Week of March 26, 2023

The Fairest Facts of Them All


Reflective “mirrors” of polished obsidian go back about 8,000 years to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), but the now-familiar mirror, first made of glass with a layer of silver applied to it, was first developed by German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1835.


The term “smoke and mirrors” to refer to illusion and manipulated appearances only goes back to the 1970s, when political reporter and author Jimmy Breslin described “blue smoke and mirrors” in the perception of political power when writing on the Watergate affair.


Centuries before they were a carnival staple, the original “hall of mirrors” was built in France’s Palace of Versailles. At a time when mirrors were extremely expensive, the 357 mirrors placed in that room were one way King Louis XIV showed off his wealth and opulence.


Race car driver Ray Harroun was the first to put a rear view mirror on his car in 1911, but he claimed that he got the idea from seeing one on a horse-drawn buggy years before. His adaptation spurred this addition on other vehicles, which was marketed as a “cop-spotter” decades before the invention of the radar detector.


In Lewis Carroll’s time, a mirror was also called a “looking glass,” hence the title “Through the Looking Glass,” his sequel book to “Alice in Wonderland.”


There always seems to be a one-way mirror in Hollywood portrayals of a crime suspect being questioned by police (often while a “good cop, bad cop” routine is also playing out). One-way mirrors are like regular mirrors, but with an especially thin layer of reflective surface, and are also known as “half-silvered mirrors.” These mirrors would be far less effective at being “one way” if not for big differences in lighting between the sides. The room intended to be reflected is kept bright, the room intended to stay hidden is more dark, so that most of the light reflected in the first place only comes from one side, where the suspect is usually being grilled.


Mirrors aren’t just for light. Acoustic mirrors, usually in the shape of a bowl or parabola, were used in the 20th century to focus and transmit the sound of approaching enemy aircraft before the development of radar. Similar sound-focusing devices, sometimes called “whispering dishes” can still be found at museums, playgrounds, and sporting events.