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Technology

Mirrors Were Invented Surprisingly Late

author

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockApr 26 2022, 17:38 UTC
mirrors

Looking at your own face is a modern-day luxury. Image credit: fran_kie/shutterstock.com

Ah, mirrors. What would we do without you? Who else could, with unflinching honesty, tell us when our hair looks terrible or we've got spinach caught in our teeth? 

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Well, despite seeming like a somewhat simple invention, people have had to make do with trying to discern this information from a puddle for a surprisingly long time. The mirror, as we know it today, was only invented in 1835, when German chemist Justus von Liebig invented a method for applying a thin layer of metallic silver to the surface of a pane of glass. 

Prior to this, mirrors were much more basic, and not commonplace, particularly amongst poorer members of society. Being able to see what you look like without a pool of water was something of a luxury, only affordable to the rich.

The first ancient "mirrors", scarce though they were, were created from polished obsidian. The first we know of people using this method was 8,000 years ago, in Anatolia, which is now modern-day Turkey. The peoples of ancient Mexico used the same method, though for them the mirrors were seen as magical instruments, through which the worlds of the gods and their ancestors could be viewed. The god Tezcatlipoca – "smoking mirror" – was depicted with an obsidian mirror over its chest through which it could see everything, including the thoughts of humans, highlighting the mystery and importance the people of ancient Mexico placed upon the tools.

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Mirrors created through polishing copper were made in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) as well as Egypt around 4000 to 3000 BCE, and have been made from polished stone in South America around 1,000 years after that. Glass mirrors were referenced by (sometimes prone to exaggeration) Roman author Pliny the Elder in the first century AD, though they were not as reflective as modern-day mirrors, would distort images, and – like their metal and obsidian counterparts – were certainly a lot smaller.

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Some cultures around the world have had to wait much later than 1835 to experience the joys of staring right back at your own face, and not all of them have been fans. In 1935, Jack Hides, an explorer who led an expedition to Papua New Guinea, took with him a mirror, one of many objects which he planned to trade. The first person to look at the mirror – a man named Tebele – looked at it with fascination, until a leader in the tribe – Puya – asked to look at it himself, and immediately jumped back, startled by what he saw. He asked Tebele to hold the mirror at different angles and distances, before deciding that the device was too dangerous for humans, and demanded that Tebele return the mirror, which Hides took as an insult. 

Puya believed that the mirror was a magical item brought by dead ancestors, while Hides believed that Puya was a sorcerer who was controlling other members of the tribe with his powers when Tebele returned the mirror. All in all, Hides may have been better off offering e.g. a notoriously less reflective potato. 


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