A foggy image would be projected, showing what was outside the room onto the wall or the hanging cloth. This is possible only when the sunlight passes through the tiny opening (a pinhole). What is projected would be an inverted image. This was how he showed to people how optics and light reflection worked, forming image to our eyes and how we were able to see. For hundreds of years, this was how people of this era projected image of eclipses onto the wall in darkened room. People were able to witness nature without hurting their eyes. Al Hazen’s qamara became so popular that his model was improved from then on. In fact, people started using the camera obscura for different reasons other than education purposes or to observe nature. For instance, artists began using the camera obscura to create portraits. Subject would be placed outside of the room and when the light reflects into the pinhole, an image is created – allowing the artists to trace the outline perfectly.

French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce had used Al Hazen’s camera obscura model and a pewter plate that was coated with light-sensitive material (Bitumen of Judea) to capture image – which was not inverted like Al Hazen’s model had projected. The first photograph captured in the entire world had been an image of the courtyard of his home, which had taken eight hours of exposure to be processed. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that this was possible with the aid of Al Hazen’s optics theories that Niepce had followed. This paved ways for inventions of portable camera obscura. As the technology amateur artists were able to utilize the pinhole cameras as they travel to capture stills of the world. Most of these portable ones were smaller and some were even pocket sizes. The camera obscura (portable ones were largely called pinhole cameras) were further developed into cameras. This is famously known as the ‘daguerreotype’ by Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot, both of which have credited the camera obscura largely for their camera inventions. Though as such, pinhole cameras were still used widely for education, art and amusement alike, even to this day.

Eurocentrism bias of science scholarship had omitted the contributions of Eastern scientists. In the A.D 1290, Al Hazen’s theory and model was reiterated by a French named Vitellio, whom had been claimed to have been much concise in explanation as compared to Al Hazen. The theory became popular after this. There were many other Europeans studies and inventions after this. An English scientist John Peckham had been inspired by Vitellio’s reiterations. He had initially faced problems trying to showcase images prior to this. Later on, many other European scientists Roger Bacon, Cardan and Porta had studied the model too. In fact, Porta had used this theory and tried to improve the camera obscura, later claiming that the camera obscura had been his own revelation. As we recall: eurocentrism places Europe’s significance in historical achievements, giving priority to their own meanings. This then places contributions from others (locals or the indigenous) at a much lower value than the Europeans’. The implication would be that non-Europeans revelations and inventions can be omitted from history, undermined and not given the spotlight they deserve. As evident for Al Hazen’s case, his contributions were not mentioned to most literatures from the 1800s which had apparently praised the invention of the camera obscura. What was often discussed by these literatures were similar – that this invention had been revolutionary, and the Europeans had been the one to step up and revolutionized optics. Amidst all that practices, what seem to be odd was that, these literatures had specified that the French, the English and the Germans had all theorized and came together to realize the theory of cameras. This tells us that they have fully credited the invention to the West. Marwa Elshakry had written an effective historiography about Eurocentrism, arguing that the irony of Western science was that science itself was adopted from people outside of the west – such as Egypt and China and that we should step out of the Eurocentric perspective to understand the contributions of the East that had been great and vital to this day. This supports my view that Al Hazen’s legacy had been greatly overshadowed due to Eurocentrism and Western ideas. In the 1800s literatures, there was no mentions of Al Hazen debunking the Greeks, there was no mentions of how Al Hazen had thought of the theory, and there were certainly no mentions of how his theory had travelled all over the East and arguably to the West, which had inspired scholars like Vitellio.

Crediting the East for their contributions will showcase their reconciliation of science and nature during the era, debunking the theory that science and religion could not co-exist during the 10th century. In attempt to understand nature – in this case optics and light – Al Hazen could not simply use words to explain the laws and his theories on reflection of lights to create image. For people (whether other scholars or general masses) to understand and believe his findings, he had to show them in the most practical way. I strongly believe that his invention of the qamara showed display his consent for technoscience, which is the orthodox view that science gave rise to opportunities in learning from nature and new inventions are possible with this attained knowledge. In lament terms: Al Hazen created a technology for people to learn about God’s existence and his creations, which is the nature. We have heard of scientists such as Newton and Galileo being shunned by the religious masses due to their scientific observations that had apparently went against their religious scripts. This had created division between science and religion – that they could no co-exist as they were either overlaps or disagreement in theories. Nonetheless in Al Hazen’s case, we can learn that he was able to reconcile the two. Perhaps it could be due to his model – in which Newton and Galileo had lacked – which served as evidence that occurrences of nature that could not be understood by simply studying the laws, could be effectively presented through inventions.

This is important because his invention can be fully attributed to the invention what we know today as projectors, filmography and cameras. These inventions were able to communicate to the masses of religious teachings. They had embraced technology as it helped them better understand how the universe worked and this was seen as a benefit rather than negative consequences. People in the 10th century were able to learn due to the qamara¸ hence was not perceived as a threat to the masses at all. Perhaps it could be the differences in the scriptures of the different religions: Newton and Galileo had debunked while Al Hazen had enhanced. Nonetheless, this showed the ability for science to exist alongside religion during this era, although the Muslim community had held strong attachment to the Qur’an and Islam. Another short example would be Shen Kuo who had learnt of Al Hazen’s theories and decided to experiment it, showing their support for technology and science despite religious nature. As such, the East should be credited and not omitted from book of histories, especially when their knowledge and contributions had been largely significant.

In conclusion, it is true that we cannot fully credit to Al Hazen alone for the invention of camera however to simply omit him from the history of cameras would be discrediting his contributions. As argued, many scholars have found that the camera obscura had been the vital organ of the invention of camera as it laid the foundation for the laws of optics and how the image is formed. As such, his contribution to the history of camera is significant, if not, the most vital for progressions in the evolution of camera. There were many European scientists mentioned that had problems proving the laws of optics and designing an effective model of an obscura. They had been aided by Al Hazen’s theory. Vitellio’s clarity would not have occurred without his theory and model. To simply praise the West of this invention would be reckless, and although the literatures in 1800s had only praised them due to Eurocentrism bias, we should widen our perspectives that East had great contributions too and they should be credited where necessary.


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Evolution of Camera: Eastern Development. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/evolution-of-camera-eastern-development/
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