What is Camera Obscura?
Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is Scotland’s oldest purpose-built attraction, wowing visitors since 1853. Located on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile the incredibly unique attraction is spread over five floors in Outlook Tower, a historic 17th century building. It is a place filled with over 100 interactive displays showcasing trippy holograms, a mirror maze, and a spinning vortex tunnel. But there is also a rooftop terrace with unmatched views over the Old Town and beyond.
What makes the popular Scottish experience so unique is its appearance. Whilst the conglomeration of mirrors attached to the outside of the building may look silly, they actually work by projecting a live image of the surrounding city onto a large, concave dish located at the top of the building. The image is created by a small hole in the roof that allows light to pass through and project an inverted image onto the dish. Visitors can then view the image through a series of lenses that magnify the view and allow them to see the city in incredible detail.
The History of Camera Obscura
Thomas Short and The Great Telescope
In 1827, Maria Short arrived from the West Indies claiming to be the daughter of the Edinburgh telescope maker, Thomas Short. Since Thomas had died 40 years previously this could not be proven. But after much controversy Maria's claim earned her her inheritance, and Thomas' legacy: The Great Telescope.
The telescope and other items had been displayed on Calton Hill by Thomas, until his death. In an effort to continue his work Maria relocated the telescope to a new area on Calton Hill and opened ‘Short’s Popular Observatory’ there in 1835. Shortly afterwards she created the Camera Obscura, a mind-bending attraction that would thrill its visitors for years to come.
Closure of the Camera Obscura
By 1851 Maria was forced to close the attraction due to pressure from the council, who actually arranged for the building’s demolition. Undeterred however, she relocated to the Royal Mile, and after adding two floors to the 17th century tenement building, reopened the attraction as ‘Short’s Observatory’. The attraction continued to wow the public until Maria’s death in 1869.
A New Beginning as The Outlook Tower
After Maria’s death her husband, Robert Henderson, ran the observatory until the place was purchased by Patrick Geddes in 1892. Geddes was a famous polymath and entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to transform the attraction into a place of education. As an avid town planner he sought to provide residents with more information on the practice, on both a local and global scale.
Under his guidance the observatory was renamed ‘The Outlook Tower’ and carefully re-established as a learning centre. Each floor now expressed different themes related to town planning – from the world as a whole on the ground floor, narrowing down to Edinburgh, as visitors ascended. At the very top the Camera Obscura remained, in all its glory.
Camera Obscura as we know it Today
In 1932 when Geddes died, ‘The Outlook Tower’ faced an uncertain future. It wasn’t until 1977 when David Hayes and his company, Visitor Centres Ltd. took over management that the attraction’s future was secure. Since then the company has endeavoured to continue the work that Short and Geddes began, collaborating with different artists and inventors to provide the wow factor that Maria sparked all those years prior.
What is there to see at Camera Obscura?
Boasting five floors with over 100 mind-bending exhibits, Camera Obscura has something to entertain all ages. The highlights include a series of mind-bending optical illusions that challenge visitors to rethink their perception of the world around them. There are also exhibits on light and colour, which explore the science behind how we see and interpret the world. Other highlights include:
Featured in the unique rooftop chamber, the Camera Obscura Show is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. By projecting a live image internally onto a table in the dark chamber, an image of Edinburgh appears. During the daytime guides are on hand to provide tours of the city’s best landmarks reflected in the image. At nighttime, or in poor weather, a projection show is held, using images gathered during daylight/good weather hours.
Allow Light Fantastic, the biggest gallery at Camera Obscura, to mess with your mind as your eyes are tricked by its brilliant visual effects. From counting how many versions of yourself you can see at the Kaleido Tunnel, or tapping out a tune on the Light Harp, to transforming into multi colours in the Colour Shadow Wall, you are sure to be swept away by the optical illusions and trickery.
Looking for unique photo opportunities to spice up your social media? Or this year’s family photo? Light Fantastic will provide just that! Take a snap next to your twin at the Meet Your Twin exhibit, step into the Ames Room with your family, which can shrink or grow its victims instantly, or watch your severed head get served up for dinner at the Severed Head exhibit.
A visit to the Magic Gallery is an electrifying experience – literally! The Magic Gallery Plasma Tubes and Globes puts the power in the fingertips of the beholder, and you can fill the room with light by connecting the giant Plasma Ball to a light tube on the wall. You may even feel the spark! Walking on water, catching your shadow, swapping noses with your friends, and shaking hands with your ghost are all perfectly normal opportunities in the wonderful Magic Gallery.
Stepping into Bewilderworld will leave you none other than BEWILDERED, by the most popular and fun illusions Camera Obscura has to offer. Get ready to cling to the sides in its highlight exhibit: the spinning, turning, twisting Vortex Tunnel and lose yourself in the seemingly endless jumble of hallways that comprise the magical Mirror Maze. Visitors can also experience the world’s first fluorescent Chaotic Pendulum. A trip to this exhibit will really leave you scrambling for your senses as you move onto the next floor!
Eye Spy Edinburgh
Here is a chance to experience Edinburgh in all its 3D glory, from the 1850s to the present day. There are also old photos depicting what Edinburgh looked like when Camera Obscura first opened. Interactive cameras can be used to zoom in on different areas of the city, Thermal Cameras can detect how hot-headed you are, and the Victorian bendy mirrors will leave you struggling to keep a straight face. Although Eye Spy Edinburgh is not as trippy as the other floors, it certainly has a lot to hold your focus.
Maria Short added two new floors to the historical building when she relocated her father’s telescope in 1952. This motion guaranteed visitors access to incredible views out over the city. Views that are just as impressive today, if not more so, than they were all those years before.
The unbeatable vantage point offers a 360° panorama of Edinburgh’s most famous attractions from Edinburgh Castle to the Firth of Forth. Using the free telescopes dotted along the rooftop terrace, you can zoom in even closer, to other hotspots like the Kingdom of Fife or Arthur’s Seat.
Due to its prime location on the Royal Mile, Camera Obscura is one of the most recognisable attractions in Edinburgh. Its white washed tower proudly adorns postcards in gift shops across the city and a trip to the Scottish capital would be incomplete without stepping through its doors. Whether you are interested in science, history, or just looking for a fun and interactive experience, the Camera Obscura in Edinburgh is well worth a visit! But don't take our word for it, why not go and see it for yourself?
Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Scavenger Hunts in Edinburgh - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of Edinburgh.
Or check out our blog to discover other famous monuments across Edinburgh.