Christmas In England: Christmas Art And Science (1879) Pt 1: Kaleidoscopes, puzzles, stereoscopes & occult novelties


Literature is not, as it once was, the only superior minister of the court of King Christmas. Science and art have now each their portfolio, and very zealously, it must be owned, are their respective departments administered.

Surely the most delightful offering ever laid by science at the feet of youth is the beautiful Cellini kaleidoscope of the London Stereoscopic Company. Nothing very new about a kaleidoscope, you say? Ah, but there you are wrong. There are kaleidoscopes and kaleidoscopes, just as there are faggots and faggots. And the Cellini is of “the other sort” altogether.

Not that I mean anything at all disrespectful towards the good old tin tnbe with its little shifting mosaic of blue and green and red and yellow bits of glass, through which I used to peer with such delight in the days when life had still something to offer, if only at Christmas-time. There were some exceedingly pretty combinations to be got out of that, and if there were on the whole perhaps a certain sameness—a general suggestion as of a glorified floorcloth, or a church window from which all sorts of “denominational” subjects had been jealously excluded—that was the fault of circumstances, not of the instrument; and we were not hypercritical in those days, thank goodness. Still, even in the unsophisticated youthful mind of that Plancian consulate, there was always a certain sense of unrealised potentialities in that pleasant little waif of science. And now the latent faculties of the instrument have been developed, and the new Cellini kaleidoscope is the result.

In mere personal appearance, indeed, the new instrument has made a marvellous advance upon its predecessor; looking much more like a microscope or some other scientific weapon of the kind than a mere plaything for the amusement of a winter’s evening. But the great alteration is to be found in the objects themselves. Formerly you had to look through them at the light, so that littlo bits of glass were the only things possible. Now, the altered position of the little glass case, in which they aro confined, enables the light to fall directly upon them, and so does away with all necessity for their being in any way transparent.

And accordingly, in the smart little brass object-box of the Cellini instrument now before me, I find all sorts of droll little odds and ends. Here is a small red rose with two tiny green leaves growing upon a golden stalk, apparently a fragment from some discarded article of Palais Royal jewellery. Here a Lilliputian onyx cross that has, no doubt, come from the too well f urnished chatelaine of some careless doll. Here is a bright blue bead from some little girl’s necklace; here a red bead, equally bright, but smaller; and two black pearls, and a golden star, and a tiny morsel of chain, and half-a-dozen twisted spike a of tinsel, and a bit of gilt-beading from a picture frame, and an onyx waistcoat-button, and a mother-of-pearl shirt-button, and half -a-dozen similar and dissimilar waifs and strays beside.

And the effects obtained out of these heterogeneous and not intrinsically very valuable elements is something really startling. I used to think that nest to the quite unequalled collection at the old Rosenberg Palace, at Copenhagen, the most wonderful sight in the way of jewellery in the world was to be found in the shop-windows of the Palais Royal and Rue de la Paix. Indeed, as a mere question of glitter, and without reference to any comparative merit in respect of taste or design, I should say the Parisian exhibition had it pretty much its own way.

But with this wonderful little instrument yon may go on twisting out fresh combinations two or three hundred to the minute, for just as long as yon like to keep your eye to the glass and your fingers on the screw. And you may turn for an hour, and not find half-a-dozen combinations either vulgar or commonplace, whilst many of them will be unsurpassed in their way even by the gems of the Rosenberg itself.

And then—whisper now !—if you want to see what the Cellini can really do, get mamma to empty out the indigenous odds and ends for awhile, and supply their place with a little handful of the smaller articles in her jewel-box. If she has any unset stones, so much the better. But anything will do—rings, small brooches, bits of chain, studs, buttons, earrings, and so forth. Then take it to the candle and turn it slowly round, and you need not envy Aladdin any more.

Two suggestions, however, I would even yet venture to make to the inventors of this delightful  toy. The first, which is the provision of some sort of screen round the eye-piece, may, indeed, be carried out by the observer himself, by grace of a small slice of brown paper. But the other is not so easily managed, and is, in fact, the more important of the two. It is the introduction of some appliance by which to enable the observer, when he has hit off some more than usually happy combination, to fix the object-box in that position until it is done with.

If the Cellini is to be used, as it certainly ought to be used, by jewellers in designing brooches, stars, and such like ornaments, this is a very essential feature; and even for domestic use it is aggravating, when. you have brought someone from one end of the drawing-room to another on purpose to look at some exquisite ” arrangement in sapphire and pearl,” to be greeted with the plaintive remonstrance: “Why, it’s nothing but a great carbuncle sot with emeralds, and I don’t like it one bit.”

