The NFSA has recently acquired a Polyorama Panoptique from Paris (pictured at left). It’s one of a series of ‘optical toys’, developed between 1820 and 1850, that played with light, shadows and colour to display cityscapes and landscapes in new ways.
Optical toys like the Polyorama Panoptique were often seen as precursors to film. They were sold as souvenirs to visitors flocking to auditoriums to see life-sized dioramas on display.
These devices were a source of education and entertainment for families and are one example of the optical gadgets and curiosities that graced parlours during the Victorian era. Others included zoetropes, praxinoscopes, flipbooks and phenakistoscopes.
The Panoptique, patented by Pierre Henri Armand Leford in 1849, is constructed of a wooden frame with copper joins. The paper bellows expands to allow the viewer to change the perspective. The toy comes with a printed set of instructions (in French) attached to the box demonstrating how to use it.