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Perception. 2001;30(10):1157-77.

The eye as an optical instrument: from camera obscura to Helmholtz's perspective.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Dundee, Scotland, UK.


The era of modern vision research can be thought of as beginning in the seventeenth century with Johannes Kepler's understanding of the optics of the camera obscura with a lens and its relation to the eye. During the nineteenth century, Helmholtz used "The eye as an optical instrument" as the title for one of his Popular Lectures, and such a conception of the eye is now accepted as a fundamental feature of visual science. In analysing the optics of the eye, Helmholtz constructed some novel optical instruments for studying the eye. The development of optometers, ophthalmometers, and ophthalmoscopes is presented historically, with emphasis on how these instruments and camera analogies helped scientists to understand the functions of the eye, especially the enigma of accommodation. "The laws of optics are so well understood, and the knowledge of the eye, when considered as an optical instrument, has been rendered so perfect, that I do not consider myself capable of making any addition to it; but still there is a power in the eye by which it can adapt itself to different distances far too extensive for the simple mechanism of the parts to effect." (John Hunter in a letter to Joseph Banks in 1793, published by Home 1794, page 24).

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