Then, if you are tired of looking through one eye and want to vary the entertainment by operating with both at once, you may turn from optical to chemical science and revel in the feast of Living Colours provided by the same ingenious caterers. You will have to be a little more careful in your manipulation of this clever toy, and must not be disappointed if the first attempt or two prove comparative failures. But a little of the ” three p’s “—practice, patience, and perseverance—will bring you through triumphantly, and you will have the satisfaction of finding that in this case, at all events, virtue has not to be its own reward.

Next comes a very quaint little bit of science in the shape of a small circular slab of highly-polished walnut-wood, with a diminutive wooden beaver-hutch standing’ on one side, and projecting from the other a little brass handle. When yon turn this handle out come a couple of tiny mice, and the two chase one another round the little table till they disappear again into their house, staying there quietly if yon let them alone, but popping out again the instant yon move the handle, and scuttling backwards or forwards, just as you happen to turn it one way or the other.

There are no strings or wires, be it understood. You may take the little fellows up if you like, and make sure of that. But, so long as you turn, they will run, and why they do it will be— if you are a little boy disposed that way— a very nice little puzzle for you to find out. So, too, will be the neat little boxwood paradox, whose head fits so loosely that yon can’t get it off. It evidently does come off somehow, for there is a coin of some sort inside, and you can hear it rattle. So there is something to look for besides the mere mot de l’enigme.

There is no such reward in the case of the more elegant and elaborate Bismarck Puzzle, unless, indeed, you find one in the fact, that when the pretty little box shall have been taken to pieces, you will find it just as great a puzzle to put it together again. Still, it will be something to have “found out Bismarck;” and you can pass the rest of the evening — if you have nothing better to do—in applying the same principle to any other diplomatic mysteries that may occur to you.

After Bismarck yon will be no doubt in a fitting frame of mind to attack Tho Puzzle of the Day, or Who can Raise the Obelisk? Cleopatra’s needle is not in this case quite so large as that with which Mr. Dixon had to deal, nor will you find tho needful operations quite so elaborate as those carried out on the Thames Embankment. But if you think I am going to tell you what they are you are egregiously mistaken.

Neither am I going to explain the mystery of Lucas’s Paradox. That is, however, for a different reason. Why the four little bite of pink card ruled off with gilt lines into squares of about half an inch should, when placed side by sido in one particular way, present an aggregate of sixty-five squares, when in another position they only make up sixty-four of, so far, at all events, as I can see, precisely the same size, is, I confess,. as profound a mystery to me as it can fairly be to you. Eight times eight are certainly sixty-four, and though I don’t feel quite so sure when I get beyond the magic boundary of the duodecimal, I am by no means prepared to deny off-hand that five times thirteen may possibly be sixty-five. But it is easier to admit a point than to account for it. I wonder whether it has anything to do with squaring the circle.

And so having fairly puzzled not only you but myself, I think it about time to turn to the means of puzzling other people, with which the Stereoscopic Company provides us plentifully. Here is the Enchanted Coffer, whose body and lid you may see for yourself are both perfectly impervious, yet into which I will, without opening it, pass any number of coins it can hold. Here, again, is the Name Mystery, by the aid of which I will read your very inmost thoughts, dragging forth from them by briefest consultation of the magic cards the “Namo” you would fain conceal in their profoundest depths. And here again is the Portfolio Bewitched, into the green envelope pasted on the cover of which I will place two photographs, say of Clown and Pantaloon, or Garibaldi and the Pope, or Mr. Gladstone and Lord Beaconsfield. Then I close the portfolio. Hey! presto! pass! The envelope is empty, and the photographs framed lovingly side by side.

About the next mystery there is, I am afraid, something not quite canny. I am not at all sure how far I may be justified in even speaking of such a thing in connection with the innocent recreations of Christmas. Yet here before me, an incontestable “scientific” fact, is that terrible machine, The Spirit Slate; and I am bound to admit, from personal investigation, that —with proper manipulation, of course— you have but to hold that simple-looking article under the table for half a minute to obtain from it a written reply to any questions you may please to ask. If you don’t manipulate it properly the spirits of course will not answer. But what of that? Does anything ever answer that is not properly worked?

And so, with a new version of the famous confidence-trick, our list of scientific toys comes to an end. You would not take this little Prize Marksman, in his dapper little French uniform, who is taking most careful aim at a venerable forest tree full three inches off, to be a dishonest character, or one given to unprincipled jests of a practical description. But just test him by placing some coin of the realm—let us say, for economy’s sake, a farthing—upon the breech-piece of his rifle, and see what will become of it. If that ingenious but untrustworthy marksman does not forthwith fire it straight into the very heart of the tree, it will be—well, probably because his mechanism has got out of order.

Source: All the year round, 1879


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