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Our Grand Parent's Illusions


'Vintage Illusions' by Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber

Great artists or unknown illustrators, fun postcards or acute perspective analysis: our grand parents knew all about optical illusions, even if they didn’t always recognize the cerebral mechanisms that created them...
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The oldest optical illusion? Perhaps it was performed by the first prehistoric woman to put on make-up. But joking aside, it can easily be reasoned that the concept of optical illusion is as old as man himself. Notwithstanding the lack of any written trace the first human beings certainly would have noticed optical phenomena such as mirages, the size of the Moon at its zenith, sticks or poles which appear to be broken in two when half immersed in water, a negative image after having looked at the sun… One of the first optical illusions (or ambiguous images) knowingly created by man is from 2500 years ago: in some coins from the Island of Lesbos, Greece, you can see the profiles of two animals facing each other apparently herbivores such as calves or goats, which however form a third animal, a ferocious animal (a wolf?) seen from the front.

Lesbos monay

Dogs or Skiers?

The Painter Salvador Dalí is the author of a great many surreal canvasses, also of this photomontage, created from two photos which show some skiers coming down a slope and a box or bed of puppies. The bodies of the skiers becoming the eyes and noses of the puppies. As in other cases on this page the work comes to us in the form of a postcard.

click to enlarge

Know How to Measure by Eye a Hat or a Ward-robe?

How tall is the top hat of this gentleman in proportion to the maximum width AB? At first glance it seems evident that AB is less than CD.
Yet it is enough to measure then with a ruler to see that the exact opposite is true: the height CD of the hat is slightly less than the width AB. It is an interesting version of illusion by Müller-Lyer.

The same mistake is made with this ward-robe (see below) the green line CD seems clearly shorter than AB formed by the two walls, but in fact they are perfectly equal.
These two images are from the end of the 1800’s (1886 to be exact).

click to enlarge

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illusion chronicle

The article featured on this page is adapted from our 'Optical Illusions Chronicles' (Visione, in Italian) in Focus Giochi review, issue #4. If you like this kind of educational articles, why not to subscribe to Focus Giochi and receive them in your mailbox?


We provide the media, publishers and syndication agencies with puzzle contents integrating science & visual perception for recreational, educational or communication purpose

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Optical illusion cards
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Perspective absurdities
Not only Artists
Certainly great names from art (Arcimboldo, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and many others) utilized optical illusions towards artistic ends, but here we present some old curiosities created by less well known artists (or unknown) but not less worthy. In the engraving by William Hogarth (Above) titled Perspective Absurdities which is from the frontispiece of a Manual of perspectives from 1754, we note a platform of absurd situations or impossibilities. For example, the fisherman in the foreground is fishing

a line further out than the fisherman on the riverbank. The man on the hill seems as big as the woman lighting his pipe from the bedroom window. The flock of sheep in the foreground and the trees on the hill get bigger and bigger as they get further and further away covering the pub’s signboard. Finally, who or what is the hunter in the boat shooting at? And what about the blackbird? It seems disproportionate to the tree on which it is perched.
map of the world
The World as a Head of Hair

Published as a postcard, this work by James Montgomery Flagg from 1913 is called “Map of the World”. As you can see (in the planisphere above) a girl’s face is hidden. The artist is better known as the poster artist who created the image of a finger pointing Uncle Sam with the slogan “I want you!”.


Magnetic Eyes

This notable illustration by Aleksandr Rodchenko (1923) was used for the cover of a book of poems from the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. From whichever point you look at the woman, she seems to be insistently gazing at you!

Two Bal...d Heads

Yes, our grandfathers too were great teases and appreciated 'subtle' naughty allusions and jokes! Like this drawing which plays on the ambiguity of bald headed gentlemen that appear also as the large chest of the lady. Postcards with optical allusions such as this were in the early past of the last century printed in their millions.

bald headed men

Vintage Optical Illusion Cards & Books
Optical Allusions 1 Optical Allusions 2 Optical Allusions 3 Optical Allusions 4
What do you see? Devil's Face Woman or Skull? Young lady & her mother

Curiopticals, vintage optical illusion book

Curiopticals, a book on optical illusions & curiosities
Mankind has always admired art, and optical illusions are an early artform. From the earliest, experimental imagery, this book features all kinds of fascinating optical illusions throughout history. Curiopticals provides a unique take on a well established subject which both adults and older children will enjoy. Millions of illusions have been produced in the name of science, education and above all fun, and this book looks at more than 150 of them.
Where to purchase it from (online stores)?
Amazon USAAmazon UKAmazon FranceAmazon Germany
Reviews and accolades
Curiopticals has been reviewed by: The Sun (UK).


© 1992-2010 G. Sarcone,
You can re-use content from Archimedes’ Lab on the ONLY condition that you provide credit to the authors (© G. Sarcone and/or M.-J. Waeber) and a link back to our site. You CANNOT reproduce the content of this page for commercial purposes.
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