Poly-o-rama Panoptique

Small version; see bottom for a medium-sized model

History | How it works | Lighting scenarios | What became of it
Sources | Another Model | Back to Optical Toys


The poly-o-rama panoptique came out in the 1850s, and was quite popular during that time.  It came only in three sizes--small, medium, and large.  The name "poly-o-rama panoptique" is of French origin; the English also produced these devices at the same time under a different name.

How it works:

Poly-o-rama panoptiques were hand-held, and used to view translucent paper pictures.  These pictures, properly called "paper views," were made of very thin paper with a different scene on each side.  They were designed so that a person could look through the back of the viewer, and depending on the type of lighting the paper view received, the person could see two different images of the same picture. 

First, paper views would be inserted into the viewer through the top.  Once the picture was in place, a lid was placed on top.  The viewer was rather light-tight; some poly-o-rama panoptiques had real gold foil on its edges and corners to reflect any light that might enter through these areas.  


Two types of lighting scenarios:

To allow people to see two different images when looking at a paper view, backlighting and frontlighting techniques were used.  In backlighting, a light was placed behind the paper view so that anything painted onto the side facing the eyes was lit.  In frontlighting, light was allowed to pass through the front end of the viewer and through the paper view, so that both sides of the paper view are lit together.

The scenes were often before/after pictures, such as a promenade during day and night, or a building before and after a door or window had been opened.  The two lighting scenarios made it possible for the two different images to be seen, depending on the type of lighting.  A person would cover the front end of the viewer to see the "before" image (with backlighting), and then uncover the front end to see the "after" image (with frontlighting).  Or, the process was reversed so that the "before" image was frontlit, and the "after" image was backlit.  


What became of it:

Because of the delicate nature of the poly-o-rama panoptique's paper views, this device never became a children's toy as several of the other optical toys have.  


Interview with Dr. Ralph Wileman, July 24, 2000

A medium-sized version: