Ancient Wonders: The Secret of Real-Life Magic Mirrors in the Far East
The Chinese and Japanese have long held as precious rare mirrors that seem to magically be at the same time solid bronze and to let light shine right through them. The Chinese called them by a name that signifies “mirrors which are permeable to the light.” In the West, they became known simply as “magic mirrors,” and they baffled scientists for many years.
The front of the mirror functioned normally. It was made of polished bronze that would reflect the observer’s image. The back of the mirror was decorated with various characters and patterns. The strange thing was, when an especially bright beam of light was reflected off the mirror and onto a clear surface, one could see the patterns from the back of the mirror in the reflection. It was as though the solid bronze had become transparent.
Western scientists started their examination of the mirrors in 1832, and it took a century before anyone could figure them out. Even in the East, it seems the knowledge of how to intentionally make these magic mirrors was elusive, though not completely out of reach.
About 1,200 years ago, the secret was recorded in a Chinese text titled the “Record of Ancient Mirrors,” according to a 1988 article by Unesco’s The Courier. But this book was lost a couple of centuries later. Today, however, Yamamoto Akihisa is rumored to be the last remaining magic mirror maker in the world. The Kyoto Journal interviewed Akihisa, who learned the secret art from his father. Though the art was passed down in Akihisa’s family for several generations, it was also half-forgotten along the way. His grandfather had to rediscover it by studying existing magic mirrors and recalling some of the techniques his father used.
In 1932, Sir William Bragg discovered why the magic mirror reflections show the designs on the back. The mirror, with its design on the back, is cast flat to begin with. The front is then curved into a convex form by scraping and scratching, after which the surface is polished. It is then coated with a mercury amalgam. These processes create stresses and buckling, resulting in bulges on the surface of the mirror too minute for the naked eye to perceive. The bulges match the design on the back.
Bragg said: “Only the magnifying effect of reflection makes them plain.”
Scientists of the 19th century had minor success in reproducing the effect without understanding the truth of the phenomenon, but they did so only by applying to the mirror heat (which damaged the mirror) or pressure from an air pump. They could not reproduce the effect in a free-standing mirror uninfluenced by outside pressure.
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*Image of a bronze Chinese mirror via Shutterstock