Old tech, new twist: NeoLucida inventor to speak in Philly Thursday


At its most basic level, it’s a prism on a stick. Aim it at an object, put your eye just above the prism and on the paper below appears a ghost image beside a busy pencil.

Invented in 1807, it was known as the camera lucida. Now a Chicago art professor is reintroducing the old technology — with the help of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign.

“Within 72 hours, we had 11,000 backers and, like, $425,000,” said Pablo Garcia, an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It was an incredible outpouring of support and desire for this tool.”

Garcia will speak in Philadelphia Thursday evening, at the American Philosophical Society Museum. The museum’s current exhibit features the optical instruments of 19th-century inventor Cornelius Varley.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Garcia’s modern-day twist on the camera lucida, which he and a colleague have dubbed the NeoLucida, extends the long lineage of artists using performance-enhancing tools.

“The old masters weren’t cheating, because art is not a competition, but rather they were interested in technology,” Garcia said. “They were using the most advanced tools of the day.”

Garcia wondered what it would be like if his students had access to similar tools — while also hoping to stir up conversation around the relationship between art and imaging technologies.

“And so we started talking about, ‘Well, what would it take to make one?'” Garcia said.

Garcia and a fellow professor, Golan Levin, were expecting to make 500; now they’re in the process of filling some 8,000 orders. Garcia just returned from China, where 13,000 glass and metal instruments are being manufactured. The remaining NeoLucidas will retail for about $45.

But why did a long lost piece of analog technology strike a chord with so many?

“I think there’s just something about that little piece of magic, and especially since it’s a kind of vintage magic,” Garcia said. “It’s from another time and mostly forgotten. [But] it has a certain appeal.”

It’s also just useful, Garcia says. The online campaign drew the support of many first-time Kickstarter backers, many hobby artists and “a lot of people who really just want to draw,” he said.

“It doesn’t make you a better artist, it just kind of helps you with the hard part,” said Garcia, “which is translating the world around you into a 2-D image.”

Thursday’s talk at the American Philosophical Society Museum will feature ample opportunity to play with the NeoLucida. Just don’t expect to get your hands on the 19th-century devices that inspired it.

The event is free. It runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. More event information can be found at the American Philosophical Society website.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal