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Adelbert Ames

Adelbert Ames, Jr. (August 19, 1880-1955) was an American scientist who made contributions to physics, physiology, ophthalmology, psychology, and philosophy. He pioneered the study of physiological optics at Dartmouth College, serving as a research professor, then as director of research in the Dartmouth Eye Institute. He conducted important research into aspects of binocular vision, including cyclophoria and aniseikonia. Ames is perhaps best known for constructing some illusions of visual perception: the Ames room, the Ames window, and the Ames chair. He was a leading light in the Transactionalist School of psychology, also making contributions in social psychology.

Formative years[edit | edit source]

Adelbert Ames, Jr. (whom we will refer to hereafter as Ames II) was born in 1880 in Lowell, Massachusetts. In research papers, he is now commonly cited as Adelbert Ames II, to prevent his being confused with his father, and his own son, Adelbert Ames III, who in 2005 was Charles Anthony Pappas Professor of Neuroscience, Emeritus, at Harvard. Ames II's father, Adelbert Ames was a U.S. Army General during the American Civil War, Reconstruction Governor of Mississippi, and a U.S. Senator. Apart from his military and administrative service, General Ames obtained several U.S. patents for pencil sharpeners and other mechanical devices. Ames II's mother was the daughter of U.S. General Benjamin F. Butler, a controversial military leader, politician, and unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Presidency.

Ames II attended Philips Academy, then went to Harvard College, where he earned a law degree, and where his most influential teachers were George Santayana and William James (whose daughter he was also engaged to, but did not marry). After practising law for a few years, Ames II abandoned it to become a painter. He was influenced by a wide variety of artists, the majority of whom are forgotten today. For several years, while collaborating with his sister, Blanche Ames Ames (who was also a painter), the two of them tried to determine if the quality of visual art can be improved by the scientific study of vision. Ames II set about improving his knowledge of the dioptrics of the eye, assuming that once he had mastered it, he would return to painting. As it was, his studies mastered him and Ames II made vision his life's work.

Ames II went to Clark University in 1914 to study physiological optics, making enough of an impression to be made one of the 18 founding members of the Optical Society of America in 1916. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, he served briefly as a Captain in the aviation service, then as the overseer of a machine shop in which prototypes for instruments were developed. While in the army he continued his studies of optics, in part because one of the soldiers in that shop (with whom he became a friend and collaborator) was Charles Proctor, professor of physics at Dartmouth College.

Dartmouth College[edit | edit source]

After the war, in 1919, Ames II went to Dartmouth College to work with Proctor. They decided to construct a large-scale model of the human eye using glass for its various layers, humors, and lens. In 1921, this work led to Ames's first published scientific paper, to his being awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree, and to his being elected Professor of Research in a new department of Physiological Optics.

In 1923, Ames II began recruiting staff of what was to become the Dartmouth Eye Institute. From Eastman Kodak Company he recruited lens designer Gordon H. Gliddon. More staff joined the department over the years, including Kenneth N. Ogle, with whom Ames II worked on stereopsis and binocular vision.

The Dartmouth Eye Institute (DEI)[edit | edit source]

In 1935 the Department of Physiological Optics became the Dartmouth Eye Institute under the overall directorship of Alfred Bielschowsky, with Ames serving as its director of research. Ames II garnered support for it from various sources including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Rockefeller Foundation,and the American Optical Company. The Institute at various times employed between 30 and 40 staff, including researchers, and clinicians who examined patients' eyes and made glasses.

Research at the Institute tended to concentrate on binocular vision, including cyclophoria (the tendency of the eyes to rotate in opposite directions in their sockets) and aniseikonia (in which each eye has a differently sized retinal image of the same object). This latter defect could be corrected by lenses that restored the usual equality of image sizes.

In 1940, Bielschowsky died unexpectedly. Hermann M. Burian, an ophthalmologist, worked briefly as acting director, and then was relieved by Walter B. Lancaster. He was not able to exert the influence he wanted, resigning in 1942. On 10 May 1947 the Institute was closed.

Scientific achievements and honours[edit | edit source]

Ames II is perhaps best known for his eponymous room, window, and chair. These were called "equivalent configurations" by Ittelson (1952), defined as "configurations [in which] identical 'incoming messages' can come from different external physical arrangements. In the absence of other information,... equivalent configurations will be perceived as identical, no matter how different they be physically" (p. 55).

In 1954, Ames II was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws by Dartmouth College. In 1955 he won the Tillyer Medal, awarded by the Optical Society of America. Ames died later that following year.

In the address given on the presentation of the Tillyer Medal, the president of the society listed 38 books and scientific papers Ames II wrote, and 21 patents awarded to Ames.

Publications[edit | edit source]

Books[edit | edit source]

Book Chapters[edit | edit source]

Papers[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Behrens, R.R. (1987). The Life and Unusual Ideas of Adelbert Ames Jr. "Leonardo: Journal of the International Society of Arts, Sciences and Technology, 20," 273-279.
  • Behrens, R.R. (1994). Adelbert Ames and the Cockeyed Room. "Print magazine, 48:2," 92-97.
  • Behrens, R.R. (1997). Eyed Awry: The Ingenuity of Del Ames. "North American Review, 282:2," 26-33.
  • Behrens, R.R. (1998). The Artistic and Scientific Collaboration of Blanche Ames Ames and Adelbert Ames II. "Leonardo, 31," 47-54.
  • Behrens, R.R. (1999). Adelbert Ames, Fritz Heider, and the Chair Demonstration. "Gestalt Theory, 21," 184-190.
  • Bisno, D.C. (1994). "Eyes in the Storm: President Hopkin's Dilemma: The Dartmouth Eye Institute." Norwich, VT: Norwich Press Books.
  • Gliddon, G. H. (1955). Necrology: Adelbert Ames, Jr. Journal of the Optical Society of America, 45, 1003.
  • Gregory, R. L. (1987). Analogue transactions with Adelbert Ames. Perception, 16, 277-282.
  • Ittleson, W. H. (1952). The Ames demonstrations in perception. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • The Optical Society of America. (1955). Adelbert Ames, Jr.: Edgar D. Tillyer Medalist for 1955. Journal of the Optical Society of America, 45, 333-337.
  • Wade, N. J., & Hughes, P. (1999). Fooling the eyes: Trompe l'oeil and reverse perspective. Perception, 28, 1115-1119.
  • Wade, N. J., Ono, H., & Lillakas, L. (2001). Leonardo da Vinci's struggles with representations of reality. Leonardo, 34, 231-235.
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